What are "Light Modifiers"?

Ever wonder what light modifiers are and what purpose they serve?  It sounds like such an intimidating thing....how on earth can I modify light and what does that even mean?  Well, considering that photography is all about recording light onto an image, the ability to alter, or modify, that light is crucial.  I'm often surprised when I look at professional photographers who specialize in "available light" portraiture.  To me, that means they either don't want to have to carry much gear with them, or perhaps they don't fully understand flash photography techniques.  Having the ability to add a pop of light to your images can mean the difference between a pleasing photo, and an eye-popping, jaw-dropping work of art.  We'll discuss the art of using off camera flash elsewhere, but let's talk about using modifiers for your shots. 


A light modifier can be just about anything that helps you control, reflect, "bounce", highlight, or expand your light source.  Here are a few of the most common light modifiers.


1.  A White, Shoot-Through Umbrella

This is one of the most basic, and affordable options.  It is simply a thin, white umbrella that you point your flash to shoot through, towards your subject.  This has the affect of creating a much larger light source, which produces a more flattering, even light.  An umbrella "throws" light everywhere.  You have little control over where the light goes, but this allows you to be less precise in how you place the umbrella and external flash.  I use umbrellas a lot.  If I want to simply get pleasingly soft light on a subject, but don't need to control where the light goes, the umbrella is my choice.  Some umbrellas also have a silver liner to more intensely throw light, although you shoot "towards" this surface, not through it.  For a recommendation on an umbrella to buy, check out this umbrella.


2.  A Softbox

A softbox is the coolest looking of the three options I'll give you, but it has a distinct purpose.  Like the umbrella, a softbox is creating a larger light source by spreading out the flash onto a larger surface.  Softboxes often have two white panels that diffuse the light as it fires from the flash, resulting in a smooth, feathery light.  The softbox is black around the sides and back, to direct the light.  As opposed to the umbrella, which throws light everywhere, a softbox requires a more precise control.  Since the light cannot spill out of the side, due to it's black fabric, it only throws the light forward.  The care you take to aim the light in the manner you deem necessary to achieve the type of look you are after is paramount.  It is almost like shining a soft spot light on somebody.  The intensity of the light will fall over a smaller area, and the contrast from bright to dark light is more profound than with an umbrella.  One of my favorites to use with a speedlight (flash) is this one.


3.  A 5 in 1 Reflector

A 5 in 1 Reflector is the cheapest, and most portable option of the three we are discussing.  It is usually a circular reflector that you (or an assistant) hold to reflect or bounce the light back towards the subject to soften the edges of the light, add fill to a darker area, or lessen the contrast from light to dark.  They come with several colors that all work on the reflector, from black (to stop the light), to gold (to make the light "warmer" or more golden), to white (to add some extra bounce of light to the shadowy areas of a model) , to silver (to reflect light more intensely), as well as a diffuser-white color to diffuse the brightness of the light.  Here is the one I use.  5-in-1 Reflector.

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Brian Keller Photography

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