Light Modifiers | NZ Photo Art

Light Modifiers

Light Modifiers

Light modifiers, also sometimes referred to as light shaping tools, are all about controlling the light, which effectively diffuses or redirects the initial light source. They are ideally suited for creating interesting and controllable illumination. It can become addictive to control the light because of all the creative possibilities you open yourself up to. It is extremely useful to have controlled beams of light like rimlights, hairlights, etc., and is critical in product photography. Light modifiers enable us to manipulate how light is cast onto our subject, and there are a ton of modifiers available on the market. I’m just going to touch on a handful of the more commonly used modifiers.


We can split light modifiers into two main groups: soft modifiers and hard modifiers.


Modifiers that soften light generally diffuse the light by spreading the initial light beam over a large surface to create a larger light source. The most popular of these modifiers are umbrellas and softboxes.


There are two types of umbrellas used in photography: the reflective umbrella and the shoot-through umbrella.

Light Modifiers - UmbrellasReflective umbrellas are opaque and black on the outside and are usually white, silver or gold on the inside. The inside of the umbrella is directed at the subject with the flash light firing into the umbrella and reflecting the light onto the subject. The silver and white are the most commonly used, although the gold has its advantages as well. Silver-lined umbrellas intensify the quality of the light and is great if you want cool light, while white umbrellas offer the most neutral colour light and tends to diffuse the light a bit more and reflect it a bit less. Gold-lined umbrellas warm the light and result in warmer skin tones that can give people a healthier look.

Shoot-through umbrellas are semi-transparent, made from translucent white fabric, and the outside of the umbrella is pointed toward the subject with the flash light passing through the umbrella.

Umbrellas come in many different sizes, from tiny ones to ones over 3 metres in diameter. As a general rule, the larger the umbrella, the larger the light source and the softer the quality of the light. This is because the umbrella becomes the new light source. Sometimes you might not need the softest light and need the shadows to be a bit more prominent (like when photographing an elderly person and you want to highlight the lines on the person’s face), in which case you can use a smaller umbrella.

The great thing about photo umbrellas is that they are inexpensive and you don’t have to break the bank buying one. They are also small in size and versatile. The biggest disadvantage however is a lack of control they give over light spills.


Light Modifiers - SoftboxesSoftboxes or light banks are also used for softening the light by increasing the size of the light source. They are usually pyramid-shaped constructions, lined with a silver material with a diffution cloth at the opening, and the strobe light is mounted inside the softbox. With a softbox you can control the shape and direction of the light more than with an umbrella and also have the ability to control light spill. Using additional modifiers like a grid on top of your softbox can give you even more control.

Softboxes are also available in a variety of different shapes and sizes and can all be employed to suit the subject matter. Since the shape of the softbox used can often be seen in the reflections on the subject, especially when photographing reflective items like glass bottles, they come in a variety of shapes such as rectangular, square, octagonal, or long, thin strips. Less common shapes are hexagonal, parabolic and round.


Light Modifiers - Light TentsA light tent, made of translucent white material which surrounds the subject, diffuses the light sources that are placed outside the tent. They are especially handy when photographing items like jewellery, to create a white surrounding to eliminate unwelcome reflections. A light tent bounces a lot of light around inside, which can create a result that looks flat. Therefore one has to be very selective which items benefit by using a light tent and which not.


Light Modifiers - ScrimsScrims are panels covered with diffusing cloth to soften the light. Think of those movie or TV scenes where it’s a bright, sunny day, yet all the actors are lit by nice, soft light. They use a huge scrim over their heads. At home, one can just use a piece of white linnen.

There are many more ways to soften light, like using diffusion sheets. Very often you just need to improvise to solve a technical lighting problem on a specific product.


Sometimes you need to make the light harder, or to have full control over the light beams, especially in product photography. To achieve this, you need to use hard modifiers like grids, snoots, barn doors, beauty dishes, etc.


Light Modifiers - Beauty dishBeauty dish is a bowl shaped reflector around the strobe with a small reflector placed in front of the strobe light, in order to produces an edgy and crisp light that is favoured for showing shape and texture in a subject. The dish essentially funnels the light directly to the subject with very little diffusion. This creates a hard light that can be tricky to master, but that is well worth the effort to learn.

A beauty dish is a common type of light modifier for sports portraits to highlight muscles and curves. It is also used in portraits, especially for people with a smooth skin or wearing makeup.


Snoots are tapered tubes used to concentrate the light. The longer the snoot, the more concentrated the light. They create a very harsh, small beam of light.

Light Modifiers - Hard Modifiers


Reflectors comes in different shapes and colours, e.g. gold will warm the light, silver will highly reflect it, and white makes the light fairly neutral in colour temperature. They are also useful to cut down light spill to the sides.


Barndoors are basically gobos that block the light from travelling in a certain direction.


Grids, also refer to as “honeycomb grids”, are literally metal grids of various thickness and density. It forms little black tubes in order to stop scattered light rays, and it creates a thin beam of light. The quality of the light is determined by the density of the grid, and the size of the beam is determined by the thickness of the grid, which allows for finer, tighter beam control. You also get grids for softboxes which are usually made from material.


Bounce cards are used to lighten parts of a subject by reflecting or bouncing light onto the subject. Anything that reflects light can be used, but the most commonly used colours are white, silver and gold. The type of material determines the light’s quality and colour tone.


Flags are mainly used to control light spill and keep down highlights. Professional flags tend to be black cloth stretched on a frame, but pieces of black paper work just as well.


Light Modifiers - Colour GelsLighting Gels or colour filters are a transparent coloured material to colour light, or to correct the colour temperature of the light. Modern gels are thin sheets of poly carbonate or polyester. Gels come in all sizes from large rolls to precut sheets. There is a huge range of gels available and they are typically rated e.g. “1/4 CTO converts 5500°K to 4500°K”. (CTO stands for Colour Temperature Orange). Based upon the gel that you are using, you will need to compensate for the loss of light. This information is typically imprinted on the gel and is mentioned in “f-stops”. There are so many ways you can utilize your colour gels like colouring rim lights, etc. Have fun and do your “colour magic” with gels.


Light Modifiers - Speedlite ModifiersThere are also many light modifiers available for speedlights, e.g. small softboxes, snoots, lightspheres, etc. Speedlight modifiers have become increasingly more sophisticated and flexible in recent years, and now you even get a flashbender which is made from material that keeps whatever shape you manipulate it in, to give you fine control over the shape of the light.

Below is a card demonstrating the effect of some light modifiers on a subject. Most of the modifiers can be mixed and matched like grids on snoots, softboxes, etc. Many times, especially with product photography, you just have to improvise to solve a lighting issue. This may involve cutting up paper pieces to create bounce cards or flags, or stretching a white Perspex sheet over your subject for diffusion. The possibilities are endless. Have fun with light modifiers, be creative, and create great photos!

Light Modifiers - Card

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