Comparing 7 Common Light Modifiers

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When assembling a lighting kit, it’s very difficult to know which modifiers are best for the type of work you want to do, and sometimes you don’t know or are discovering what you want to shoot. There are reflectors, umbrellas, square and rectangular softboxes, octabanks and a wide variety of accessories to shape and alter the quality of light.

So how do you know what’s best for you?

In many cases you don’t. If you have no experience then you don’t have any preferences formed and most of the tech talk is of no use to you and makes little sense. One persons preference may not at all be what you like and it may not work within your budget.

I’ve chosen 7 common light modifiers of varying sizes and shapes, and I’m using modifiers that are , for the most part, inexpensive. Nothing very small and nothing terribly large. This is not an in-depth review, nor is it a light modifier showdown.

Rather than doing what everyone else does, I’m not going to talk about the physics of light or the design of the modifier and I’m not going to try to define certain characteristics as better or worse. Those things are subjective and I’ll leave that to you.

Images are shown in black and white to make it easier to see and judge luminosity values without being influenced or distracted by hue and saturation.

I believe that seeing the differences and subtleties will have much more impact, so I’ve chosen to show comprehensive images to help you form your own opinion and preferences after seeing the distinguishing and often subtle characteristics of each modifier.

Which Modifiers Were Tested?

1. Speedotron 22 inch Beauty Dish (white dish with silver deflector)
2. Elinchrom 33 inch Umbrella (pebbled silver, used as reflective bounce)
3. Photoflex 24 x 32 inch Softbox (white interior, double diffusion)
4. Elinchrom 39 inchDeep Octa (pebbled silver, double diffusion)
5. Cheetah 43 inch Umbrella Softbox (silver interior, single diffusion)
6. Photoflex 36 x 48 inch Softbox (white interior, double diffusion)
7. Generic 68 inch Parabolic Umbrella (smooth silver)

speedo_22_bd

1. Speedotron 22 inch Beauty Dish

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2. Elinchrom 33 inch Umbrella

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3. Photoflex 24 x 32 inch Softbox

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4. Elinchrom 39 inch Deep Octa

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5. Cheetah 43 inch Umbrella Softbox

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6. Photoflex 36 x 48 inch Softbox

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7. Generic 68 inch Parabolic Umbrella

Once you get past shape and size, you have the interior and various levels of diffusion that contribute to the quality (quality refers to the characteristics of the light, not whether it’s good or bad) and how its going to look on your subject.

My umbrellas have silver interiors, the deep octa has a pebbled silver interior, the softboxes have white interiors, and the beauty dish has a white finish. The silver interiors will tend to have slightly more contrast and a little more punch, where the white interior tends to be more diffused with smoother transitions and lower contrast. The silver interior with one layer of diffusion is a common configuration for many because it offers a certain softness and diffusion, while still offering some punch and crispness.

Method Of Testing

The method of testing and comparison is very important, especially if you really want to see the nuances that differentiate one modifier from another. It’s very common to see comparisons of modifiers where the testing is done using fixed distances from light source to subject, and in my opinion that’s not the best or most accurate way to really see the differences.

The selection of a light modifier should be based on the concept and intent of the shot, coverage needed for the subject area and quality of light or the desired effect. When we want to light large areas we don’t select small modifiers and we don’t position them 1 or 2 feet from the subject. On the other hand, if we’re shooting a tight head shot then we can very effectively use a small light source placed fairly close to the subject, and get really nice, soft light. No hard rules here; just general and common practices.

Method of metering, exposure, and depth of field were exactly the same for each image and the only thing that changed was the modifier and the modifier to subject distance. All testing was done using an Elinchrom RX 600 strobe.

Light Setup and Placement

The distance from light source to the subject is based on each modifiers sweet spot, which is generally 1 to 1.5 times the diameter (round and octagonal light sources) or the longest edge (square and rectangular softboxes). For my comparison, I’m positioning the front of the modifier at a distance of 1.5 times that modifier measurement.

Light placement is not intended to demonstrate the best or optimal lighting. Placement is only for the purpose of letting you see and compare highlight, shadow and transitions under controlled and consistent conditions.

The next two diagrams below show the horizontal and vertical placement of the light source relative to the subject.

light_position_h

Horizontal Orientation: The light source is positioned 45 degrees off the horizontal axis of the lens with the center of the light pointed at the center of the face.

light_position_v

Vertical Orientation: The light source is raised up at an angle of approximately 35 degrees with the center of the light pointed at the center of the face.

Let’s See The Light

This first set of images show the entire face and neck being modeled by each light modifier. Highlights, shadows and transitions are easy to see, directionality of the light source is defined, and catch lights (reflections of the light source in the eye) are visible and in a nice place.

Clicking on the name of the light modifier will display that image, making it easy to switch and compare. Clicking on the image itself will display the full size version of that image. To best see these images and the differences as you switch between them, I suggest viewing on a computer or tablet rather than a phone or handheld device.

Shadows and Transitions

The next set of images are tighter crops on the shadow side of the face. Transitions from highlight to shadow can be easily seen on the temple, the side of the nose, cheek and neck.

Clicking on the name of the light modifier will display that image, making it easy to switch and compare. Clicking on the image itself will display the full size version of that image. To best see these images and the differences as you switch between them, I suggest viewing on a computer or tablet rather than a phone or handheld device.

The Catch Lights

Any light source placed in front of the subject is going to create a reflection of that light source in the eye. For many people, the appearance of the catch light is the deciding factor in their choice of modifier while others don’t pay as much attention to catch lights. The catch light clearly shows the shape of each modifier and in the case of umbrellas or modifiers that are used in the reflective bounce orientation, you can also see the light stand and the strobe as black silhouettes. Not always desirable but at times, irrelevant.

This last set of images are tight crops of the eye. You can see the catch lights as well as shadows around and under the eye.

Clicking on the name of the light modifier will display that image, making it easy to switch and compare. To best see these images and the differences as you switch between them, I suggest viewing on a computer or tablet rather than a phone or handheld device.

A Word About Output

Despite varying amounts of light falloff from center to edge of each modifier, there were no indications that any modifier couldn’t or shouldn’t be used due to that falloff, and I see no reason to scrutinize over that at this time.

Overall, when it comes to output, there are some basic and common things I’ve found. At the same meter reading from the same distance, just about any modifier that has a single layer of diffusion will produce about the same output. A modifier with two layers of diffusion will meter roughly the same as any other with two layers of diffusion. Similar modifiers don’t vary all that much when it comes to output or falloff.

Of course, there are metal reflectors that have polished silver interiors and can produce as much as 3 stops more than another standard reflector. Beauty dishes typically produce greater output than a standard softbox, but typically, a beauty dish is used because of the contrast and rapid falloff when used at its sweet spot and not because of any difference in output.

Summary

In the past, I’ve done comparisons like this and detailed all the differences in the shadows and the highlight to shadow transitions but as stated at the top of the article, I thought it best to just show the images and let you decide what you like and form your own opinions.

In some cases, there can be significant differences between modifiers but in the end, if they are used in or around their sweet spot, you’ll get a pleasing and similar quality of light. That’s not to say that you must use a modifier at its sweet spot. All that really matters is that you like the light. If it turns out that the light you like the most is produced by a $50 modifier and the light you like the least is produced by one that costs ten times that, then so be it.

Don’t be afraid to play. Don’t follow trends. Move lights around, experiment and have fun.

© 2015, Robert Mitchell. All rights reserved. All content and images are the sole property of Robert Mitchell and Robert Mitchell Photography.

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8 Comments

  1. Great article, really well executed and very infrmatiove, thanks for sharing 🙂

    Reply
    • Thank you Matt. I’m glad you enjoyed the article and found it useful. My pleasure.

      Reply
  2. Superb article and comparisons, thanks for doing these tests and making the results public. Now can you come to my next magazine portrait shoot and tell the creative director to not criticise my chosen mod for the job because someone once told them non-models only look their best with medium-sized softboxes? (only happened once, but, well, wow! 😉

    Reply
    • Hi Charles. Thank you. Every so often you’re going to find clients, producers and art directors that feel compelled to comment on the gear. The best thing you can do is to show them they have nothing to worry about and that you’re capable of producing the results they want using other means.

      Reply
  3. As someone only recently adding off camera lighting and portraiture to my photography I found this article very helpful. One thing immediately jumped out at me and that is just how similar the quality of the light is. Yes, there are noticeable differences, but really only differences photographers with all of our pixel peeping will ever notice. With the exception of the generic parabolic and it’s overall darker look, I seriously doubt the average client would.

    Reply
    • Hi Jeff. You’re absolutely right. In most cases, it’s only photographers that notice or are aware of the nuances between light modifiers. We (photographers) are picky and can obsess about lighting to get it just right and exactly as we would like. Obviously, some modifiers allow for further modification with grids, diffusion, etc. but for the most part, and for general portraiture, the control comes in the form of knowledge and not from the purchase of expensive modifiers.

      Reply
  4. Thanks so much for doing this comparison. I’m new to lighting and have been using a flash through umbrella so far so this comparison makes decision making easier for me. To me it;s first the 24×36 box then the beauty dish and then the Cheetah. Although the Cheetah does a great job noting that it’s very cheap compared to the others.

    Now my question is, would you get the same results if you use these mods for an upper body shot where the lights would be farther away? Or the result from the 36×48 box for such a shot would be similar to what the 24×32 gives for a headshot?

    Reply
    • Hi Rose. When you move a light modifier further from the subject, the overall quality of light changes. That doesn’t mean it’s bad or won’t be flattering light, but it will change. The larger the light source, relative to the subject, the softer and more diffused the light.

      This is all very subjective and based on your own creative vision. In general, if you like soft, diffused light, then I wouldn’t make a 24″ x 32″ softbox my main light for anything more than an upper body shot, if you’re trying to achieve fairly even light with consistent and gradual falloff.
      If your preference is to create window light with a rectangular catch light, then a 36″ x 48″ would be a great start. If your preference is round catch lights and want to make things simple, then a collapsible octa or something like a Softlighter (or knockoff) would be perfect.

      Reply

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