In photography, what we call a light modifier is usually self explanatory. In the context of studio photography, it essentially means anything you're using to shape, change, otherwise effect your light.
Light modifiers literally come in all shapes and sizes, and some people even create their own, for example, oatmeal box snoots.
I use a lot of different light modifiers; sometimes, my light modifier will in fact be nothing at all!
Without any further stalling, let's jump right in with two of my favorite lighting modifiers: the softbox and the beauty dish..
Softboxes are probably the second most common modifier behind umbrellas. Their name is pretty straight forward -- the light that comes out of them is generally quite soft at an average distance. Getting a softbox close and one gets a very nice wraparound light.
Softboxes are a lot of fun to use, in part due to their easiness and effect. I find that a softbox gives me just enough "throw" of light that I can get control, but also set it up fairly anywhere, so long as the subject is facing it, for a nice placement. Two softboxes side by side (and very close) give an even, flat lighting effect.
Seen below, two softboxes were placed very close together (as in, just enough space between them to shoot, and nothing greater). This is a very attractive look (though it is flat), as it brings out the subject's eyes, and can create a sort of "cat eye" effect. Can be useful, if it's what you're going for, but I would suggest it as one of your "hey, this might be cool!" instead of your whole set up.
This, as opposed to a single softbox, perhaps at more of an extreme placement, which gives a very dramatic light.
This is also a nice effect as you can control the drama of the light by its power settings and distance from the subject. A single softbox at a 45 degree angle to the subject, with the subject facing the light is a common "go-to" easily set up light for portraits.
However, a softbox's greatest strength is also, perhaps, its curse. Because a softbox is easy to set up and forget, photographers can very easily fall into a trap of getting comfortable with softbox setups, losing their creativity! Don't let it get to you.
A common "rule" of lighting is never to light from underneath. Doing so gives specific shadows and dark areas beneath the eyes, and creates an odd halo effect (think flashlight under the chin while telling a scary story); as such, it gives an aptly named "monster light"
Then again, what is photography if not breaking rules? ;)
The particular senior on the shoot wanted a couple of character portraits. She's a big fan of the hoodie, so we tried to see what sort of alternative, maybe-not-classic-portraiture-but-still-cool photos that we could get.
So, I cruelly bullied my assistant for the shoot into literally taking the light off its stand, getting on the floor, and aiming the softbox "up and at" the subject's face.
Again, not your classic portrait and you certainly don't want to make it a habit of lighting people from underneath, but if you're going for that sort of character, a little frightening look, it works really well.
On to the second modifier, and it is my absolute favorite of them all. It's none other than the venerable beauty dish. A beauty dish is admittedly not as versatile as a softbox, I think, but it has a unique character and feel to it that's hard to beat. A beauty dish is interesting in that it creates a look that is somewhere between a regular reflector and softbox. Transitions from light to dark are more drastic, while the light from a beauty dish is more "punchy" while remaining somewhat soft.
Beauty dishes are also one of the more difficult modifiers to use, and one I might say is much more frustrating to use if you don't have a century stand with a boom arm (or some other way of getting your light over and above a subject. Beauty dishes are found almost all the time in commercial and fashion photography.
Sadly, I don't have a photo of an actual dish, but you can quickly use your favorite search engine to find out more about them. They typically come in sizes around 18-22" and most all lighting brands use them, and 3rd party manufacturers make them. My two cents, and some food for thought, however, is that you should definitely consider buying the beauty dish from your lighting manufacturer. The beauty dish is not the place to find the Ebay $70 version. The shape of dishes is so unique that the light will wrap and focus uniquely to the way your light is designed. -- Just a suggestion. :) I have a Fotodiox beauty dish that I use on my Photogenic brand lights, and it does OK, but I am less frustrated when using the Photogenic version. :) Likewise, for my Broncolor lights, I use a Broncolor dish; while it wasn't cheap, it's worth it.
In any case, here are some sample photos using a beauty dish:
Seen here is how the dish has a bit more of a "character light" feel to it. You have to be careful with dishes, too. You have a smaller modifier, so you as the photographer must be more precise in how you handle it.
Sometimes, the characteristics of a beauty dish will work against you moreso than any other lighting modifier. In the above photo, there is actually a second light on camera left (softbox) illuminating the subject's arm and right side, slightly. The dish alone leaves this side completely silhouetted and one is unable to discern any detail. So, consider this when using your beauty dish. Sometimes, a strip softbox or a regular softbox a little further back, lowered down on power setting, will give a nice separation and a much needed "detail suggestion light." -- a light just enough to show that there's something there, but to keep attention where you want it.
I would not suggest a dish for moving subjects, especially pets, etc. You'll want to keep adjusting your dish to make sure it looks good. An umbrella or softboxes are a much better solution for "set up and forget"
However, the main use for a beauty dish remains on a boom arm, up and above a subject. The photo above is one of my favorite photos I've ever taken, and no doubt comes from the light as well. Again, the dish was on a boom and pointing toward the subject. However, the placement above renders the beauty dish as a sort of "cheekbone light." That is, it is very good at carving out and sculpting details on the face. Again, though, one must be careful about placement of both light and subject. The subject's left arm had to be brought forward, as when I did test photos, it was completely invisible.
This is the alternative to adding a second light, if one is not available or otherwise impractical. Simply pose your subject slightly differently to achieve the result you want. Again, another double edged sword of the beauty dish is that small adjustments = big results. Be careful!
In actuality, both the above light modifiers are very useful, and are a staple of any studio photographer's set up. Though the two just scratch the surface of the whole light modifier game, hopefully it provides some insight into using each, and a few result photos.
I would say that I probably use a softbox about 60% of session time, a beauty dish 25% of the time, and perhaps other speciality/odd modifiers 15%.
Summing up the results...
(+) Universally flattering
(+) Easy to set up and forget
(+) Makes subjects of all ages and complexions look good
(+) Flat light caused is easy for post production
(-) Easy to set up and forget
(-) Less creative (sometimes!)
(-) Take up lots of physical studio space, and can be inconvenient to set up and tear down constantly.
(+) Very good character light.
(+) Unique and beautiful look to it
(+) When used properly, will help create especially portfolio-quality, favorite photos
(+) Physically smaller modifier, easy to pack up and no set up/assembly required
(-) Takes up space as it doesn't fold down
(-) Difficult modifier to use; requires more practice than other modifiers
(-) Not a set up and forget modifier
(-) Requires constant review of photos and adjustment, especially if subject moves.
(-) (Can be) more time consuming to use during the shoot.
All in all, though, I hope that you all found something useful from this blog post, and that you enjoyed the photos as well! As always, please send me an e-mail if you have any questions or comments about the blog post, or in general.
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned...