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How to Use Modifiers for Speedlights to Light Creative Portrait Photos

Welcome back to 'Introduction to Flash Photography'. In today's lesson, we're going to be talking about Speedlight Modifiers.

Flash Modifiers

If you remember back, there are four qualities of light. They are intensity, colour, direction, and texture.

A Flash Modifier is anything that we use to change one of these qualities. By using manual flashes, you have already taken control of the intensity or power of your flash. And by taking your flash off camera, you've already given yourself quite a bit of control of the direction that your light is coming from, since you can now move your flash independently of your camera.

In this lesson, you're going to learn how to take control of the next two qualities of light by using speedlight modifiers that affect the colour of light and the texture of light, and a little bit of the direction of light.


The first quality of light that we're going to talk about is the Colour of Light.

Every light source emits light in a certain colour range or colour temperature. When you're photographing a scene with more than one colour of light source, you can get some very undesirable results. Here's an example of a photo with different colour light sources:

On the left side, there's a very orange, or warm light. On the right side is a very cool, or blue light. The way that we fix this is by changing the colour of one of the lights to match the other. If one of those lights is your flash, it's probably easiest to change the colour of your flash.

Just like we did in our balancing flash lesson, we want to use our camera's white balance setting to correct for the ambient light source. In this case, the ambient light source was a tungsten bulb, so you can set your white balance to tungsten.

Here's a frame with only ambient light, and our white balance adjusted to tungsten:

Now when we add flash, we see that the light coming from the flash is very blue.

In order to balance the colour we want to make the light from our flash more orange. The way you change the colour of your flash is by placing a colour gel over the flash head. The correct gel to use in this case is what's called a CTO gel. CTO stands for Colour Temperature Orange, and as you can see, this makes our image much better and more colour balanced.

If this is not quite enough, you can always double up on the CTO gels to make it a little bit more orange.

There are tons of products out there to change the colour of your flash, but I'm always a big fan of simple and inexpensive. What I've done is put pieces of Velcro on my flash, and the other side of the Velcro goes on these small pieces of coloured gel. What I like most about this is that I can actually store the gels on my flash so I have quick access. I can also stack the gels on top of each other to get more of an effect.

If all you're looking to do is regular colour correction and colour balancing, then you'll probably need just a couple of CTO gels, a couple of CTB gels, which are Colour Temperature Blue, and a couple of fluorescent correction gels, which are green.

Of course, if you want to get creative, you can get gels in just about any colour you can imagine. Once you start using multiple flashes, it's really fun to mix different colours of light.

Flash Diffusion

Normally, when you talk about lighting modifiers, the ones that come to mind are devices that are used to affect the texture of light coming from your flash. And within that, most of them are aimed at making your flash a softer source of light.

This is another situation where the number of modifiers available to soften or diffuse light can be completely overwhelming. So, I'm going to narrow the field down to a few of my favourite lighting modifiers and how I use each of them. 


First on the list, and by far the one I use the most, is a 43" Shoot Through Umbrella. The reason that I love this umbrella so much is that it gives me an incredible quality of light, but it goes way beyond just a great light. I also love that just like a regular umbrella, I can fold it up into a tiny space and carry it around easily and it sets up in just a few seconds.

Another great thing about umbrellas is that they are very versatile. You not only get a nice soft round light source, but you can turn your umbrella around and put a cover on it and get a little bit harder light source with a little bit more direction. Of course, one of the best features of an umbrella is that you can get a really good one for about $20.

Because of all of this, I would say that if you were going to only get one lighting modifier, this is the one to get. So now that you know why I love my shoot-through umbrella so much, let me show you how to use it and set it up.

If you're going to be using a shoot through umbrella, what you want to do is pick up an umbrella swivel.

It mounts right on top of your light stand, and has an angled hole through it where your umbrella shaft is going to insert.

The only drawback to using an umbrella is that a shoot through umbrella also bounces light all over the room when you're shooting inside, and it can sometimes be a little unpredictable. Often you lose your sense of direction with the light because you get light coming from all over the place.


When that becomes a problem, or I want a little more control over the direction that the light is coming from, the modifier that I turn to is a Softbox. A softbox is basically a box with the reflective interior and the sheet of diffusion material covering the front.

Many of them will also have a second sheet of diffusion material, inside, to remove hotspots. The best thing about a softbox is that you get a large, soft light source, and a pretty good control over the direction that the light is traveling. Softboxes come in many different sizes and shape combinations. You can get square ones, long ones and octagonal ones, and you can get them in sizes anywhere from a few inches across to 20 feet by 40 feet.

The one I have here is a 16" square soft box. It's not very big, but it gives me a pretty soft light when I can get it close enough to my subject.

The most common time for me to use a softbox is when I'm shooting indoors, and I need to create more drama with a more directional light. I also use softboxes in two light setups as a fill light.

Beauty Dish

A beauty dish can also be considered as a soft light source, but it's quite a bit harder than umbrellas and softboxes, so it's somewhere in the middle.

A beauty dish also doesn't rely on diffusion to soften the light, and instead, it directs the light into its parabolic surface and this spreads the light out and then focuses it onto your subject.

The effect is hard to explain, but I would describe the texture of the light as liquid and crisp. It's as though the light has the ability to fill in and flow around the imperfections of the skin, while at the same time, giving us good contrast between the highlights and the shadows.

Beauty dishes are definitely not as forgiving as umbrellas or softboxes, and beauty dishes are more expensive and take up a lot of space. It might be a good idea to wait on this modifier until you've tried the other two first, and you really, really want to see what a beauty dish does.


The final lighting modifier that I want to talk about is a Snoot. The purpose of a snoot is different than any of the other modifiers we've talked about so far, in that, a snoot does not soften our light. In fact, what a snoot does is block the light from our flash from going anywhere except right where the snoot is pointed.

This is extremely useful when you want to create a very moody or dramatic lighting effect. Very similar to a snoot is what's called a flag. A flag is basically the same thing as a snoot, except that it only blocks light on one side of the flash.

You can buy snoots and flags for your flash, or you can just make them out of cardstock put some Velcro on them (like we used with our gels) and place them on your flash.

So, now that you have a pretty good understanding of what each of these modifiers is, I'm going to go over a series of photos that I've taken with them to show you what each of these flash modifiers does and how they differ from each other.

This first photo is an example of what it looks like when we use the shoot through umbrella.

The umbrella is about maybe a foot away from our subject, and you can see the catch lights in her eyes (they look just like the umbrella). This is the softest light that we're going to get out of my setup, and I really like the way it looks.

In this next image, what we've done is we've taken the umbrella and we've turned it around and we put the black cover on, so it's now a reflective umbrella instead of a shoot through umbrella.

As you can see, when you compare it to the last image, there's quite a bit more contrast, and the image seems to pop a little bit more. The light's not quite as soft, and so we are going to see more imperfections in the skin, but it's still soft enough. It's very flattering, and at the same time, it's interesting light to look at.

For this next image, I used the beauty dish.

I moved the beauty dish a little bit closer than I had the umbrella, so the light's still pretty soft, but what it did do is give us quite a bit of fall off under the chin and under the neck.

The beauty dish is definitely less forgiving of a light modifier than the other two. I've had a really hard time getting the beauty dish to look good all by itself, and I usually use some fill light to make it look better. In the above image, I attempted to do that with a little bit of a bounce, as you could see in her right eye, there's a little bit of light bouncing back up.

In this next image here, we've moved on to the softbox.

One of the things I love about a softbox, is that we now have a lot more control over the light. Instead of the light spilling all over the room and illuminating the background, it's just illuminating our subject. I'm not always a big fan of the catchlights that come from using a softbox because they're square, however, in this example, I tilted the softbox 45 degrees and I quite like the results.

Finally our last image, which is shot with a snoot.

The snoot is basically zeroed in, so the light's pretty much just hitting her face. Behind our subject, you can see the fall off around her, where it's just barely going past where her shadow is. We get a very hard light, very defined shadows, but it seems to work for this image. I probably would like my light to be a little bit softer, but I wanted you to see what a snoot looks like on a shot like this.

Alright! We've finally come to the end of learning all about the theory behind using a flash in our photography. In our next lesson, we're finally going to be putting everything that we've learned so far into practice on an actual shoot.

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