Photography is all about capturing light, and there are many different types of light modifiers available to change and shape it. Like many photographers, I prefer shooting in 100% natural light if possible, but when I need to create artificial light, I reach for my portable, battery-powered and reliable flashes.
I have collected a few different types of modifiers over the years to shape and form the light a flash creates, so I decided to do a quick flash modifier comparison to see the differences in the light that each one creates.
In this shootout, I will compare the following flash modifiers:
- A bare, unmodified Canon 580 EX II speedlite (the newer version is the Canon 600EX II-RT)
- A Westcott 6 x 7″ PocketBox Mini Flash Softbox
- A Photoflex 45″ Convertible Umbrella (both shoot through and bounced)
- A Westcott 43″ Apollo Orb softbox (with and without the front diffusor panel)
I used myself as the model (it’s cheaper that way) and shot these images on a black backdrop in my studio, which my wife calls “The Living Room.” The images below are straight out of the camera – no processing. I shot them with a Canon 5D Mark III and a Canon 85mm f/1.8 lens. Exposure settings were ISO 400, f/5.6, and a shutter speed of 1/100th. I mounted each light roughly 45 degrees above and 36″ from my head to achieve a Rembrandt style lighting effect (notice the small triangle of light under my eye furthest from the light).
Since the head of a flash is so small, the light it creates is hard and very directional. In the photo below you can see the hard shadow my nose creates on the left side of the image. In fact, the majority of the right side of my face is in hard shadow – you can barely see my eye.
I’m not saying this hard light is a bad thing. Shooting without any flash modifiers may get you the result you are looking for. Let’s just use this as our baseline for comparison.
Mini Flash-Mounted Softbox
In this next image, I mounted a Westcott 6 x 7″ PocketBox Mini Flash Softbox to my flash. I would still consider this softbox a small light source, but adding this flash modifier does make a slight difference. The light still only reaches the half of my face that is closest to the light, but the shadows have started to lose their hard edge, but only slightly. This mini softbox also helps reduce the hotspots (extreme highlights) on my face.
If you’re looking to buy your first light modifier, an umbrella is a great place to start. They are inexpensive and easy to use – they open and close just like rain umbrellas. The Photoflex 45″ Convertible Umbrella has the advantage of being either a shoot-through umbrella (fire the flash through the umbrella onto your subject) or a bounce umbrella (fire the flash into the umbrella and bounce the light back onto your subject). The first image below demonstrates a shoot-through umbrella. The second image shows the light created by a bounce umbrella.
You can see how “soft” the light looks because there are no hotspots on my face – just soft, even light. Shoot through umbrellas tend to throw light everywhere, which could be a good or bad thing. Here, the light wraps around and begins to light up the side of my face that is away from the light.
When using the Photoflex as a bounce umbrella, you will notice a bit more light falloff. The quality of the light is similar, but it does not reach as much of my face.
Westcott Apollo Orb Softbox
The first light modifier I ever purchased was the Westcott 43″ Apollo Orb softbox. This flash modifier changed my perspective on using flashes. First of all it is quite large, and the bigger the light the softer the light. You fire a flash into the octagonal-shaped orb, and the silver-lined inside bounces bright, crisp light onto your subject. It also comes with a white diffusor panel that attaches with velcro onto the outer edge to soften the light even more.
It is built on an umbrella frame, so it is easy to use and folds up nice and compact. Similar to the umbrella above, the light wraps around to illuminate the far side of my face. The first image below does not use the diffusor panel, and the second image does. The differences are subtle, but I prefer using the diffusor when I want a softer, more even light.
Flash Modifiers Comparison: Catch Lights
Finally, I wanted to compare the catch lights that each flash modifier created in my eye closest to the light. From all of the above images, I prefer the catch lights from the shoot through umbrella and the Orb with the diffusor. The large, white surfaces create beautiful catch lights that bring a subject’s eyes to life. The hard shadows from my eyelashes in the Bare Flash photo also stood out to me. Who knew something so small could create such a large shadow?
I’ve enjoyed this experiment, and it is good to know what each light modifier I own is capable of doing. I hope this post inspires you to test your lights to see what kinds of light you can create.
I’d love to hear what you think! Leave a note in the comments below and tell me about the different light modifiers you like to use.