Choosing the Right Light Modifier

“The mind is like an umbrella. Its most useful when open.”—Walter Gropius

It doesn’t matter whether you’re working with speedlights or monolights, one of the best ways to improve the quality of the light is by using an umbrella or a lightbank and each one has their own unique advantages and disadvantages. Your decision should ultimately be governed by one important rule: The closer the light is to the subject the softer it is; the further away a light source is the harder it becomes.

Um-brellas provide a round, broad and soft source of lighting that can em-ulate natural outdoor lighting. Light-banks are rec-tangular, square or some-times oct-agonal and emulate the kind of soft, direct-ional lighting that’s produced by a window. Because umbrellas create broad lighting, they’re easier to use. You just point an umbrella at a portrait subject and bang, zoom nice soft lighting! And because rain versions have been around for 4,000 years umbrellas are simpler to construct and less expensive to purchase making them  perfect for photographers that new to using lighting equipment. They’re cheap too. You can buy a 45-inch White Satin umbrella with Removable Black Backing for less than 15 bucks. In short, umbrellas are inexpensive, easy to use, and produce nice looking lighting.

Kim was photographed with a Alien Bee 800B and 51-inch Paul C Buff White PLM parabolic umbrella ($29.95) against a Carbonite background from Silverlake Photo, using a Canon EOS 60D with EF-S15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM lens (at 35mm) with an exposure of 1/60 sec at f/11 and ISO 200.

Lightbanks are controllable and available in large sizes that when placed close to a subject produce soft, yet directional light. There are lots of accessories, such as grids or louvers, that make the lighting even across the plane of light. What’s the downside? Even an inexpensive lightbank, ain’t that cheap so  that directionality comes with a price. And then there’s your welcome to the world of lighting ratios. Unlike umbrellas, lightbanks require a little knowledge of keeping a balance of main versus fill light that won’t produce too contrasty lighting—unless of course that’s exactly what you want to produce.

The truth is that there is no “one size fits all” solution to lighting. Just as you will select the right lens and ISO for a natural light photograph, when it comes to working with artificial light you need to select the right tool for the job at hand. But if you;re new to the portraiture game, take a look at umbrellas.

Screen Shot 2016-03-26 at 9.13.43 AMIf you’re interested in shooting portraits and how I use cameras, lenses and lighting in my in-home studio, please pick up a copy of Studio Lighting Anywhere” which is available from with, as I write this, new non Prime copies selling for$17.50 (plus shipping,) cheaper than the Prime price.

Author: Joe Farace

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