"Is this the same set-up you use all the time?"

December 17, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

What difference does a light modifier make?

I was talking with a client the other day while we waited for one more person to join us.  That person asked "Is this the same set-up you use all the time?"

Most definitely not.  And here's why ...

For this particular session, it was going to be more than one person, and they were not going to be close to each other (unlike, say, a family or a couple).  Because of that, I had set up two 43" 'shoot through' umbrellas from Westcott, and they were set to camera right and camera right about 45 degrees, and above head level, pointing more-or-less to the group at about a 45 degree angle downward.

I chose this simple (read that as 'inexpensive, quick, and easy to set up') layout because I needed even light across each person in the group, and I needed to include the background environment.  But this lighting set-up isn't always the appropriate choice.  Let's look at an example, using a longtime 'friend' named Big Bart.

In this first example, Bart is illuminated by an off-camera flash (I won't even go into the 87 'Why' reasons NOT to use on-camera flash) at 45 degrees left and high, with the same light pointing somewhat towards his nose, at a distance of ~ 3 feet.   The flash, a Canon 600EX-RT, is as good as it gets when it comes to 'speedlights', but take a look at the hard shadow that can be seen on Bart's left collarbone area.  And the light on Bart's fur is almost too bright, nearing blowout.  The light is what would be considered 'hard light'.  For some images, say an athlete, this could be the right look, but for most people and for most circumstances it isn't flattering.

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Part of the reason why the light is so 'hard' is the size of the flash itself.  The flash output area is only about 2" x 3" inches, and when used at ~ 3 feet from the subject, the light is not too dissimilar than a household flashlight!  So let's take a look at Bart when a larger light source is used.

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While the meter readings are the same, notice a few things.  The hard shadow on Bart's left collarbone is now far less defined (it's 'soft'), and the background of the image has gone darker.  That's because the light is provided using a small, inexpensive softbox from Cowboy Studio attached to the same speedlight as before.  The speedlight is still at the same distance (~3 feet), but the softbox has made the speedlight a much larger lightsource, measuring ~ 12 x 12.  The size makes the light much softer, and the defined edges of the softbox focus more light on the subject, and less on the background.  The emphasis is more on Bart, not the environment he is in.

What if I were to move the light even closer, essentially making the light source even larger?  Take a look at Bart below, and see the impact of having the light at ~2 feet rather than 3 feet.  Same meter readings (I'm taking handheld incident meter readings before each shot), and same camera settings, but the background has gone darker again.  This is in part due to the way light falls off over distance, a thing called the inverse square law.  I won't go into details here, but you can read about it at this site.  Oh, and notice how you can see the catch light of the soft box in Bart's left eye much more than before.  That's a good thing.

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If I use an even larger light source?  The larger the light source, the softer the light.  Here's an example, using another Westcott product, an Apollo Medium, which is 28" x 28".  Again, same distance, same meter readings, but notice the softness of the shadows, and the larger catch light in the eye(s).  The Apollo's design also means the light dropoff away from Bart's face is increased as well, rendering the white background a dark gray.  And notice one disadvantage in using a large softbox this close to the subject. That's the edge of the softbox creeping in to the image at the top right corner! 

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The final examples both use umbrellas like the on-location shoot I mentioned at the beginning, but in two different ways.  Both are a better answer when the question is "​What if I want the environment to be more prominent, not just the subject?​"  For the shot on the left, Bart is lit by a single 'shoot through' umbrella set-up. Notice how the background is clearly lit, with the background in near white. 

The image on the right uses a reflective umbrella set-up, in which the flash is pointed away from the subject (just like it is in an Apollo softbox), bouncing into the white material on the inside of the umbrella, before bouncing back to the subject.  The distances, meter readings and camera settings are the same, but the light coming from the reflective umbrella is more focused and has a more established spread.  As a result, the background is still there, but slightly darker than with a shoot-through set-up.

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Both of the umbrellas offer a large light source (43" in this case), and create nice, soft light on the subject.  The key difference between the two set-ups is the control over the light - the shoot through is a wide spread of somewhat soft light, whereas the reflective method gives more control.

Camera settings - Canon 5D MKIII, ISO 400, f/ 8.0, 1.125.  Canon  EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM Lens.  Meter readings provided by a Sekonic L-478DR.  Westcott Light standsSLIK tripod with optional ball mount.

There are additional ways to modify the light using these go-to solutions, and there are more modifier choices as well.  Next time - ​what if the light isn't pointed directly at the subject?



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