Gear Basics: Choosing and Using Soft Light Modifiers

With the gazillion or so soft light mods out there, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the choices available. And while I have probably shot with more of them that I would care to admit, there are four soft mods that I go back to again and again.

As it happens, these four are reasonably priced, too. (Which may well be what attracted me to them in the first place, of course.)

Keep reading for four good choices for soft light that won't break the bank.

Soft is Relative

So, which of the light sources above is the softest? The one in the back, right?

Not necessarily. The 60" source in back is not as soft at 10 feet away from your subject as the 8x9" source is at 10 inches away. A good rule of thumb to remember is that a light source is soft when it looks large to your subject. This nets out the two variables of size and distance.

Example: Even a bare speedlight looks soft to a subject only a couple inches away.

Long story short, if you want soft light you will have to consider the working distance at which you'll be using it. The further back your light source, the larger your light mod will have to be.

So front to back, here is the straight dope on the four mods pictured above.

1. The LumiQuest Soft Box III

At 8x9", the LumiQuest SB-III can be very soft -- as long as you are working the light literally right up next to the subject. Case in point, this headshot of Ben I did for an ad for the SB-III when it first came out.

With a flat front edge, the light is easy to feather. This means you can work in the edges of the beam for more interesting (i.e. uneven) illumination.

Pros: The SB-III is small, and folds flat. This means it travels great, hiding in the back flap of my Domke F3 or just about anywhere else. It is also pretty reasonable, at under $50. (Especially considering the SB-III has a lifetime guarantee, unique on this list.)

Cons: It's small size means it is literally soft in only in the knife-fight range. Back it up more than a couple of feet and it starts to get hard. Actually, I tend to use this to my advantage, making the light more versatile just by varying the distance. That is one of the reasons I use it so much.

And speaking of that, most of the time I use an SB-III, I will do so in combination with a fill light. (Example here.) This gives a combination of both shape and detail.

2. Beauty Dish

The next step up, size-wise, gets us to a beauty dish. A broad, shallow reflector, it throws a modestly soft light at portrait distances. There is nothing particularly "beautiful" about it. The dish just has good PR, I guess.

A light this size won't wrap as much as a giant octa or umbrella when used at the same distance, which can be a good thing. So while some people may think of it as a beauty dish, I tend to think of it as a character dish.

Again, I almost always use it with fill. The shot above (more here) is a good example.

When used when a giant, on-axis fill light, as in this Martin Prihoda cover shoot, the beauty dish really starts to live up to its name. The shadows from a dish are distinct, and controlling their depth with another light source gives you a wide range of possibllity.

Pros: A dish gives you soft(ish) light that can stand up to a breeze. Soft boxes and (especially) umbrellas can turn into a sail in even a light wind. The beauty dish will hold up in a moderate wind -- especially when sandbagged. Also, the fact that the dish is circular gives a signature shape on the face as compared to a rectangular soft box. Some people prefer this, but I find it kinda arbitrary.

Cons: Does not fold in any way, so travels like crap. Expect to have to buy a protective case for it. Which only adds to the next downside. Of the four sources listed here, the beauty dish is the most expensive.

I have a few dishes, including one that I got for free from Profoto in a promotion that would have cost me north of $300. I did not know which I wanted (silver or white) so I chose silver for more efficiency. In hindsight I should have chosen white, which I now use far more often.

But I was not gonna pony up for another full-price Profoto dish. So I ended up with the white FTX 22" Beauty Dish ($105.00 - $130.00) shown above.

Being an aftermarket universal fit dish (one dish, many mounts) it can be a little quirky in some ways. But overall I have been happy with it. They also do a grid for the dish ($85.00). So if you are into controlling the beam of the light, the price difference (OEM vs aftermarket) may be even bigger.

3. Westcott Double-Fold 43" Shoot-Through Umbrella

Usually recommended as the first soft light mod for a space-conscious photographer, the double-fold umbrella practically disappears in your bag. It collapses down to 15". (Best of all, they are just silly cheap.)

I started out using it in typical fashion, 45 degrees up and over, as do most photographers. These days I am much more likely to fly it over the top of a subject, as in the falconer shot seen above (more here) or literally on the floor, as in this portrait.

Pros: Hello … dirt cheap. Also, travels extremely well. If you are into guerilla lighting, this is your mod. Also can be very powerful, used right up next to your subject. This is something you cannot do with a reflected umbrella because the shaft can get in the way.

Cons: They are pretty fragile. Between the double folding arms and the telescoping hollow shaft, expect them not to last too long. (A little breeze can get them, too.) Also, the light is hard to control -- an umbrella spews out light like a frat boy puking at 2:30am after a party. Very little directional control. Raw light can spill past the edge, too.

But for under $20, who can complain? I usually grab a couple to be safe.

4. Photek 60" Softlighter II

Combining the best features of a shoot-through umbrella and a large soft box, I like to think of the large Softlighter II as a poor man's octa.

It is a convertible shoot-through umbrella that can double as a reflective one due to the removable black backing. And it comes with a very efficient diffuser screen, turning the umbrella into a wonderfully even light source. As a bonus, the umbrella shaft is segmented, so you can remove half of it after you open it. This makes it possible to use it in very close. It is large-octa light quality, for about $100.

Actually, I have a 47" octa, and it gets very little use compared to the Softlighter. Friends usually ask to borrow the octa, which is fine with me -- I'd rather have the Softlighter on hand. (If you are an Annie Leibovitz fan, she frequently uses them as her key light, as seen in this video.)

I own and use both the Softlighter II and the new Paul Buff 64" PLM (with diffuser). The PLM is more efficient than the Softlighter because of its parabolic design, but that is lessened if you do not use the Paul Buff or Elinchrom mount. (They take advantage of perfect positioning.) For speedlights, I prefer the Softlighter, as it does not require a bare-bulb-type light source to be located at the focal point of the parabola. Just slap an umbrella swivel and a speedlight in there and you are good to go. If you primarily shoot WL or Elinchrom, I would suggest the PLM.

Or if you use big and small lights, maybe get both at under $100 ea. That is what I did, and frequently use both together (PLM as a key and the less efficient Softlighter as a fill.)

Pros: Way cheap, compared to the octa it largely replaces. Versatile as an umbrella, as described above. Gorgeous light with the diffuser. Very lightweight -- easy to boom without expensive gear. Takes a speedlight well. (That's how we lit the photo above, as detailed here.)

Cons: They don't travel as well as an octa, if only because they do not break down as far. Also, they are not as heavy-duty as an octa -- but to be honest I have yet to kill one.

So those are my Four Horsemen of soft light. You could choose four completely different different mods, but those are the ones I keep going back to.

The main thing is to look at your working distance and see which light source will create the light you want at that distance. As you can see above, you don't have to spend a ton of money to get versatile, soft light.


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OpenID nikonfilms said...

The first time I ever used a lumiQuest mini soft box was after I won one at the Boston Flashbus tour event (cause i was the first person to point out when you didn't repeat a question :-)

it opened up my world to doing small flash strobist photography again. Thats where I started and after getting some alien bees, every shoot i did, inside or out, always involved lugging the bees around. Now that i've seen the power and effectiveness of the adapters for small flash, i'm starting to really explore this lighting style again, and having recently purchased a refurbish sb900, i'm going to really start pursuing this style of lighting more for my commercial and personal work.

So thank you!!!

June 29, 2011 8:15 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

Dave. Dave.

Seriously, dude.

Can you work on your timing? This has been going on for years now.

I buy lightstands, a week later you post about stands. Buy a slave, boom, post about slaves. Buy a background support system, you post about them (who knew some could double as stands?). Now this... again.

A little telepathy, a little prescience - how hard can that be? Step up your game, man!


June 29, 2011 9:02 AM  
Blogger icie said...

I think it's also important to think about contrast ratios in addition to softness. This is especially key in terms of the results you can get with one-light setups, but also good theoretical foundation to build on.

A larger light source in from the subject's perspective means softer light. I knew that basic concept when I first started, and so when I wanted soft light, I would move my flashes (with their attendant modifiers) closer to the subject.

But I had neglected the contrast ratio, which meant that if I did not fill, my shadows would be very dark, even though the light is soft.

I learnt then that like so many things in photography, there is a balance in play. You can move your light source closer, get a softer light, but you increase your contrast ratio. Or you can move the light source away to reduce contrast ratio, but get a sharper light. Thus the need for larger softboxes and brollies. does a great job of explaining the relationship between light hardness/softness and contrast ratio (full disclosure: not associated with the link).

June 29, 2011 9:55 AM  
Blogger Setcamper said...

Can anyone direct me to an online resource that explains the speedlight mounting process for a beauty dish?

I've built the DIY version, but at 14" it's too small for the shots I want and not terribly efficient with the light.

I've seen a lot of good feedback around forums/discussion groups supporting numerous after-market dishes that cost around $100, but most people use them with mono-lights and purchase the corresponding speed rings. Outside of the DIY crowd, I haven't seen a the beauty dish + speedlight combo.

What's the ideal way to mount a speedlight to such a dish? What do I need to purchase beyond the dish itself?

June 29, 2011 10:15 AM  
Blogger MG said...

I love my 45" Softliter - best $60 I've invested into lighting beyond the flashes themselves. I use it for almost everything. Best is that if you take it on location, you're also getting a shootthru or bounce brolly in the package for no extra weight or effort, meaning you've already got everything with you should you find you need something a little different than expected. It really is one of those products that lives up to its promo for "doing it all". At some point I'll invest in the larger one as an additional option for larger spaces.

Mine has held up well, although one of the stitch loops on the white umbrella itself has worked loose, but it is an easy DIY fix, so no biggie :)

For a small SB, I made one out of a soda-carton box (parachute nylon or tracing paper for the diffuser, and lots of black gaffer/duct tape to tie it all together and cover the box). Not as nice as the Lumolite, but only cost me about $4.00 :D

June 29, 2011 10:16 AM  
Blogger Mike Mahoney said...

"an umbrella spews out light like a frat boy puking at 2:30am after a party. Very little directional control." Your exposure to McNally on the Flashbus tour are shining through. At last, technical terms that I can understand... too well!
Love your work and wisdom, thanks!

June 29, 2011 10:23 AM  
Blogger Michael Henry said...

Well written and I agree with your analysis (might quibble on fine points, but I'm a jerk like that)

One point I'd like to add about the SoftLighter is the shaft that can be shortened. It allows you to get it almost as close to the subject as you can a octabox so you can take advantage of a faster falloff. (I could be wrong, but) I still have yet to find another brolly-box that does that.

My largest company about the PLM or Softlighter is that nobody makes a grid for them. No idea how they'd make it work, but if they did I'd likely never purchase another octabank again.

Thanks, great write-up. You write some of the most level headed, practical, and honest product reviews.

June 29, 2011 10:27 AM  
Blogger Russ Robinson said...

I invariably reach for my monoblocs and either a softbox or beauty dish each and every time I'm shooting outdoors, mainly because of the ambient-killing potential. However, you continue to inspire me to try other modifiers, in particular the Lumiquest SB III with a Speedlite. Maybe I'll grow a pair someday and step out of my comfort zone. :)

June 29, 2011 10:36 AM  
Blogger Michael Henry said...

Doh, misread. I see you mentioned the segmented shaft. I'll shut-up now!

Thanks again.

June 29, 2011 10:36 AM  
Blogger Zach said...

Good set of recommendations... I have a LumiQuest SoftBox III, a LumiQuest Mini SoftBox that came with my Vivitar 283, as well as the same umbrella.

I use the lumiquest softboxes a fair bit because they fold completely flat and work on all of my flashes (I have a few different types).

June 29, 2011 10:55 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

Actually, you can quantify how much better the softlighter is than the octa. It's better by two! Because, you know, it has ten sides... instead of eight? get it? better by two??

sigh... i need to go to sleep.

June 29, 2011 1:01 PM  
Blogger Hana M said...

Am I right in thinking the Photek Softlighter is not good for speedlights because if you are not using pocketwizards then the speedlight is inside the material and inhibits the infra-red?
Should that be added to the cons?
That a photek softlighter is only good if you have radio control speedlights?
Thanks and sorry if you've already been asked this!

June 29, 2011 1:26 PM  
Blogger Nullset said...

Does anyone know anywhere to get a 60" Softlighter? Adorama has been out for 3 months, and at that time they said a June arrival. Now the item is reading as back-ordered from the manufacturer with no delivery date.

I blame David. First SB-24 prices go through the roof and now he's creating a shortage of Softlighters.

June 29, 2011 1:51 PM  
Blogger MasterOfGoingFaster said...

I'm "lucky" that I own a 7 foot Octobox for my studio strobes. It is a very sweet light and I love it. But I don't like the problems that go along with it. For stability, I have to use a heavy steel Avenger stand (US$200) as none of my aluminum stands will hold it well. It is heavy and puts a huge cantilever load on the strobe, so I have a Manfrotto arm and super clamp to steady it. It is also a pain to setup. I'm thinking of adding a Softliter just to make my life easier. David's advice is good - don't think this lower cost stuff is not as good - it is more a matter of trade-offs.

June 29, 2011 1:56 PM  
Blogger noone said...

Aurora sells a beauty "dish" that travels easily (but it ain't dirt cheap) called the Firefly. It's basically a small octabox with a speedlight mount, and it folds up like an umbrella. The cover is removable, and has a solid silver circle on the inside in the middle.

Link to a youtube demonstration of the thing.

June 29, 2011 2:03 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Seeing how you were using all of these mods during the Flash Bus tour inspired me to sell my entire studio kit and invest the proceeds in these mods. Hadn't used the Alien Bees gear in over a year anyway. I actually like the LTP softboxes a whole lot in adition to the IIIs. I stack them in pairs to get a little more light in outdoor shoots...

June 29, 2011 2:30 PM  
Blogger MG said...

@HannaM I use my Softliter with Canon flashes fired by an STE2. Even though the IR with that setup can be fussy - and I have the original diffuser (no seam) intended for "real" (!) lights - I've had no trouble when using it indoors, even if the IR is partly obscured by the diffuser. I remember last time I looked that Adorama were offering a split diffuser with a velcro seam that allows you to much more easily site the sock around a speedlight without blocking anything.

June 29, 2011 2:53 PM  
Blogger Louis said...

Great list – but there is one mod that I’m surprised didn’t make it… I am a *huge* fan of the Wescott Apollo 25” softbox. All the speed and convenience of an umbrella, but… it’s a softbox. The things are pretty rugged as well – mine has gone a-over-teakettle more than a few times and I’ve had to bend the ribs back into place with my thumbs. But despite my clumsy handling it still works as good as ever.

June 29, 2011 4:53 PM  
OpenID mathieu said...

@HannaM: line of sight is very limiting anyway even with modifiers that accommodate IR. If you don't want to use RF triggers (PW or ebay triggers) you can always use a cable :) Cables are cheap, reliable and versatile.

June 29, 2011 6:19 PM  
Blogger junyo said...

@Nullset - Considering that I've been chasing behind Photek for 4 months for a replacement of my defective 60" SLII, good luck.

June 29, 2011 7:15 PM  
Blogger fotofred said...

Thank goodness I read the entire article. At first look, I was afraid I was going to have to buy another modifier based on the photo used (I didn't realize immediately that it was several products stacked in front of another). PHEW!

June 29, 2011 7:58 PM  
Blogger Rey Bugia said...

@Hana M - Actually you can use the softlighter and your dedicated flash's ittl/ettl signals. I tried it out here:

I was using Nikon CLS, but I would guess that it does the same for canon or other brands. I tried it from 15 feet away and it still triggered the sb800 via CLS. The black backing lets the signal in I guess. Unfortunately I didn't try the SU-4 mode for comparison.

The only thing that is hard with the softlighter is changing power/zoom levels on your flash. I normally use YN flashes and the light of the power levels is easy enough to see, but I find it hard when its an SB800 in it, which is why I tried working with CLS and controlled the power from my camera.

Hope that helps :)

June 29, 2011 10:00 PM  
Blogger dlabrosse said...

I've been using tinker tube style mods for a very long time. I often snap together three 6 x 2.5 ft frames with white covers to create a giant softbox (or just two clipped together to form a V) into which I point anything from a speedlight to a big studio light.

Pros: Very cheap to build. Modular. Build exactly what you need (in terms of size and shape).

Cons: Can get large and unwieldy (no fun outside in the wind). Larger sizes like mine hard to boom

June 30, 2011 3:41 AM  
Blogger Bill Giles said...

One big advantage of the softlighter style modifiers is the umbrella frame. They are much easier to set up and tear down than conventional softboxes and don't take up that much space in storage. I'll bet that we could work up a DIY speedlight adapter for the PCB parabolic modifiers. I have the huge one and experimented a little bit with mounting it like a radar antenna using the 7mm rod through the umbrella and attaching it to a grip head. It works, but the supplied 7mm rod is not really strong enough to hold the weight. a 7mm stainless steel rod about 18" long should be much stiffer. That done, we just need a speedlight mount to attach to the PCB speedring.

June 30, 2011 10:04 AM  
Blogger Paul D'Andrea said...

Thoughts on beauty dish spill, David? I have a BD, and like it, but always use it with a grid, since the ring of raw light the dish makes can limit the useable angles.

June 30, 2011 10:45 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

Can you (or anyone else) make any recommendations/comparisons between the silver reflective and white Paul Buff PLMs? It seems as though the 60" softlighter is going to be hard to actually buy. Thanks.

June 30, 2011 12:54 PM  
Blogger Theo said...

Great writeup, I really need to pick a beauty dish up after seeing what it's capable of.

June 30, 2011 2:02 PM  
Blogger Kaben said...

Ayyone know of a reliable seller for the Soflighter II? They dont seem to be available in the UK.
Failing that does anyone know of a decent alternative? I have had a quick look at the Umbrellabox from Lastolite, but im not sure if it will work with speedlights and you cant shorten the centre shaft as far as i can see.

July 01, 2011 12:33 PM  
Blogger Piotr _ FURBO.PL Sport is an Art said...

Thanks, for the article first of all! It helped me understand why it's possible to work with bare strobes [ no beauty dishes or softboxes ] with fairly good/soft results most of the times - the strobe happened to be very close to the subject.

What is even more interesting, I was convinced [ I read somwhere ] - the further the flash, the softer the light!?? So which is true in our part of the globe? Just need to check.

All the softness you write about is beautiful but it is expensive, cumbersome and is very likely to get stuck in the bushes where I often end up taking photos - check my site for examples! So the only softener I found useful is a little air filled soft box right on the strobe in my hand.


July 02, 2011 2:13 AM  
Blogger Paul said...

If you are struggling to get a softlighter in the UK, why not try one of the Lastolite Umbrellas Boxes, they are very similar and excellent piece of kit. I have two of the 40inch versions and use them on an almost daily basis with various different flashguns. They collapse relatively small for easy transport and compared to some are not too heavy.
Another alternative is the WexPro QuickSet 95cm Octagonal Softbox ( I got this a few weeks ago to use with my Bowens studio heads but immediately realised it worked fine with my speedlites when I fitted it to my Interfit Strobie XS adapter. This version is much heavier and cumbersome then the lastolite kit but its very efficient and works extremely well, especially with the supplied grid.

July 02, 2011 4:22 AM  
Blogger Paul said...

Sory Kaben, only just realised you had considered the UmbrellaBox...just so you know, its a great piece of kit...

July 02, 2011 4:24 AM  
Blogger Kaben said...

Thanks for the reply Paul - very helpful.
Although i have looked into teh Umbrellaboxes i have never actualy seen one in the flesh so your insight is very useful.

Do you know how long the centre stem is and do you ever find that it is too long that it interferes with the shot? I quite often get my modifiers very close into the subject.

That said - the largest i have used is the 28" apollo softbox from Westcott, so maybe i wouldnt need to get in so close with the 40" umbrella box?

July 03, 2011 11:43 AM  
Blogger Tristan said...

I'm going to echo Mike here... I got very nervous when I spotted this post. I just dropped a few thousand dollars on Paul C Buff gear and I have spent almost two weeks trying to decide which light modifiers to buy. A few days after placing my order I spotted your post.

I believe I swallowed as deep and as loudly as a fish.

Not to say I would buy exactly what you would recommend, but your thoughts are always eye openers and they speak about style and the way you work... which in turn helps us all.

By some odd coincidence (?) or perhaps because I'm just that smart (Ha!) I picked up a beauty dish from Buff as well as one of the larger PLMs. I've already got some smaller umbrellas and a couple Lumiquest Softboxes. So my modifier compliment looks a lot like the suggestions you made.

I have been using a smaller Octobox of late as well. I found an unbranded one in a small shop in Vancouver last year and while the setup time is longer then a lot of other mods, it gives a nice shape to portraits and extremely soft light.

Now I just have to wait to get my order... My first non-speelite lights! Einstein 640s FTW!

July 03, 2011 3:54 PM  
Blogger Bill Pugliano said...

B&H has the 60" softlighter back in stock.

July 05, 2011 9:07 PM  
Blogger Watford World said...

B&H will deliver to the UK too. I've just ordered a 60" Softlighter II. With VAT (Sales Tax) and duty/shipping it's not going to be cheap but still pretty good value I reckon. Someone should import these into UK...

July 06, 2011 12:17 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Thanks for your help as always Dave. Fabulous site to educate all of us fellow strobists.

After reading this, i just ordered a Lumiquest iii and a Westcott Umbrella and now totally hooked on this. Also have a light stand coming. Can't wait to try this out!

July 16, 2011 6:23 AM  
Blogger Nico said...

Is the Softlighter II better than an EzyBox-type softbox?
I'm looking for the most portable and softer light option. Please can anyone comment?

I have the Westcott 43 convertible, but when used in shoot through mode indoors, it sends a lot of reflected light to the ceilings.

July 27, 2011 12:15 AM  
Blogger Joe2PointOh said...

Always sure to learn something that opens my possibilities when reading here, whether the latest entry or older ones such as this. Now if I could just once come away w/o the itch for a new bit of gear as a result? :)

August 14, 2011 10:27 AM  
Blogger Tom Franks said...

hey guys - has anyone ever tried to fit a softlighter to a bowens gemini compact head? as far as im aware the only 'standard' way of attaching an umbrella to the gemini's is to use the umbrella reflectior. however, as the mount is offset its very difficuly/iompossible to get the softlighter diffion layer over the umbrella withour brending the hell out of the umbrella. any ideas on alternative methods of mounting? cheers!!

April 23, 2012 4:21 AM  
Blogger Tim Dustrude said...

I'm curious about the Softlighter II and how well you can control the light with it. Under cons for the 46" Shoot Thru umbrella, you mentioned light spilling out all over. Does the Softlighter II control light spill better? Thanks so much - Love your site!

July 19, 2012 6:35 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


The Softlighter II has a flat(ish) front surface, which allows for much more spill control (I like to light with the edge) than a shoot-thru umbrella. Which offers near zero spill control.

July 19, 2012 7:10 PM  
Blogger Rajiv Sarathy said...

Since you use a Profoto with your PLM, and I assume you just shove the PLM's shaft into the Profoto head's umbrella holder hole, what's your technique for finding the focus point? (Or have you crafted a special holder to keep the bulb on the main axis of the PLM?)

July 27, 2012 1:35 AM  
Blogger Scott Gant said...


Just wondering when you use the Softlighter, when you put your speedlight into the "sock" portion, do you also put on the dome-diffuser that comes with the Nikon flashes (For Canon, there's store-bought ones like the Stofen)?

The reason I ask is aren't you trying to spread the light around inside of it as much as possible? Or do you just put the flash on wide-angle and fire it straight into the modifier?

February 12, 2013 6:01 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


I put it on wideangle, no diffusion. The balance is efficiency vs evenness. Seems to work just great on W/A due to the reflection/diffusion of the Softlighter, so I optimize for more light (i.e., w/o a dome)

February 12, 2013 7:33 PM  

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