Lighting 101: Two of My Favorite (if a Little Unusual) Light Mods
While we are on the subject of the quality of light, here are two of my favorite light modifiers for creating interesting light for portraits. I use them a lot—both individually and combined with each other.
The first is a ring flash adapter. A ring flash is a donut-shaped flash, with your lens sticking into what would be the hole of the donut. This allows the light to come from all around the lens axis, which does a couple of things.
First, it makes smooth, shadowless light (on the subject at least). Second, it creates a unique, signature shadow on any wall or backdrop that might be directly behind the subject.
You have probably seen that look before in fashion and or modern portrait photography. Now you know how it was done.
Real, professional ring flashes are… very expensive. But you can turn your garden-variety speedlight into a ring flash for a lot less with something called a ring flash adapter. Essentially, these are very sophisticated reflectors that bend light around your lens before releasing it.
My favorite of the ring flash adapters is something called an Orbis (seen above). I like it because it is the only model of ring flash adapter on the market which (a) can be used with nearly any hot-shoe style flash, and (b) has a better quality of light than the others.
I use it a lot, both by itself and in combination with other lights. It was invented by James Madelin, a long-time reader of this site. As such, he has set up a tutorial/special offer page where Strobist readers get free shipping and 10% off, here. (Thanks, James!)
In the montage above, shot by Strobist reader Ed McGowan, you can see how a ring flash adapter can quickly give a cool look/theme to a series of portraits. It's a unique vibe, which works well on its own. But I tend to also use a ring flash in conjunction with other lights.
Here's some old iPhone video of me shooting with an Orbis as fill against an umbrella key light (that combo starts at about the 1:58 mark):
I tend to use the Obis a lot.
Little Bitty Soft Box
A soft box is simply a box that emits light. They usually run from 2x2 feet to as big as 4x6 feet. But filling a box that big is a lot to ask in terms of power when using speedlights.
So another of my most-used light modifiers is a tiny (as in 8x9 inches) version of a soft box, which happens to be very useful for lighting portraits from up close. That's it above, providing the light for a self-portrait. (As you can see, I like to experiment with my light mods…)
But these things are super useful. Take this photo, for example. The small soft box is being held just out of the frame to the left, and is what is responsible for the great quality of light sculpting his face.
Soft boxes of this size also fold down to almost nothing (8x9", and maybe half an inch deep) so they pack great. They are also very inexpensive. My favorite tiny box is the LumiQuest Soft Box III (AKA SB-III). I use the crap out of this mod—especially for close-in portraiture.
Just Like a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup
Often when I photograph people, I am working quickly and with very lightweight gear. And I frequently use the Orbis and the Soft Box III in combination. These last two photos are all good examples of that.
Seen above, I photographed poet Linda Joy Burke using a flash with an SB-III as my "key" (or "main") light off to the left. For fill light, to get that very controlled intensity of shadow, I used a second flash with an Orbis Ring flash Adapter.
Ditto the above portrait of blogger Siany Meades, shot in London. Same combo, same general light locations, actually. This was shot in a shaded courtyard but the light(s) gave me the ability to create a little sultry late-afternoon style light.
So, lots of cool toys and gear to think about to get your mind spinning. But now, let's take a moment to learn about balancing the light from your flash with the existing ambient light.
For most people, this will be when you start to really see the control you get from learning to use your small flash like a professional…
Next: Balancing Flash and Ambient, Pt. 1