The root of all photography is light. As a photographer, it's our job to understand how to use it in ways that make our photographs stand out. This often means equipping ourselves with lighting modifiers, enabling us to manipulate how light is cast onto our subjects. Now, let me start by telling you there are a ton of modifiers available on the market. There's one for just about every situation we're likely to encounter throughout our careers. For the sake of time, we're going to touch on just a handful of the more commonly used modifiers.
Board Reflectors – One of the most common types of light modifiers is a board reflector. That is, a flat surface used to reflect or bounce light onto the subject. They are fairly basic to use and work great inside or outside of the studio. They come in a variety of sizes and colors and each type will achieve different results. The most commonly used colors are white, silver, and gold. When choosing which color to use, remember, a warm toned reflector (gold, for example) will give your photo a warm look. Alternatively, a silver reflector will bounce a cool light onto your subject. When shopping for a reflector, look for the collapsible variety that are double-sided.
Umbrellas – Umbrellas are tried and true light modifiers most known for their ease of use. A novice photographer just getting started in strobism can get some great shots with an umbrella pretty much right off the bat. There are two varieties of umbrellas: shoot through and reflective, either of which names summarize how they work. As to which style is better, it really boils down to what you are shooting and personal preference. A shoot through umbrella is similar to using a softbox, whereas a reflective umbrella is more like using a souped-up reflective board.
Beauty Dish – Known for the dramatic round catchlights this modifier produces, the beauty dish is a modifier which doesn't reflect light so much as it does direct it, which seems a bit like splitting hairs, but it does make a difference. A beauty dish is shaped, not so coincidentally, like a dish with the light source coming through the bottom center. As the light source emits its light, the dish essentially funnels it out directly to the subject with very little diffusion and a high falloff rate. This creates a hard light that can be tricky to master, but is well worth the effort to learn. To help control the harshness, many photographers layer additional modifiers on top of their beauty dishes. Typically, beauty dishes will feature a tube cover to slightly increase the falloff and are also commonly fitted with a grid to add diffusion.
Sensual Feeling by Cillian Storm, on Flickr. Note the minimal light falloff from the beauty dish used here.
Light Banks or Softboxes –These modifiers are essentially large, shoot-through boxes (though some are octagon shaped). The light source is directed through the back of the box and sent through a screen which serves as a diffuser before it casts a broad, soft light onto the subject. They are especially useful in commercial and product photography since the catch light they produce tends to be very wide and even, which minimizes distraction. The soft, flattering light also make these modifiers good choices to use when shooting people. Photographer, Pat David was kind enough to whip up a few cheat sheets to help us set up our softboxes. Here's the head-on version.
Softbox 0° Up Portrait Lighting Cheat Sheet Reference by avhell, on Flickr
While this does seem like a lot expensive equipment to invest in, many of these modifiers can be made at home for a fraction of the cost. The DIY approach isn't exactly ideal for professional photographers that have clients coming into their studios, but for those just trying to learn how all this equipment works, it can be a very effective alternative.
Tiffany Mueller is a professional music and fine art photographer. Published in various publications including magazines, art journals, as well as books, Tiffany has been fortunate enough to have been in a perpetual state of travel since her youth and is currently working on a 50-states project. You can keep up with Tiffany via Twitter or on her personal blog.