For some time I’ve been advising photographers to use a flash when they take pictures of people, whether indoors or out. Yes, I understand that those with a few extra dollars in their pocket can purchase expensive cameras that can capture images in low light using a higher ISO, but using additional light is much more flattering.
While sitting by the window in a coffee shop last week a friend casually snapped a picture of me using an ISO of 9000. I was impressed at the clarity and colour. Hmm… maybe a bit too clear and colourful for my old face. Nevertheless, my comment was, “Nice picture, too bad you didn’t have a reflector”, which brings me to my topic this week – light modifiers.
Readers know what harsh sunlight looks like on our subject’s face in a photo, or winced at the loss of detail caused by the direct light of a camera-mounted flash. A flattering photograph isn’t just capturing or adding light, but modifying its path to the subject. That might be as simple as bouncing the flash off the ceiling, or a wall. The pop-up flash might work at parties, but mounting a flash on the camera gives more power, control and pleasing results.
When outdoors without a flash a popular and easy to use light modifier is a reflector. Place the subject out of the direct sun and direct the sun in a controlled way back to the subject using a reflector. Reflectors come in all sizes, shapes, colours and surfaces. Silver is a cool, gold has a warm cast, and white is neutral. I prefer the compact folding reflectors that fit in my camera bag. Reflectors are great outdoors, and are perfect with a bounce flash for that multi-use basement studio.
More and more photographers are using wireless flash. A small hotshoe flash mounted on a stand can be aimed at the ceiling, a wall, or a reflector, for much nicer light than if pointed directly at the subject. But the wall, ceiling, and reflector only give a broad indirect light. Yes, it is better than a bare flash, but not very controllable.
Enter umbrellas, softboxes, beauty dishes, and all sorts of contraptions that modify and control the light. I like bouncing and reflecting light in some conditions, and these give photographers more control as they reshape, restyle, alter, modify, direct, and soften the light from our little flashes.
Umbrellas come in several types. Choose a shoot through or reflective, large or small. The reflective umbrellas are available with different surfaces – silver, gold, white – each has its own way of changing the light. For example, I like the soft broad light reflective umbrellas give when photographing several people or families.
Many portraitists seem to prefer softboxes. Whereas umbrellas give more control than a flat reflector, a softbox directs and controls light much better than an umbrella. Softboxes also come in many sizes and shapes depending on use – rectangle, square, octagon, etc. When viewers see that soft shadowed “Rembrandt style” lighting in a portrait, they can safely assume the photographer used a softbox.
For photographers that want more luminosity than umbrellas and softboxes there is the beauty dish. A beauty dish provides a glowing kind of light, very directional, easy to control, and when used with diffuser it has an attractive smooth light. There are, of course, many modifications to each of those I have mentioned. Again, it depends on how a photographer wants to apply light to a subject.
My set up isn’t always the same. For example, the flash above and behind me might be either in a softbox or a reflector umbrella, the sidelight could be a small shoot-through umbrella or bounced off a reflector, and backlight directed at the background with only a small dome diffuser covering it. That’s one quick, effortless setup that I can easily carry in two small bags – one bag for light stands and light modifiers and one for the flash units and my camera. The point is that the light I use is more controllable and attractive than a pop up flash, the sun, or relying on a high ISO.
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