December 4, 2022


Capturing Magic Moments

My 5 favorite light modifiers as a professional photographer

5 min read

As you can see, I recently did an evaluation of all the equipment I have in the studio. This time I looked through about a dozen light modifiers that I own and picked my five favorites. Surprisingly, they are a far cry from what “conventional” light shapers are.

There are many light shapers that I have and use in the studio. If you’re looking for a breakdown of all the tools I have in the studio, a separate article follows. However, in this one I’m going to talk to you about my favorites, the ones I really wanted and the ones I take with me wherever I can. Prices range from $3,000 to $10, and only two out of five are made by Profoto. Can you believe it? I use modifiers not made by Profoto. The most perceptive and nasty commenters must now check the name at the top. For everyone else, let’s dive in.

gel filter

This is possibly the most useful tool in my toolbox. While I rarely use it for something I don’t have creative control over, I pretty much always use it for personal projects. Color is one of the foundations of my work, as my style is shaped by a dreamlike, almost theatrical setting. One of the things you often find in theaters is colored lights. It is almost impossible that some kind of colored light will not be used at some point. Concerts, performances and shows are illuminated almost exclusively with bright and vibrant colored light. I prefer to light up the background with different colors in the most unusual way to achieve what I want. It’s not uncommon for me to also light the subject with gels. I use both Profoto and other gels. A few years ago I picked up the OCF I gels and found them incredibly useful as they come in pre-cut shapes and show the glare loss due to each color. For example, a blue gel loses about four light stops, while a yellow has less than one light stop. Of course, the Profoto gels are expensive, especially the OCF II version. So I go to the nearest stage and sound shop and get heat resistant gels from Rosco or Lee. They’re a little pricey, but since they’re heat resistant, I can put them on a pro head and not worry about them melting. OCF gels melt as soon as you turn on the modeling lamp on a D1, D2 or other Pro-Head.

Profoto ProFresnel Spot and Barndoors

I’ll be honest: a year ago I never thought I would buy this exact light shaping tool. Not until I saw one for sale for next to nothing (by ProFresnel standards, I promise), right around Christmas and just before paying for a job. I pounced and bought it. The reason for this was that I knew only too well how amazing the light is. As a Fresnel, it focuses the beam like no other light shaping tool and throws that beam far, far away. The light can travel ridiculously long distances, meaning it’s a great on-site tool. I can save battery life by using a Fresnel. It weighs 9kg and is a nightmare to carry but I still take it on stage. In the studio this is the light shaper that I use in combination with Mylar sheet, mirrors, magnifying glasses and as a key light. Because the beam is so powerful and optically focused, it’s easy to control 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.

Profoto 3′ Okta

This is a modifier that you must own. While I’m not a huge fan of softboxes, I use these more often than I thought I would. While I’m not a fan of ultra soft light and as someone who rarely pulls out a big okta, I really like the soft but crisp light that gives a 3′. Used at the right distance, it combines diffuse but also hard light qualities. This softbox is mainly used with a grid as I like to control the flare beam. I’ve used it for a variety of uses from kickers to keys and everything in between. The softbox is fine with the baffles, but when you take them out you get a pretty interesting result too. What you get is a relatively hard light that is fairly clear, perfect for creating beauty images as well as fashion work. It shows all the details on the face, which can be quite unflattering. Still, you should try to take both bezels out of your softboxes and shoot with the bare bulb, like in the image below. Another idea is to take out the outside and leave only the inside.

mirror for $10

Originally bought to build sets, it is now used to reflect points of light on the model. It’s almost like an optical snoot in the sense that it reflects a very harsh and direct light. For example, the square you see in the image below was created using a mirror. Essentially, it’s like an extra light source for no money. While reflectors are cool and can certainly provide “an extra light source,” they’re no substitute for a good mirror. It can also be used to reflect sunlight, making it a very useful thing in your studio. In fact, there are many mirrors I use in the studio, sometimes several at the same time. It’s maybe one of the funnest things I do in terms of lighting. It costs next to nothing and has allowed me to create images that look and feel expensive.

Godox para. 128

This true Godox parabolic softbox is a must have for everything beautiful and a good companion of mine. I’ve used it for both commercials and creative assignments. It’s a fairly versatile light modifier with good throw distance and light quality. One thing that stands out is the ability to produce a crisp yet soft light. By that I simply mean that while it produces a light that shows good detail, it does so in a very flattering way. It is a brilliant key as well as a fill light. There’s a reason so many photographers put a para above everything else. It’s an expensive but investment-worthy modifier.

Final Thoughts

As you understood, anything can be a light modifier as long as it interacts with light. It can be any surface, object, or anything that achieves your goal. Recently I’ve started experimenting with crystals, bottles and other objects that change the visual appearance of the painting. There is no judgment as to whether one is a “light modifier”. There’s just curiosity and an open mind willing to try anything that seems cool. I highly recommend you look outside the softbox, or at least experiment with the amount of diffusion inside the softbox.

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