Shaping Light with Photographic Tools

Part of Digital Photography Lighting For Dummies Cheat Sheet

Several photography tools can solve the too-much or too-little light problem by modifying the light you have available or the light you add with flashes and strobes. You use tools like reflectors and diffusers to change the quality of light in your digital photographs. Here’s a rundown of the tools photographers commonly use to modify light:

  • Reflectors can be any surface that you use to bounce light back into your scene. A reflector can be a wall or a ceiling, or it can be a specially made tool for photographers, which usually comes in the form of a circle covered in a reflective material. Some are collapsible and can fold up to a fraction of their size. These reflectors come in a variety of colors:

    • Gold reflectors change the color of the light to a warmer glow. The light ends up looking more like the light from sunrise or sunset, so it can cause color problems in the studio. Gold reflectors work best outdoors under natural light.

    • Silver reflectors tend to reflect the greatest amount of light back at the subject and don’t change the color of the light.

    • White doesn’t reflect as much light as silver or gold, but the light it does reflect is even and soft. It works really well for close-in work, both on location and in the studio.

    • Mixed reflectors have surfaces striped with silver and white or gold and white. These reflect less light than their solid counterparts. They’re useful when you need a medium amount of light, with just a touch of silver or gold in the light.

  • Diffusers reduce the intensity of light. You put them between the light and your subject, and they make the light softer. Specialized diffusers for shooting in the studio, called soft boxes, go over the light and produce a soft box of light. Another type of diffuser is called a shoot-through umbrella because it looks like an umbrella that you’d use to keep the rain off but is made from semi-opaque material.

  • Gobo is the term for something (anything) that goes between the light and the subject and modifies the light. Following are some common gobos:

    • Snoots are tubes that are used to aim lights. Snoots restrict all the light except for that in the exact direction the flash or strobe is pointed. The more constricted the tube, the smaller the resulting light. The longer the tube or snoot, the more defined the shape of the light.

    • Barn doors are hinged flaps that you position on the sides of the light to control the spread of the light. They can be adjusted to control how the light spreads out.

    • Grids go in front of the light and control the spread of the light in much the same way as a snoot. The size of the grid is responsible for the spread of the light — the smaller the holes in the grid, the tighter the light.