Lighting Modifiers – An introduction

Lighting Modifier Introduction

The ways in which we can control & modify the lighting that illuminates our photography are considerable. Here we will consider some of the basic modifiers that can help us sculpt our artificial light sources, be we in the studio or out on location.

Light Modifiers

Example images of light modifiers such as softboxes.

There are of course many more possibilities such as Barn Doors to selectively refine light distribution, Colour Gels to add subtle or strong colour to a light source or a myriad of options that a photographer may imagine & create for themselves.

Usage, Light Quality & Shape

(all example images are shot with the light source 1 metre from the background) (light source Bowens Strobe 1/2 power or Canon Speedlite 1/2 power)

Beauty Dish

This is a favourite go-to for many portrait photographers. Usually consisting of a large metal dish with its interior coated white or silver; the key feature is the secondary reflector within the dish. This secondary reflector stops the light source providing harsh direct light onto the subject, instead bouncing the light in to the main dish. If the dish is say 16 inches in diameter the light source effectively becomes a larger, softer source of 16 inches. This produces a flattering light for portrait photography with attractive circular catch lights in the eyes.

The beauty dish light can be further modified by adding a honeycomb grid to the front of the dish. This will strongly control the spread of the light, very suitable for emphasising the face & hair. Another additional modifier can be a translucent material diffuser, fitted with or without the grid, this will further soften the light quality.


Another popular modifier, the softbox can come in all shapes & sizes. Often used in portraiture as a flattering key light, a softer alternative to the beauty dish. Softboxes are however very convenient in many roles, not least of them being the provision of a gentle fill light. Large softboxes are even used as the main background for a shoot, giving a bright background plus a pleasing rim lighting type of effect. One added advantage of the softbox is that it can be folded down for easier transportation when out on the road.

Softbox Illumination


Where there is a need for significantly constrained light fall, the snoot comes in to its own. Effectively just a reducing tube of black metal, the snoot will provide very localised lighting. This could be as a background spot, as a tight rim light or just to emphasise one feature. The snoot may be fitted with a grid to further control light spread. On a note of caution, extended use of modelling lights within a snoot is not recommended due to the risk of over heating.

Strobe Reflectors

Many studio flashes will be provided with a standard reflector to help throw the produced light forwards towards the subject, as photographed below. There are replacements available that give a specified angle of spread. Useful to have around but the light can be strong & harsh without modification.

Standard Reflector Illumination


These are perhaps the first modifier that the photographer comes across. They are relatively cheap, easily transported and surprisingly flexible. Umbrellas fall in to two distinct categories – translucent & reflective.

Translucent umbrellas (sometimes called shoot through) are used by facing the light source in to & through the umbrella, producing a softening effect not dissimilar to that of a softbox.

Reflective Umbrellas are as the name suggests, used to reflect the light back at you subject. The reflective material can have various hues and will thereby imbue the diffuse light with a colour tone as well. The umbrellas photographed above are: a reversible gold / silver one that gives the option of warming the light with the gold reflector (as shown below); and a white/silver umbrella which has a silver reflector faced with a white translucent material, thus giving a very neutral colour effect.

Shooting with Speedlights?

The use of these modifiers is not restricted to large studio strobes; there are now mounting options to allow their use with many portable flashes, like Canon & Nikon’s own. Photographed below is a gridded beauty dish on a Canon Speedlite via a Bowens  S type converter; compare how similar its output is to the strobe illuminated version above. There are also, of course, modifiers that are specifically made for these devices, such as the Stofen diffusers. Indeed, the Stofen diffuser is invaluable fitted to the Speedlite when using a beauty dish; helping to ensure proper distribution of light within the dish.

In Summary

Whether simply looking for that ideal flattering portrait light or creating an imaginative & surreal lighting set, lighting modifiers are a fabulous resource for the photographer. They are not shackled to the studio but can be used in many locations and various light sources.

I am sure that we shall use & refer to these modifiers in future articles.


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