Comparing 7 Common Light Modifiers

Apr 27, 2015

Robert Mitchell

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

Comparing 7 Common Light Modifiers

Apr 27, 2015

Robert Mitchell

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

Join the Discussion

Share on:

comp-7-modifiers_01

Guest post by Robert Mitchell. Hit the bottom of the post to see his links.

When assembling a lighting kit, it’s very difficult to know which modifiers are best for the type of work you want to do, and sometimes you don’t know or are discovering what you want to shoot. There are reflectors, umbrellas, square and rectangular softboxes, octabanks and a wide variety of accessories to shape and alter the quality of light.

So how do you know what’s best for you?

In many cases you don’t. If you have no experience then you don’t have any preferences formed and most of the tech talk is of no use to you and makes little sense. One person’s preference may not at all be what you like and it may not work within your budget.

I’ve chosen 7 common light modifiers of varying sizes and shapes, and I’m using modifiers that are , for the most part, inexpensive. Nothing very small and nothing terribly large. This is not an in-depth review, nor is it a light modifier showdown.

Rather than doing what everyone else does, I’m not going to talk about the physics of light or the design of the modifier and I’m not going to try to define certain characteristics as better or worse. Those things are subjective and I’ll leave that to you.

Images are shown in black and white to make it easier to see and judge luminosity values without being influenced or distracted by hue and saturation.

I believe that seeing the differences and subtleties will have much more impact, so I’ve chosen to show comprehensive images to help you form your own opinion and preferences after seeing the distinguishing and often subtle characteristics of each modifier.

Which Modifiers Were Tested?

1. Speedotron 22 inch Beauty Dish (white dish with silver deflector)

Speedotron 22 inch Beauty Dish (white dish with silver deflector)

2. Elinchrom 33 inch Umbrella (pebbled silver, used as reflective bounce)

Elinchrom 33 inch Umbrella (pebbled silver, used as reflective bounce)

3. Photoflex 24 x 32 inch Softbox (white interior, double diffusion)

Photoflex 24 x 32 inch Softbox

4. Elinchrom 39 inchDeep Octa (pebbled silver, double diffusion)

Elinchrom 39 inchDeep Octa

5. Cheetah 43 inch Umbrella Softbox (silver interior, single diffusion)

Cheetah 43 inch Umbrella Softbox

6. Photoflex 36 x 48 inch Softbox (white interior, double diffusion)

Photoflex 36 x 48 inch Softbox

7. Generic 68 inch Parabolic Umbrella (smooth silver)

Generic 68 inch Parabolic Umbrella

 

Once you get past shape and size, you have the interior and various levels of diffusion that contribute to the quality (quality refers to the characteristics of the light, not whether it’s good or bad) and how its going to look on your subject.

My umbrellas have silver interiors, the deep octa has a pebbled silver interior, the softboxes have white interiors, and the beauty dish has a white finish. The silver interiors will tend to have slightly more contrast and a little more punch, where the white interior tends to be more diffused with smoother transitions and lower contrast. The silver interior with one layer of diffusion is a common configuration for many because it offers a certain softness and diffusion, while still offering some punch and crispness.

Method Of Testing

The method of testing and comparison is very important, especially if you really want to see the nuances that differentiate one modifier from another. It’s very common to see comparisons of modifiers where the testing is done using fixed distances from light source to subject, and in my opinion that’s not the best or most accurate way to really see the differences.

The selection of a light modifier should be based on the concept and intent of the shot, coverage needed for the subject area and quality of light or the desired effect. When we want to light large areas we don’t select small modifiers and we don’t position them 1 or 2 feet from the subject. On the other hand, if we’re shooting a tight head shot then we can very effectively use a small light source placed fairly close to the subject, and get really nice, soft light. No hard rules here; just general and common practices.

Method of metering, exposure, and depth of field were exactly the same for each image and the only thing that changed was the modifier and the modifier to subject distance. All testing was done using an Elinchrom RX 600 strobe.

Light Setup and Placement

The distance from light source to the subject is based on each modifiers sweet spot, which is generally 1 to 1.5 times the diameter (round and octagonal light sources) or the longest edge (square and rectangular softboxes). For my comparison, I’m positioning the front of the modifier at a distance of 1.5 times that modifier measurement.

Light placement is not intended to demonstrate the best or optimal lighting. Placement is only for the purpose of letting you see and compare highlight, shadow and transitions under controlled and consistent conditions.

The next two diagrams below show the horizontal and vertical placement of the light source relative to the subject.

light_position_h
Horizontal Orientation: The light source is positioned 45 degrees off the horizontal axis of the lens with the center of the light pointed at the center of the face.
light_position_v
Vertical Orientation: The light source is raised up at an angle of approximately 35 degrees with the center of the light pointed at the center of the face.

Let’s See The Light

This first set of images show the entire face and neck being modeled by each light modifier. Highlights, shadows and transitions are easy to see, directionality of the light source is defined, and catch lights (reflections of the light source in the eye) are visible and in a nice place.

Clicking on the name of the light modifier will display that image, making it easy to switch and compare. Clicking on the image itself will display the full size version of that image. To best see these images and the differences as you switch between them, I suggest viewing on a computer or tablet rather than a phone or handheld device.

speedo_22_bd(1)
1. Speedotron 22 inch Beauty Dish
2. Elinchrom 33 inch Umbrella
2. Elinchrom 33 inch Umbrella
4. Elinchrom 39 inch Deep Octa
4. Elinchrom 39 inch Deep Octa
5. Cheetah 43 inch Umbrella Softbox
5. Cheetah 43 inch Umbrella Softbox
6. Photoflex 36 x 48 inch Softbox
6. Photoflex 36 x 48 inch Softbox
7. Generic 68 inch Parabolic Umbrella
7. Generic 68 inch Parabolic Umbrella

Shadows and Transitions

The next set of images are tighter crops on the shadow side of the face. Transitions from highlight to shadow can be easily seen on the temple, the side of the nose, cheek and neck.

Clicking on the name of the light modifier will display that image, making it easy to switch and compare. Clicking on the image itself will display the full size version of that image. To best see these images and the differences as you switch between them, I suggest viewing on a computer or tablet rather than a phone or handheld device.

1. Speedotron 22 inch Beauty Dish
1. Speedotron 22 inch Beauty Dish
2. Elinchrom 33 inch Umbrella
2. Elinchrom 33 inch Umbrella
3. Photoflex 24 x 32 inch Softbox
3. Photoflex 24 x 32 inch Softbox
4. Elinchrom 39 inch Deep Octa
4. Elinchrom 39 inch Deep Octa
5. Cheetah 43 inch Umbrella Softbox
5. Cheetah 43 inch Umbrella Softbox
6. Photoflex 36 x 48 inch Softbox
6. Photoflex 36 x 48 inch Softbox
7. Generic 68 inch Parabolic Umbrella
7. Generic 68 inch Parabolic Umbrella

 The Catch Lights

Any light source placed in front of the subject is going to create a reflection of that light source in the eye. For many people, the appearance of the catch light is the deciding factor in their choice of modifier while others don’t pay as much attention to catch lights. The catch light clearly shows the shape of each modifier and in the case of umbrellas or modifiers that are used in the reflective bounce orientation, you can also see the light stand and the strobe as black silhouettes. Not always desirable but at times, irrelevant.

This last set of images are tight crops of the eye. You can see the catch lights as well as shadows around and under the eye.

Clicking on the name of the light modifier will display that image, making it easy to switch and compare. To best see these images and the differences as you switch between them, I suggest viewing on a computer or tablet rather than a phone or handheld device.

1. Speedotron 22 inch Beauty Dish
1. Speedotron 22 inch Beauty Dish
2. Elinchrom 33 inch Umbrella
2. Elinchrom 33 inch Umbrella
3. Photoflex 24 x 32 inch Softbox
3. Photoflex 24 x 32 inch Softbox
4. Elinchrom 39 inch Deep Octa
4. Elinchrom 39 inch Deep Octa
5. Cheetah 43 inch Umbrella Softbox
5. Cheetah 43 inch Umbrella Softbox
6. Photoflex 36 x 48 inch Softbox
6. Photoflex 36 x 48 inch Softbox
7. Generic 68 inch Parabolic Umbrella
7. Generic 68 inch Parabolic Umbrella

A Word About Output

Despite varying amounts of light falloff from center to edge of each modifier, there were no indications that any modifier couldn’t or shouldn’t be used due to that falloff, and I see no reason to scrutinize over that at this time.

Overall, when it comes to output, there are some basic and common things I’ve found. At the same meter reading from the same distance, just about any modifier that has a single layer of diffusion will produce about the same output. A modifier with two layers of diffusion will meter roughly the same as any other with two layers of diffusion. Similar modifiers don’t vary all that much when it comes to output or falloff.

Of course, there are metal reflectors that have polished silver interiors and can produce as much as 3 stops more than another standard reflector. Beauty dishes typically produce greater output than a standard softbox, but typically, a beauty dish is used because of the contrast and rapid falloff when used at its sweet spot and not because of any difference in output.

Summary

In the past, I’ve done comparisons like this and detailed all the differences in the shadows and the highlight to shadow transitions but as stated at the top of the article, I thought it best to just show the images and let you decide what you like and form your own opinions.

In some cases, there can be significant differences between modifiers but in the end, if they are used in or around their sweet spot, you’ll get a pleasing and similar quality of light. That’s not to say that you must use a modifier at its sweet spot. All that really matters is that you like the light. If it turns out that the light you like the most is produced by a $50 modifier and the light you like the least is produced by one that costs ten times that, then so be it.

Don’t be afraid to play. Don’t follow trends. Move lights around, experiment and have fun.

About The Author

Robert Mitchell is a New York based photographer and instructor specializing in contemporary portraits and headshots photography. You can follow Robert on Facebook, Twitter and his blog. This article was originally published here and shared with permission.

Find this interesting? Share it with your friends!

DIPY Icon

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

Join the Discussion

DIYP Comment Policy
Be nice, be on-topic, no personal information or flames.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

15 responses to “Comparing 7 Common Light Modifiers”

  1. Joyce Hueting Avatar
    Joyce Hueting

    Rosa Tortora

  2. inclol Avatar
    inclol

    Hi,
    Very grateful for this as I’m trying to determine what light modifier I want, more or less in the same usage as your example and the more I read about it, the less I’m certain. Just being able to compare the images and see what’s best for me is invaluable.
    However, are links up ? Can’t access the full size images when clicking them or the names of the modifiers.
    Thanks again.

    1. Robert Mitchell Avatar
      Robert Mitchell

      Hi. To see the full size images and for the best comparisons, you’re going to want to visit my site to see the original article.

      http://robertmitchellphotography.com/rmp/comparing-7-common-light-modifiers/

  3. Rod Stears Avatar
    Rod Stears

    .

  4. Tristan Robitaille Avatar
    Tristan Robitaille

    This post is really useful. Thanks!

    1. Robert Mitchell Avatar
      Robert Mitchell

      Sorry about the very late reply. Glad you found the article useful. My pleasure.

  5. Bart Van Eynde Avatar
    Bart Van Eynde

    in “LET’S SEE THE LIGHT” is photo 3 – “Photoflex 24 x 32 inch Softbox (white interior, double diffusion)” missing

  6. Kriztoper Avatar
    Kriztoper

    I’m still learning photography and I’m a little confuse. Comparing 33″ umbrella and 68″ umbrella, I thought the bigger the quality of light, the more light wraps around the subject (softer lights).

    1. Robert Mitchell Avatar
      Robert Mitchell

      The concept, which is often misquoted and twisted up is simple. The larger the light source relative to the subject, the softer the quality of light. A white umbrella will diffuse and soften transitions from white to highlight, highlight to diffuse (true tonality of the skin), diffuse to shadow and shadow to black. The silver umbrella will produce more directional light with greater contrast and harder, more rapid transitions.

      1. Kriztoper Avatar
        Kriztoper

        Thank you so much for your reply. At first I couldn’t wrap my head around it but now makes more sense. I guess it all depend as well on the reflective surface of the modifiers.

        1. Robert Mitchell Avatar
          Robert Mitchell

          My pleasure. Do some simple experiments with any light modifier. Move it as close as you can to the subject, just out of frame and compare that to placing that same modifier 4 feet or 6 feet away. Once you see these theories in practice, it’s going to make a lot more sense.

  7. Gaz MadHat Prescott Avatar
    Gaz MadHat Prescott

    For someone such as me who is just starting to get my head around light modifiers this is a really helpful article. Thank you.

  8. Craig Marshall Avatar
    Craig Marshall

    You got results I didn’t expect. The beauty dish was much softer than I thought it would be. The cheetah umbrella softbox produced surprisingly even light with no burnt out area. Now I’m gonna have to buy one and test it for myself. Thanks for the great samples.

  9. AnDrea J Avatar
    AnDrea J

    I know you’ve heard this line, new to photography, but yes I am and have great individuals who have showed me another side of photography. Which is why I got sent this article. Just bought my first lighting kit and I have to say this was an easy read. I like that you let the reader make their own judgements in regards to preference. Personally I think I will be happy with my 33 inch umbrellas, although in the future I could see myself buying a Softbox too. Thanks so much for the information.

  10. Buddy Qin Avatar
    Buddy Qin

    I’ve been check the image of full face portrait and found:

    “2. Elinchrom 33 inch Umbrella” and “4. Elinchrom 39 inch Deep Octa”
    are the same image.