Learning about Light Modifiers

With a single speedlight mounted off-camera, you can get great portraits… if you use a light modifier such as a beauty dish or umbrella. All you need is a subject that isn’t 

Today’s digital cameras and flash systems make it really easy to set up a simple home studio. You can do really great things with just a single flash, but you’ll need some accessories to help you shoot with the flash off-camera.

While the first step for getting good portraits is to take the flash off the camera, you should also consider using a Light Modifier on your flash. Here are some common light modifiers and examples of the results they produce.

For this set-up, I put my camera (Nikon D800e) onto a tripod and I set the pop-up flash to Commander Mode. This setting triggers my main flash (SB-900) without contributing to the overall exposure. My SB-900 was set up to the left of the camera on an inexpensive light stand with a Photoflex shoe-mount multi-clamp. I then proceeded to test several lighting scenarios:

  • Bare Flash (no modifier)
  • 18″ Beauty Dish (custom built as a DIY project)
  • 40″ Umbrella
  • 40″ Umbrella with cover removed (shoot-through umbrella)
  • 40″ Soft Box

The idea behind using light modifiers is two-fold. First, you are increasing the size of the apparent light source. Second, you are modifying the way the light wraps around your subject. Both of these factors allow you to create shots that reduce the appearance of harsh shadows with differing degrees.

Results after the jump…

My rogues gallery of self-portraits (un-retouched)

Bare Flash

Without a light modifier, you get nasty, harsh shadows. Yuck!

As you might expect, even with the flash off-camera, the light from a single flash is direct and harsh, and creates very strong shadows. It also creates a shadow on the wall behind me that is distracting.

Beauty Dish

A beauty dish creates softer shadows than a bare flash and helps eliminate shadows on the background.

I built a DIY beauty dish for under $20 following some instructions over at David Tejada’s Small Strobes, Big Results blog. The beauty dish I constructed was 18″ diameter and painted white on the inside. I had to position the light fairly close to me (about 18″ away) for the best results. Notice how the shadows are still strong, but not nearly as harsh as those produced by the bare flash. Also notice how the light falls-off quickly; there are no harsh shadows on the wall behind me. This kind of light is good for dramatic portraits or when you want to emphasize cheekbones. Notice also how the background (wall) is lit directionally.


With a 40″ umbrella, the light is even more diffuse.

Next I attached a 40″ Photoflex Convertible Umbrella. With an umbrella, you get a much larger apparent light source. The light reflects from the inside of the umbrella onto the subject. The light is somewhat more diffuse, and the background is relatively dark.

Shoot-Thru Umbrella

By removing the black cover and shooting the flash through the umbrella, you get a soft look with light spilling onto the background.

I took the black cover off my umbrella and repositioned it as a shoot-through diffuser. The result is fairly soft light that also projects onto the background.  I often shoot my portraits this way, especially when I want to have some light on a backdrop that I’m using.


A soft-box produces diffuse, directional light that does not spill into the room.

I used a Four-Square 40″ soft-box for the last shot. Although the soft-box is similar to a shoot-through umbrella, light does not exit the solid sides. This can be useful for side-lighting where you don’t want to spill light onto your background. The look from the soft-box is similar to the other large-light options, with just slightly stronger shadows that then shoot-through umbrella. Again, this is due to the directional nature of the soft box; the umbrella lets light spill out into the studio.


If you want to do portraits, you need good lighting. You don’t need lots of lights, but light modifiers are a must. Otherwise, your shots will look harsh and unprofessional. My personal favorite light modifier is a convertible umbrella that I can use either traditionally or as a shoot-through. Umbrellas aren’t very expensive, either. Softboxes are more expensive, but they give you control over the light by preventing spill. I like my FourSquare because it can easily be hand-held by an assistant if you add the optional handle grip. Beauty dishes give slightly harsher light, but that can be very good for those dramatic glamour shots. Just remember to keep the dish in close to your subject to get the best effect. You can build a beauty dish yourself for under $20 if you are willing to take the time to do so.

Once you’ve got your shots, you can always clean them up in post. Here, I used Tiffen Dfx3 software to add some nice background lighting effects. I think I’ll put this shot in the yearbook!

I used Tiffen Dfx3 to add the color gel background and lighting effects for a final touch.

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