Comparing the Most Common Light Modifiers

Comparing the Most Common Light Modifiers

As photographers, most of us eventually stumble onto the world of flash and the myriad of options available for producing light as well as modifying it to produce different results. Speaking from personal experience, I have often been perplexed as to whether a softbox or an octobox would be a better choice or better yet, a cheap umbrella.

Looking to simplify this thought process, Lens Rentals recently featured an article by Zach Sutton, a Los-Angeles based photographer specializing in portrait photography, showcasing a variety of commonly used modifiers in a controlled setting to see how each performed under different circumstances. Most of the modifiers tested were Profotos, including a 24-inch foldable beauty dish, 21-inch white beauty dish, 64-inch white and silver umbrella, 47-inch white umbrella, 43-inch white umbrella, 47-inch Octobox with and without a front baffle, strip boxes with and without baffles, 30x60-inch softbox, Westscott’s 23-inch rapid box, and finally a 5-foot Octobox.

For his testing, Sutton utilized a Profoto B1 strobe shot at a direct 45-degree angle, camera right, with the exposure balanced for the subjects face and adjusted based on the distance to match the exposure. For each modifier, he captured three separate exposures at two, five, and eight feet from his subject. His results, while not new to experienced studio photographers, were interesting and concisely shown for quick and easy comparison.

The first and probably most obvious conclusion Sutton arrived at was that regardless of the type of modifier used, the distance of the modifier to the subject dictated how hard or soft the light appeared on the subject. When placed closer, the modifier is larger by relation thus providing a softer light. As the modifier moves away, the opposite occurs and the light appears harder.

More importantly was that as Sutton's testing continued, he began to focus more on how the light affected the background versus his subject. Naturally, the smaller the light source, in this case the smaller the modifier being used, the less spill there is on the background and vice versa. This is important because it is where the control aspect of lighting comes into play and you begin to see the importance of using grids, flags, or anything that can manipulate the shape and direction of your light.

All in all, this is a well documented test for anyone bogged down with the number of choices available when it comes to lighting. As you will perhaps notice, many of these modifiers provide similar results and despite their claims to be unique in some way, the results do not always differ that much. Sometimes the best course of action is to exploit what you have and then move on to something new.

Images used with permission of Zach Sutton.

[via Lens Rentals]

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Ray Hardy's picture

don't put your boxes silk down, always silks up.

Tom Lew's picture

I usually put my boxes silk down, then put the head through it before putting it on a stand. Found it to be much easier. Any reason not to do this aside from it being dirty?

Ray Hardy's picture

nada, that's it man. If your silks are clean they will last a lot longer and it will be much easier to match light color of your using rental boxes. I used to work at a studio that always stored them face down. All of there silks looked like they had a full CTO on front.

Dan Howell's picture

I have never 'stored' my soft boxes or diffusion built and exposed. Face up or down you are going get yellowing if you leave your boxes out.

These comparison posts are great, but what do they really say? You really don't need 26 modifiers, 2 will do you for 99% of your cases... One that spills and one that you can control by adding grids, etc. Feels like I go through waves of GAS around modifiers and lighting, but then I realize the gear I have can do just about everything I need it to... I have always found the real limiting factor is the size of the room I am shooting in. Just need to move this one light two feet back, oh, there's a wall there... So when space is at a premium I have my FlashBender 2 XL Pro to shove right up in there, with a little more room a lovely soft silver umbrella or 2x3 softbox, and when I've got lots of room and start channeling Annie, the softlighter gets a little use for something different...

Justin Berrington's picture

After looking through the images, one of the things I found really interesting was the differences in shadow density. Particularly between the Profoto OCF 24" folding beauty dish and the Profoto 21" beauty dish. The 21" shadows are less dense than the 24" shadows. I would have guessed opposite just based on modifier size. I suppose depth of the modifier and the material may play a roll in shadow density as well?

barry cash's picture

Actually using modifiers this way at 45 degrees only scratches the surface of the creativity and the particular fall off of light with any given modifier. Most would agree that no one style is the one and only but you do want soft gradations of even light unless you want hard lighting. I prefer to see the light from the edge of the modifier wrapping the subject but that's my idea. Also there was not a comparison of a PARA so the ultimate was not used in the comparison.

This comparison show what the B1 does inside of various modifiers. Different heads with different angles of diffusion will have varying results. B1 in a beauty dish is quite different from a Pro head.

I find it really annoying that they used a model with a big, dark beard which obscures a huge amount of the definition of the shadows in each shot. These are generally really valuable tests but this one...