Choosing Soft 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.

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. A Pint-Sized Soft Box

After an umbrella, one of the most useful softeners a mobile photographer can own is one of the several "mini" soft boxes on the market. I've rotated throughout several models over the years, but my current favorite is the Altura 11x8" mini soft box ($23).

At 8x11", the box can feel soft — as long as you are working the light close to the subject. Case in point, the portrait above of Cuban National Team boxer Osmany Barcelay at the Rafael Trejo boxing gym in Havana.

Photo by Martin Howard

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. In the photo below, the light is barely a foot from his face, feathered toward the camera to avoid edge spill on the left:

Mind you, both of these photos are shot outside in broad daylight. But I am shooting with a leaf-shuttered Fuji X100F, which means I have no upper speed limit on my flash sync. This magic little combo means that I can absolutely murder sunlight with a close-in, small-flash setup.

Pros: The Altura 11x8" 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 well-built, double-diffused and gives off nice, even light without any hotspot. It is also shockingly cheap, at $23 shipped.

Cons: It can be a little floppy on the flash. But you adjust in the way you hold it. (I usually just hand-hold it, connected via an OCF cord.)

Its 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.

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 with a giant, on-axis fill light, 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 possibility.

Beauty dishes come in both reflective silver and matte white. Silver is more efficient, but white gives you a better quality of light. My suggestion: go with white and move it closer to your subject if you need the extra oomph.

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 it 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 usually the most expensive. Also, despite the various configurations you tend to see out there, dishes do not work well with speedlights. They need the powerful, bare-bulb type light from a protruding tube in a studio light — and the little "light blocker" which ensures no direct light from the bare tube reaches your subject.

3. 43" 3-in-1 Umbrella

Recommended as the first soft light mod for any space- or budget-conscious photographer, the double-fold umbrella practically disappears in your bag. It collapses down to about 15". And even better, they are also very cheap.

I started out using umbrellas 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:

Photo by Bobbi Lane

Pros: Hello … it's dirt cheap. Also, it travels extremely well. If you are into super-portable lighting, this is your mod. Also a shoot-thru umbrella can be very powerful, if 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: Careful, as some of them can be pretty fragile. The LumoPro model is built significantly better than is the more ubiquitous Westcott model.

Another nod to the LumoPro 3-in-1: as the name implies, it can be used three different ways. It works as a shoot-through umbrella, a black-backed white reflective umbrella and a reflective silver umbrella — which gives you three very portable looks on the cheap.

4. Photek 60" Softlighter

Combining the best features of a shoot-through umbrella and a large soft box, I like to think of the large Softlighter 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 $149.

How good are they? Even people who can afford to use any expensive mod they want frequently opt for the affordable Photeks. If you are an Annie Leibovitz fan, she frequently uses them as her key light, as seen here:

Pros: Way cheap, as 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.

(A Photek 60" how we lit the photo above, as detailed here.)

Cons: They are not as heavy-duty as an octa -- but to be honest I have yet to kill one. Also, the front is not a clean light source like an octa. You can see the strobe unit. So if you are shooting highly reflective objects (glass, etc.) this may not be for you.

So those are my Four Horsemen of soft light. I have bought (and shot with) a lot of soft mods over the past 35 years, but those are the ones I keep going back to. I highly recommend each, for the reasons above.

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

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