One of the most intimidating things to learn when it comes to lighting is how to choose the right light modifiers. There are countless umbrellas, softboxes, octaboxes, stripboxes, and beauty dishes offered. All these contraptions help shape the way light spreads in different ways, and the appearance of the people and objects we photograph will be affected by this. The decision can be crippling. Thankfully there is an easy way to choose, and it’s all about understanding the language of light.
I get asked roughly once a week what light modifier someone should buy or use. The answer, unfortunately, is never the same. The right light is basically the one that allows your subject to look their best. Generally a large, soft, flattering light source placed at a higher angle, or towards one side, usually does the trick. However, this may not suit everyone’s purposes, as light is used to express all sorts of moods and ideas. Once we understand that light can be a form of communication, it will transform the way we use it.
For this article, I will mostly focus on portraits, but these concepts can easily be transferred to other subjects.
What Are You Imitating?
Firstly, we need think about what kind of scenario we are creating in our photographs, and then what kind of environment we want that portrayed in. This need not be a literal place, but one that you are suggesting through lighting. In life, each location will have its own kind of lighting, whether this be a bright open area, intimate room, or a dark alleyway. The number of light sources, size, and angle of the light would be different in these spaces. It will also describe your subject in different ways depending on the kind of environment they are in.
Use of your lighting equipment can be about recreating these effects. Even when a person is standing in front of a blank wall, your lighting should create a sense of the space they are inhabiting. You may want to take cues from what they are wearing or the personality of the subject as clues to where they might be. Imagining what scenarios your subject is in will help make choosing the right light modifier an easier task. Below are a few examples.
A large octabox or umbrella is a very versatile light-shaping tool. It imitates diffused light, like an overcast day, often considered the most flattering kind of light. Moving the light from high to low angles is like changing the time of day. Just as many photographers prefer shooting in this kind of light, these modifiers suit most subjects as it creates soft shadows and highlights.
The octabox is perhaps more useful than an umbrella for restricting light spillage to areas that you may not want to illuminate. To create a more dramatic effect, use a grid over the octabox to narrow the spread even further and deepen shadows. This can appear like a beautiful patch of light passing into a dark building.
Use a bare single-source light to create the look of direct sunlight. Imitating this outdoor light is perhaps the simplest to create, but the hardest to do well. Hard light creates harsh shadows and you have to be very deliberate in how you want that used.
This style suits youthful or sporty subjects where the crisp light has a sense of spontaneity and vibrancy. The distance of the light should be placed at least 10 feet away from the subject to give a broad, even light, just as sunshine would appear. To add interest, you can always place objects in front of the light to create texture, like the sun passing through leaves or other objects.
Large softboxes are often used to imitate window light. Placed almost sideways on to the subject, the shape of the light creates a rectangular catchlight in their eyes like from a window. Positioning the softbox closer to the subject causes the light to wrap around them even more, achieving a softer look.
This suits subjects in more relaxed poses, like they are enjoying themselves on a Sunday afternoon, or alone in a contemplative space. Darker shadows created by the low-angled light enhances textures of clothing and hair, which can add a sense of interest and intrigue to the person.
The term cinematic can be interpreted in many ways. Mostly, it is about the suggestion that the subject is in a scene of a story and the space appears more theatrical or dramatic. This is often achieved by using multiple sources of light, generally a key light on an angle and one or two lights (perhaps a stripbox) coming from behind the subject. Including multiple lights, perhaps of different color temperatures, imitates many real life spaces where there are mixed light sources.
Positioning a smaller octabox or softbox close to the subject will create a smaller patch of light with nice falloff, giving emphasis to just the face or some other part of the subject. These effects can evoke a sense of narrative or grandeur, even with the most mundane of subjects. Check out the works of Gregory Crewdson for some excellent examples.
Gridded or deeper octaboxes will also restrict light spillage, allowing you to angle and direct the illumination in ways that retain darker areas in your image, giving the impression that the space is shot during nighttime. Adding a spotlight to the background also helps sell the illusion of an indoor space that is creatively lit, like a nightclub or cafe.
Most of the suggestions made in these scenarios involve a single light source, but these are all just starting points. Once your key light is established, the rest of the lighting solutions will fall into place with greater ease. Balancing the lighting with reflectors and secondary light sources is key to capturing a strong final image. The rest is up to you.
It’s About Telling a Story
If you begin with a clear concept or story, choosing the right light modifier will come more quickly. It helps you visualize where the person might be and how that will look. Being more observant of environmental conditions would also let you light more consistently and complementary to spaces that already have some form of lighting. If you are still unclear how to light the subject, perhaps you need to refine your ideas about the shoot first.
The methods described here may sound simplistic but I have found it to be a solid starting point to my studio photography. Working in the fashion industry, I will be shooting edgy fashion looks one day and bridal the next. This requires me to be knowledgeable and resourceful with my use of lighting gear. Knowing these quick tips means I can be more decisive and "sell" the concepts more successfully.
Becoming familiar with a range of light modifiers takes time and practice, but it is worth it. Like building your vocabulary can make you a better communicator, building your lighting vocabulary expands what you can say in your images. It is OK to stick with what you know if it has served you faithfully, but like all good conversations, it is preferable if you have more than one thing to say.