Light Modifiers 101 with Taryn

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Light Modifiers 101 with Taryn

light mod

Light. What would we be without it? Most likely charmingly-simple troglodytes;  cave-dwellers with much thicker skulls conditioned to withstand frequent impact upon low-hanging stalactites. Without light, there wouldn't be photography. Although we've come a long way from exploding flash bulbs, the idea is still the same. More often than not, you'll run into situations as a photographer where light is just not cooperating. That's where artificial light comes in.

I'm a firm believer that there are two types of photographers (before any editing at least): Those who want control over every aspect of creating an image and those that are cool with the way things are. If you're of the former, flash is usually your thing. From simple fill to more complicated lighting ratios, flash gives you that that extra pull when natural light isn't enough.

Today's analysis is not so much a crash course on how to light. Let's save that billion-part lesson for another day. Today we're going to test out just a few of the many light modifiers that can add another dimension to the already astronomic playing field that is photography. Like the last trial we had on the Unique Blog, we'll be shadowing Unique University Instructor Taryn. She's no stranger to lighting since she teaches many lighting workshops here. When approached with the the task of showing off her vast collection of lighting equipment... helping her compare the differences between light modifiers, I was up for the task of course. Naturally this would be an interesting journey.


Black backdrop with custom (admittedly ghetto) ruler...each line corresponds to six inches from the center.

One strobe on a stand

One willing contestant to be our brave model (Christina of Unique Photo)

One shot pointed dead center of our giant bulls eye measuring the approximate spread of light

Another shot with the strobe, camera left angled down (observing the spread of light)


Here's all the stuff we had to work with: A small snoot, a grid that fits over the small snoot, 7 inch reflector, 7 inch short reflector, barn door, 11 inch throw reflector, 22 inch beauty dish, 30 inch bounce umbrella, 4o inch shoot through umbrella, 42 inch Apollo orb, 7 foot parabolic umbrella, 16x30 inch soft box strip and a 42 inch soft box...whew that's a lot.

Of course keeping track of all these things would be sketchy for the guy who was supposed to keep all of this in order. Oh wait, that's me.  Note to self, become a better note taker...where is that notebook. Anywho, lets break down our armada of shiny stuff  into two basic categories: Reflectors and umbrellas.

Reflectors mainly focus light in, preventing light from spilling all over the place. These are great for key and background lighting. Light's with normal reflectors are good for directing light and if you dial them down enough they can be suitable for single portraits and still life. For even more control there are grids (interchangeably called honeycombs because of their design). The smaller the degree the more it will be direct with a really subtle fall off.

Umbrellas spread light instead of directing. They tend to come in two types ( so a subcategory now) : shoot through and bounce back. Shoot through umbrellas are opaque white and diffuse light while spreading it as wide. Bounce back look like your traditional rain umbrella, but are lined with something reflective, white or silver. It basically lives up to the name: simply aim the light away from the subject and it's bounced back potentially giving off more spread. These get the job done for most standard lighting applications - smaller groups, larger spaces.

Adding to confusion is the softbox. These expand the source corresponding to size and creates probably the most soft light out of all these. Generally the bigger the box the more diffuse the light source. The ones we used were built upon umbrella designs. We also took off any diffusion strips to see how they worked that way. I love using soft boxes for for portraits,  but they can often take up a lot of space.

Lets see how they did!

Click the thumbnails to zoom.

Bare Bulb


To start this out let's see how the light works with no modifier at all. The light is a pretty harsh here and it's not focused at all. Aimed at the center it fills the entire circle, about the whole 5 foot diameter with a slight fall off. Shadows are harsh and defined. If you need a bright source without any confinement, whats easier than adding nothing?

Small Snoot


Snoots are a great little accessory for small direct spot light. It's a cool look for accent and dramatic key lights, but doesn't offer much for fill since the opening is being cut down quite a bit. I was once a snoot enthusiast until I found a little more control with something similar to our next modifier...

Ex: Profoto Snoot

Snoot with Grid


I'm a big fan of grids because they allow you to be even more OCD with your lights. They are like the chisels of the light sculptors tool set. Judging from the example you would say that it doesn't work very well, but we kept the power constant to show how much light is cut by sticking a honey comb in front of it. It creates the smallest spot of light with a really sudden, but soft drop off. Although an ineffective fill, they are great for accenting and especially handy when you're avoiding light spill onto a background.

ex:  RPS Studio Conical Snoot With HoneyComb Grid

7 Inch Reflector


Your everyday reflector that comes pretty much standard with most lighting kits. This focuses light with emphasis to the center, but obviously not as wide as it would be bare. There is a defined vignette effect. Depending on the strength of the light reflectors can make good fill and background lights, but be weary of harsh shadows.

ex: Dynalite 7" Reflector

7 Inch Short


Very similar from the regular reflector, but isn't as hot in the middle. It's still semi-direct and could suffice as a fill. I couldn't find a similar reflector here, but you can get this effect by using a zoom style reflector.

ex: Profoto Zoom Reflector 

Barn Door (Directed)


The barn door attachment is something people in film should be familiar with. It's a simple, fairly versatile attachment that lets you choose the coverage size. Obviously the smaller you make the opening, the more squarish it will get. We used the barn doors angled inward to give it the most evenly shaped light. It resembles a shorter, broader snoot. Quite dramatic. What neat about this simple attachment is that you can block off light or make it more linear without having to flag it off.

ex: Profoto Barn Doors for Zoom Reflector

11 Inch Throw Reflector


Pow! Out of all the adapters we used this was the most direct. It's basically a shotgun that shoots light. Extremely hot in the center with a sudden fall off from its radius.  This can be really harsh, but it would be great for a spotlight or that high key, washed out look. You might want to warn your model before hand... I'm still seeing spots from this one.

ex: Profoto Magnum 50 Degree Reflectors

22 Inch Beauty Dish


Ah the beauty dish. When we think of fashion, this is what comes to mind. For a reflector it isn't as harsh because of it's centerpiece forces light to envelope more than attack per say. It's not quite as flat as something like a soft box, but it creates a light that complements features more evenly.

ex: Profoto Softlight White Reflector

30 Inch Bounce Umbrella


Bounce back umbrellas act similarly to the beauty dishes in that they don't focus light on the center. The difference between this and the last are kind of difficult to see but there is a little more wrap around, creating a softer shadow.

Ex: Westcott Soft Silver Umbrella

40 Inch Shoot Through


Shoot through umbrellas provide a nice softened light because of their diffusion. It's very even and creates a the popular soft Rembrandt lighting. Shadows are really diffused. I have a preference for shoot through umbrellas, but they even make some really versatile ones that can be used as both.

Ex: Westcott Optical White Satin Umbrella

42 Inch Apollo Orb


This is an umbrella type modifier that attempts to simulate the sun. Certainly looks like our model is out catching some rays! The reflective lining creates a hard circular light that floods evenly.  Could use some diffusion in my opinion.

ex: Westcott 43 Inch Round Apollo Orb Soft Box

7 Foot Parabolic Umbrella


This gigantic umbrella doesn't only provide comedic relief when it flies away from your assistant in an act of rebellion, it outputs possibly the most flattering light. Since it's so large, the light diffuses quite nicely and you don't see a ring of light. There's also a nice soft drop-shadow that doesn't look like a cookie cutter. This is a great tool for full body portraits, but I don't think it's very practical in small spaces. You can see me getting engulfed in the light on the last one.

ex: Westcott 7ft Silver Parabolic Umbrella

16x30 Inch Strip


To keep the experiment kind a constant we took off the diffusion strip. Predictably, this makes the lights shape a narrow rectangle. The spread is very controlled since there's a flange of sorts. These aren't great for filling large areas obviously, it'll do you much better to use it to accent. Although one strip light works pretty well, using two at mirroring angles is a popular lighting method that ads some depth to a portrait.

ex: Westcott 16 x 30 Apollo Strip Soft Box

42 Inch Softbox


 And last but not least: this big Apollo style soft box. It's spread of light is fairly broad considering it's size, but the elongated lip keeps it from going everywhere. The lighting on model is surprisingly soft and creates a subtle dramatic falloff. The shadow's produced aren't all that intense or attention-grabbing. I'd say this is calls for nice fill, similar to what you can get out a parabolic umbrella. One side note about the Apollo style umbrellas: It's nice that you don't need a speedring to attach it, but I found that the opening you have is kind of limiting your range of motion.

ex: Westcott 50 Inch Mega JS Apollo Softbox

Wrap Up:

As you can see, there are many different ways to use just one light. Sure, The taped strips on a backdrop might have been a little homely, but I think it still gets the point across. If there's a take home message within this crazy excursion, it's that you don't have to go crazy with too many lights. You can do great things with a few simple reflectors and inexpensive umbrellas. Achieving a particular style of lighting can take a little playing around with, but once you know how a modifier behaves, the possibilities are endless.  Although we didn't really get into larger grids or the addition of diffusion, it might be beneficial to experiment further, since these are both great ways to get more subtle lighting that looks natural. As always, I had fun being a part of this experiment and heck, I might have even learned a few things in the process. One of the best ways to learn is just tinkering around with new things. Think of it as exercising your photo muscles. Big thanks to Taryn for lending us her time and all of her equipment. Most of all, I'd like to thank you, the reader, for joining me on this enlightening experience. Stay tuned for more fun.

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