When you get into flash photography, you realize that taking good photos is about so much more than popping a flash on your camera.

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You have to buy the flash, first off. And then you learn that you don’t want the flash to shoot directly at your subject because the lighting would be too harsh. After you choose from all the different types of light modifiers, you realize that you use each of them a bit differently.

My seven year old recently lost both of her top front teeth. That’s a good reason for a photo shoot, right? I used it as an opportunity to play with my light modifiers to show you the differences.

Let’s start with the lights I use: Elinchrom D-Lites similar to this set:

Mine are a couple of years old and aren’t the same exact model as you see in the photo. They came with two lights, light stands, bags for the lights and stands, plus two square modifiers. More on those later. The photo above shows them with shoot-through umbrellas instead of the squares, but you can use many different types of modifiers on them.

Why do you need light modifiers in flash photography?

In order to illuminate your entire photo, the flash needs to be a strong burst of light. Without a modifier, that light would make a bright hotspot on the part of your subject closest to it, and the rest of the subject would be noticeably darker. Modifiers soften & diffuse, or spread out, the light of the flash.

How do light modifiers differ from each other?

Each light modifier has a unique profile in terms of quality of light, how far the light spreads across your subject, the size of the equipment, the catchlights it creates, and, of course, price. In the photos below, I’ll show you how each differs from the others.

The primary light modifiers you’ll hear about in flash photography are umbrellas and soft boxes. Soft boxes come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and umbrellas can be used in various way.

Square Soft Box

For my first photo, I shot with the Elinchrom square soft box that came in my light kit.

Here is it, sitting in my garage:

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Soft boxes usually have a shiny silver metallic coating on the inside to help reflect the light broadly, as you can see in the image above. In addition, you put a diffuser over the box to soften the light (see photo below).

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The next photo shows you the size of the light modifier on my light:

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This is an easy to manage light – it’s small enough that I can easily mount it with no help, and it doesn’t take up too much room in my studio (uh, garage).

But the real test is how the light looks in a photo, right? Here is a photo of my daughter taken with this set up.

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Now, when I take headshots for clients, I usually use two lights at once. I only used one for this tutorial, so that we could focus on the effect of one light and modifier at a time. However, it’s interesting to see how much the light changes across her face – very bright on the side closest to the light and too dark on the other side. This range is reflected in the backdrop as well.

You might also notice that the brightest light on her face is harsh.

Flash Photography with Bounced Umbrella

In the next series of photos, you’ll see images taken with an umbrella. Many umbrellas used for flash photography are white with a removable black cover. When shooting with the black cover, you point the light into the umbrella (away from your subject) and bounce it off the back. This diffuses the light.

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Looking from behind, you can see that it’s a good bit larger than the square soft box. But it’s light weight and easy to manage with no help.

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While the size can be challenging in tight quarters, you can immediately see that the light spreads across your subject’s face better than the smaller square soft box. The hot spots on her face aren’t as harsh either.

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Do you see how much lighter the shadow is on the camera left side of her face?

Shoot Through Umbrella

You can also use an umbrella without the black cover to act as a diffuser. In this case, the light would point at your subject with the umbrella in front of it.

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It’s hard to tell from this photo, but the umbrella is open so that the “rain-catching” side faces the subject and the “wet-pedestrian” side of the umbrella is facing us as we look at the photo.

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Off all the options we’ve looked at so far, this one provides the most light, spread out nearly all the way across our subject.

Octagonal Soft Box

Also known as octaboxes, these suckers are huge!

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While it is possible for me to set up one of the lights by myself, it’s not easy. It takes a long time. You really need an assistant to help due to its bulk and size.

However, the light is gorgeous. Shooting with something this large gives you a broad swath of soft light. It’s incredibly flattering for portraits and minimizes retouching time. The image below along with the first in this post were taken with my octabox. None of the images in this post have been retouched, as a matter of fact, to show you straight out of camera results.

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When I shoot headshots for clients, I often use the octa as my main light with a secondary light bounced off the black umbrella to lighten the darker side of the face.

Flash Photography Light Modifier Summary

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You can purchase soft boxes of all types and prices. Many are customized especially for speedlights, which is the type of flash that many start with. The soft boxes I linked to above only work on the Elinchrom lights that I have. Before purchasing, make sure that the modifier you want is compatible with the type of light you have.

The Verdict

Based purely on quality of light, the octagonal soft box wins hands down for flash photography. However, shooting through an umbrella is much more affordable and the light is nearly as good. Start there, and upgrade to the octabox later.