Outdoor Portrait Lighting Modifiers: Does Size Matter?

When it comes to outdoor portrait lighting, does size really matter? In this article, you will discover a few reasons why size is important on your next outdoor portrait lighting photo shoot.

All jokes aside, your lighting modifier size does affect the outcome of your images, and in this article, you will discover why a 36-inch modifier might just be the ideal size for outdoor portraits.

The first reason is: as a general rule, the closer and larger the light source, the softer the light appears, but anything larger than a 36-inch modifier could be a problem in windy conditions. 

Best-Outdoor-Portrait-Modifier-Size

That is why I feel and you may disagree that 36 inches is the sweet spot between flattering light and a modifier that is light, portable, and safe to use in most outdoor lighting situations. Of course, you could use a 22-inch beauty dish outdoors even more easily, but a 22-inch beauty dish is not as flattering on older subjects or for people who don’t have perfect skin.

The second reason is the distance of the modifier from your subject is also a factor in the quality of light that it produces, and again, 36 inches is large enough to allow you to move it in close to your subject but not to interfere with you getting that perfect shot on location.

Popular-outdoor-portrait-modifier

Beside the size, you may also prefer a round soft box over a square soft box because of the type of catchlight it creates in your subjects' eyes. A round soft box mimics a catch light similar to what the sun creates, so it is an excellent reason to choose a round softbox over a square softbox.

In closing, one last thing to look for when choosing a softbox is whether or not it has two layers of diffusion material. Having an inner diffuser helps to spread the light beam from the center of the modifier in a more dispersed way over the entire surface of the softbox. 

Using a round, silver, 36-inch modifier with two layers of diffusion is ideal for shooting outdoor portraits for a number of reasons: the contrast, the softness, specular high lights, and portability all add up to a winning combination.

What is your favorite outdoor lighting modifier for portraits? Let me know what you prefer to use and why in the comment section below.

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17 Comments

I have the 26-inch Rapid Box, which I sometimes use for small spaces but, man the grid is ridiculously expensive! I don't care for the speedlight mount either. I'd love to get the 36" and a Godox AD400 or 600 to go with it but can't justify the cost for the infrequent occasions when I would use it.

Craig Beckta's picture

The Godox modifiers and grids are more affordable.

Rifki Syahputra's picture

1 off shoe speedlight + reflector works for me. they're handy, and it's like having 2 point-light that I can play with. I can use the speedlight behind the object to give better definition on the rims, and the reflector to fill in (I prefer to use color/gold reflector) to give warmer tone from the speedlight

And no sandbags or assistant needed to safeguard the modifier.

What about the reflector and flash? A light stand isn't all that susceptible but a reflector can easily fall. Not much chance of it breaking but still a pain.

Craig Beckta's picture

Thanks for sharing your lighting diagram.

Jared Wolfe's picture

Any example shots with this setup?

I think using flash outside you don't want the pictures to look like high contrast images with specular highlights. More like natural light. I think 50 or 60 inches are the perfect modifiers for portatraits.
Then again it's also about distance, but if you put the modifier to close you get a some lighter parts, close to the modifier lighter and further away darker. A larger modifier gives more even light. Not practical and last time I used a white umbrella with cover, I guess around 36 inches:)

A 60 inch modifier would be ok with one or two people holding on to it and the stand. Plus not to windy conditions...

Jared Wolfe's picture

Kinda depends on the outdoor lighting conditions. Shooting outside on a bright sunny day? high contrast lighting with good specularity will look more natural. Shooting at sunset, blue hour or when overcast? Larger modifier with less specularity.

Yes that's true if you shoot with the sun in the face. However I always put the sun in the back, leaving the face in shade. So I think soft light is fine :) Anyways that is my taste:)

Few comments.

Better rule for intial modifier placement will be 36 inch modifier - 36 inches from the subject (not “approximately 3 feet”)

It’s not “good side” it’s “preferred side”.

"Beside the size, you may also prefer a round soft box over a square soft box because of the type of catchlight it creates in your subjects' eyes. A round soft box mimics a catch light similar to what the sun creates, so it is an excellent reason to choose a round softbox over a square softbox."

- I hear this all the time, but not once have I ever noticed round catchlights from the Sun. I've seen reflections like the skyline, buildings, or photographer but never a round little dot. The little light dots are a tell when fill was used, but in 100% natural light photo, I've never seen the catchlight.

Jared Wolfe's picture

Agreed. In natural light shots its the whole sky that creates the catch light, not the sun. To get the sun as the catchlight you would need your subject to look directly at the sun.

Lee Stirling's picture

I have a 30 inch square bowens-mount softbox that is suitable to use with a single speedlight. Anything larger than that and I'm afraid a single speedlight won't be enough to fill the softbox. This is a usefully sized lighting modifier that doesn't require a jump up to expensive strobes. I even made a grid for it that I can velcro in when I want that great directional light with minimal spill. I always use at least one 15 pound sand bag on my light stand when shooting outdoors, even with no wind.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

Most people don't use a BD to its full potential which may be hard depending on the ambient light. They use the BD as a large reflector.