As you can see, recently, I have been doing an evaluation of all the gear I have in the studio. This time, I looked at a dozen or so light modifiers that I own and selected my top five favorites. Rather surprisingly, they are far from what “conventional” light-shaping tools are.
There are a lot of light-shaping tools I have and use in the studio. If you’re looking for a breakdown of each and every tool I have in the studio, a separate article is coming. In this one, however, I will talk you through my favorite ones, the ones I really wanted, and the ones I take everywhere if I can. The prices range from $3,000 to $10, and only two out of five are made by Profoto. Can you believe it? I use modifiers that are not made by Profoto. The most attentive and nasty commenters must be checking the name on top now. For everyone else, let’s dive in.
This may be the most useful tool in my toolbox. While I rarely get it out for something where I don’t have creative control, I pretty much always use it for personal projects. Color is one of the foundations of my work, as my style is characterized by a dream-like, almost theatrical setting. One of the things commonly found in theaters is colorful light. There is almost no chance some sort of colorful light is not used at some point. Concerts, performances, and shows are nearly exclusively lit with bright and vibrant, colorful light. I prefer lighting the background with various colors in the most unusual ways to achieve what I desire. It is not uncommon to see me lighting the subject with gels as well. I use both Profoto and other gels. Some years ago, I picked up the OCF I gels and found them to be incredibly useful, as they come in pre-cut shapes and show the f-stop loss due to each color. For example, a blue gel will lose around four stops of light, while a yellow less than one stop. Naturally, the Profoto gels are expensive, especially the OCF II version. This is why I go to the nearest stage and sound shop and pick up some heat-resistant gels from Rosco or Lee. They are a little expensive, but being heat-resistant means I can put them on a Pro-Head and not worry about them melting. OCF gels will melt as soon as you turn on the modeling lamp on a D1, D2, or any Pro-Head.
I will be honest: a year ago, I never thought I’d be purchasing this exact light-shaping tool. Not until I saw one for sale for next-to-nothing (by ProFresnel standards, it was, I promise), right around Christmas, and right around payment for a job arriving. I splurged and bought it. The reason I did was that I knew all too well how amazing the light from it is. Being a Fresnel, it concentrates the beam like no other light-shaping tool and throws that beam far-far away. The light can travel ridiculously long distances, meaning that it is a great on-location tool. I can save battery life by using a Fresnel. It weighs 9 kg, and it is a nightmare to carry, but I still take it on location. In the studio, this is the light modifier I use in combination with mylar foil, mirrors, magnifying glasses, and as a key light. Because the beam is so strong and optically concentrated, it is easy to control it to create eye-catching reflections, shapes, and patterns. Below, you can see how I used a Fresnel behind the model as a rim light and then reflected the beam to use as a key.
This is a modifier that you have to own. While I am not a big fan of softboxes, I do use this more often than I thought I would. While not a fan of ultra-soft light, and as someone who rarely gets a large octa out, I do quite like the soft but crispy light that a 3’ gives. Used at the right distance, it combines diffused but also hard qualities of light. This softbox is primarily used with a grid, as I like to control the spill of my light. I have used it for a variety of applications, from kicker to key and everything in between. The softbox is good with the baffles, but if you take them out, you also get a pretty interesting result. What you get is a relatively hard light that is quite crisp, perfect for creating beauty images, as well as fashion work. It does show all detail in the face, which can be quite unflattering. Nonetheless, you should try taking both baffles out of your softboxes and shooting bare-bulb, such as in the image below. Another idea is to take the outer out and leave only the inner.
Bought initially to build sets, it is now used to reflect spots of light on the model. It is almost like an optical snoot, in the sense that it reflects a very hard and direct light. For example, the square you see in the picture below was created using a mirror. In essence, it is like an extra light source for no money. While reflectors are cool and they sure are able to provide “an extra light source,” they are not a replacement for a good mirror. It can be used for reflecting sunlight as well, which makes it a very useful thing to have around your studio. In fact, there are a lot of mirrors that I use in the studio, sometimes, even several at the same time. It is perhaps one of the most fun things I do lighting-wise. Costing next to nothing, it has enabled me to create images that look and feel expensive.
A go-to for anything beauty, this true parabolic softbox by Godox is a good companion of mine. I have used it both for commercials and for creative assignments. It is quite a versatile light modifier, with good throw and light quality. One thing about the para that stands out is the ability to produce crispy but soft light. By that, I mean simply that while it produces a light that shows good detail, it does it in a very flattering way. It is a brilliant key as well as a fill light. There is a reason so many photographers pick a para over anything else. It is an expensive but worthy of investment modifier.
As you have understood, anything can be a light modifier, as long as it interacts with light. It can be any surface, any object, or anything that achieves your goal. Recently, I began to experiment with crystals, bottles, and other objects that modify the visual outlook of the image. There is no judgment of one being a “light modifier.” There is simply curiosity and an open mind that is ready to try anything that seems cool. I strongly encourage you to look outside the softbox or at least experiment with the amount of diffusion in the softbox.