Light. Of all the considerations a photographer must grapple with in life, light is the only constant. In its most natural form, light from the sun is bright and direct. Yet, as photographers we spend much, if not most of our time modifying it to suit our needs. When you think back to childhood and see all the family pictures in a cherished album, note how many of those photos are taken in direct sun with deep, dark shadows in everyone’s eyes. Direct light, whether it comes from the sun or any other light source is a photographer’s worst enemy, and controlling, or modifying it determines who we are as artists. Shooting with manufactured lighting in a studio setting brings with it the same problems as you would face outside with the sun, but the techniques used to modify studio lighting are significantly different from the ones used outdoors.
Here’s something we’re all familiar with. Take a flash and mount it on a light stand then slip an umbrella over it, reflect the light off the umbrella and you have a nice, soft, indirect light source, a light that is much softer on a face. It’s a good start. You can further modify the light by using an umbrella with a silver lining for more brightness and contrast, or a gold umbrella for warmer tones (which is great to use on people in the winter when their skin is paler) or you can take it a step further by using a transparent umbrella and shoot through the umbrella for an even softer effect. Umbrellas don’t take up much space and having several in your tool kit is an invaluable aid to light modification. Used creatively, umbrellas can even be useful outdoors, especially when balancing sunlight to avoid harsh shadows with a gold umbrella.
See more: How to Choose an Umbrella
There is nothing more universally utilized in the photography world than the softbox. Small ones are used extensively in still life, where they often show up as “tents,” which is essentially a four-walled softbox, where you place an object inside the box and light your subject from the outside. It’s particularly good for shiny objects like watches and jewelry.
If you are photographing people, you could conceivably create a giant tent, but that would hardly be practical. So, when your subject is a real live human being, you might want to try using a softbox, which is nothing more than light placed inside a box with a reflective inner surface which has one or more screens to diffuse the light outward. Unlike umbrellas, which throw out a wide arc of light, the softbox will, by virtue of its walled sides, constrict and direct the light even further, and due to the internal reflectors will not spill, or “waste” light. Some models have extended fronts that direct light even further.
Two factors weigh heavily in using a softbox: the size of the box and the distance from the light to the subject. A two foot by three foot box (24″x36″) will be a practical tool for just about every possible situation, but they also come in very small sizes and very large ones as well. The degree of light output will depend on the wattage of your flash, the surface of the material inside the box and the number of baffles between the flash head and the outside world.
There is one great advantage to using a softbox, aside from its obvious use as a “beauty” light, particularly when photographing people. Stray light from an umbrella will often “waste” a lot of light, but a softbox will create a concentrated light source, giving you much more control over the distribution of the light. What makes the softbox such a great choice as a tool is the egg crate. An egg crate is a fabric modifier that fits over the front of the softbox and effectively concentrates the light with even greater accuracy. You can get either a full egg crate, which as the name suggests, is in the shape of small boxes where you put your . . . well, you get the idea. It channels the light both horizontally and vertically. Louvre panels are also available to control the light in just one direction, either horizontally or vertically, depending on your needs.
Whichever way you choose to go, remember that direct light, while it can sometimes provide wonderful photographs, will not be the answer to most situations. It is the photographer’s ability to control and direct light that adds greater depth to pictures. Your skills will certainly increase with either umbrellas or softbox and it is only a matter of finding which modifier works best for you and go from there!