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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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