Flash Modifiers: Make Your Flash Bigger or Smaller

When working with flash, especially off-camera flash, the size and quality of light play a huge role in how that light paints your subject.  In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Alice was presented with one potion to make her large and another to maker her small – same Alice, different size. By utilizing a range of add-on flash modifiers you can effectively change the size and nature of light your flashes emit – same flash, different light.

Size Matters

As covered in my previous article Exploring the Benefits of the On-Camera Bounce Flash, the effective size of the flash in relation to the subject has a great affect on the softness or hardness of the light. Essentially the larger the light source and the more it can reflect off of other surfaces, the softer the light will appear on your subject. Think of the smooth light and soft shadows of a cloudy day, or the silky, all-encompassing light of flash bounced off a low ceiling. In contrast the narrow, directional light of straight flash, with its hard and distinct shadows, can be used to accentuate textures and forms. It’s up to you as the photographer to determine which type of light will best suit your subject.

Be sure to read the my article entitled Flash Slaves and Off-Camera Flash to gain a basic understanding of the benefits of being able to place light where you want it…

Soft Serve

There are no hard and fast rules when photographing people but very often a soft, diffuse light, especially coming from either side of the subject, offers a flattering image. As discussed previously, a flash bounced off the ceiling or wall can provide a beautiful light that wraps around subjects. But what to do if you are photographing a party in a cathedral or other location where the ceiling refuses to reflect the light back down?

A DIY white matte board reflector is an inexpensive and ad hoc way to spread and soften the light from your flash. You could use an envelope or a piece of paper in a pinch, too.

Starting at the least expensive solution, a very simple and effective method to spread the light from your flash can be accomplished with an index card, an envelope or a piece of white matte board. Rubber bands or some Velcro can hold the card against the back of your flash head, and with your flash-head pointed up in the 60–90 degree range, will allow the flash head to illuminate and reflect off the card, throwing a wider spread of light than the flash head alone could do.

Before I started purchasing more durable and dedicated flash accessories, I started with a 6”x9” piece of matte board cut into a fat ‘T’ strapped to the back of my flash and slung around in my ‘Two-Armed Bandit’ technique (detailed in Flash Slaves and Off-Camera Flash ) to capture flattering pictures of people in my event photography.

A Velcro-attached softbox is a versatile and convenient attachment to soften the light from your portable flash.

Keeping things small, simple and portable in a modest camera bag, you could use any of the DIY solutions above, or you could invest in a manufactured solution that might be more durable and flexible in the long run. Most camera stores and online sources carry a range of flash modifiers from Lumiquest, Honl and others. Many fold flat and store quite compactly and can be employed very quickly to enlarge the effective size of your flash, whether they take the shape of softboxes or bouncer/diffusers.

A standard umbrella setup is actually a quite inexpensive way to make your flash into a BIG soft light source. With a small flash as the light source you'll need to move the umbrella fairly close to your subject.

Sheets and Umbrellas

There are limits to the size of attachments that can be strapped on to your flash, and while the small units are great for run’n'gun settings, if you need to cover a larger area with light you are going to need to step up to a larger surface. The inexpensive DIY solution involves a white sheet or large white matte board which, with some ingenuity, can be rigged up for your purposes. Firing your flash at a large card or sheet with the head zoomed out to its widest setting can give you a nice, big, soft light source.

We all have to be resourceful when shooting and while the sheet or matte board method certainly works, for not too much money at all ($75 or less), you can step up to an umbrella with stand and pivoting flash mount. This classic setup is great for lighting larger objects, full body shots or several people, depending on the size of the umbrella.

Remember this: The larger the surface that you are flashing, the more power you are going to need from your flash. If you’ve become a whiz after exploring Flash Slaves and Off-Camera Flash, you may be ready to try firing more than one flash onto a single umbrella or large surface. Using more than one flash allows each set of batteries to do much less work, and you’ll find your flashes ready to fire again more quickly.

This photo shows the small snooted area around the eye on the left.

This photo combines the localized snoot flash with an umbrella fill from the right. Light on the hair is courtesy of the sun behind the subject.

Squeezing Light

Sometimes you want your light smaller so you have to ‘squeeze’ it. Restricting your flash from spilling all over the place gives it a very directional quality, which you can use to achieve many effects. You may want to rake a spotlight across the eyes and nose of your subject. Perhaps you want to bring out the detail and texture in an object or surface – a hard, directional light at a low angle is a great way to make textures really pop.

To achieve this effect you’ll want to choke the light coming out of your flash head. The accessories to help accomplish this are called grids and snoots. A grid is a honeycomb-shaped filter that you put over your flash head – the light travels through the straight lines of the grid and creates a small, controlled patch of light. Likewise, a snoot fits over your flash head and funnels the light into a small tube also creating a small and well-defined patch of light. Several manufacturers offer off-the-shelf Velcro-attached grids and snoots which provide great quality and convenience. Do-it-yourselfers will find many DIY plans for similar accessories on the web.

A simple snoot made from black aluminum foil wrapped around the flash head. This turns your flash into a spotlight. The size of the opening restricts the light to a small area and the foil is easily bent to adjust the exact size of the spot.

When squeezing light, one very handy piece of gear is simple aluminum foil or better yet, black photographers’ foil. Either can be quickly shaped and molded around your flash head to make a simple snoot that is easily modified to suit.

Mix It Up and Experiment

Whether you are purchasing commercially manufactured flash modifiers or trying some of the homegrown options, be sure to play with both hard and soft light. Soft can be flattering and seductive and hard can be pointed and illuminating. Pick a subject and try throwing different types of light at it to see how its character changes. When you are ready, try throwing both types of light at once and see how you can mix and match your way to something really interesting. What follows is an example of some experimenting that I did with flash modifiers to create a dynamic image of a child’s static toy:

I needed to create a photo illustration using a child’s toy and I wanted to get some drama out of a stationary piece of molded plastic. This photo shows the detailed but bland look of using two softboxes on portable flashes to the left and right of the subject to get an even, all-over lighting:

I needed more drama in the illustration and I wanted to call attention to the menacing head of the creature. I used a piece of black foil to create a snoot to narrow the beam of a flash aimed only at the creature’s head. A softboxed flash to the left provides some fill light for the body.

This is what the set-up looks like – black cloth on the ground, softbox flash on stand to the left and the foil-snooted flash on the right.

After playing around with various lighting setups, I decided I needed to make the creature come alive with movement. The shot that captures what I was looking for uses a snooted flash concentrated on the head but leaving the far arm in silhouette. Ambient light for the background and a slow shutter speed create a sense of menace and movement.

Categories: Articles and Lighting Techniques.

Tags: bounce, bouncer, diffuser, digital, directional, DIY, effect, filter, flash, foil, grid, hard, head, image, Light, modifier, mount, photo, sheet, snoot, soft, softbox, source, umbrella, and zoom.