Quality of Light In Photography

Often I have people ask me for my advice on what is the best starting setup for someone breaking into photography and my answer is simple, “One great lens, one great light.” I first explain the importance of great glass and why you need that one, “go-to” lens that fits your photographic style then I move on to my favorite part of my answer, lighting.

Calendar Photo Shoot, Grotto

We were careful, for safety reasons, to use portable battery packs when working around water. Notice the Chimera strip soft box is firmly attached to an anchored C-stand.

My first words are always “light is to an image what blood is to your body and without it there is no life. God forbid, but if your doctor told you that you need a blood transfusion are you going to tell the doctor that you want to save money so you’ll settle for ‘B’ or ‘C’ blood instead of the more expense grade ‘A’ blood? Of course not, and you should have the same thought process when it comes to lighting.”

Most professional photographers have a medium softbox as their general use light modifier, but the flash head determines the initial quality of the light that passes through it. Not all lights, or studio flash units, are built the same. Some, like Hensel and Profoto have tighter color temperature standards, or how light is measured in Kelvin, others don’t. Ideally you want a light like a studio monolight flash head, that provides for a consistent flash output color temperature of 5400 to 5500 Kelvin, with a UV coated flash tube.

The light modifier, or softbox quality varies in light intensity and quality output based on the interior surface, the internal diffusion panel, plus the front diffusion panel. A softbox with a silver interior will provide more contrast than a softbox with an all white interior. The thickness and quality of the internal baffle and the front diffusion panel, will determine the intensity of the emitted light, as thicker fabric panels reduce final light output while thinner panels increase light output.

Chimera Octaplus 3

This Chimera Octaplus 3 is one of my favorite, portable softboxes and is attached to a small, Hensel Integra 300 compact monolight.

Besides the rectangular shape of a medium softbox, they also come in an octagon shape like two of my favorites, the Chimera Octaplus 57 plus the Chimera Octaplus 3, and they too provide their own unique light qualities. The Octaplus 57 is easily configured as a 5-foot octabox, or 7-foot as seen in my Periscope—Live Underwear Photo Shoot feature. There are also speciality sofboxes that provide a more narrow light path known as strip boxes. Yes, there are many choices, but the medium softbox is a photographer’s workhouse light modifier that will not let you down and because of this plus it’s portability, we carry one at practically every photography workshop or adventure I conduct.

Think of a medium softbox, which usually measures three-foot by four-foot in size, as an artificial light source modifier designed to mimic filtered window light. Filtered window light has it’s own unique light quality that changes throughout the day based on the angle of the sun, and whether or not it’s a clear or overcast sky. Obviously this isn’t necessarily the same with a softbox, partly because a studio flash head outputs artificial light consistently and the only variable of a studio flash head is the light intensity as adjusted by the photographer.

Artificial light at its origin is actually a harsh light quality. The flash head is small in diameter, thus the light is specular or harsh and high in contrast. This harsh light quality produces hard shadows and unflattering high contrast when photographing models so most  photographers use a softbox attached to the front of their studio flash head to change the quality of the light emitted to a more softer and flattering light.

A light modifier, especially a softbox, helps you control the light while softening the light too, however, if you don’t understand your light modifiers, you can actually make your light return to harsh, even with a softbox. Simply move the softbox further back from the subject, thus making it smaller in size relative to your subject, and the light begins to become harsh again plus the contrast in your photo will increase so it’s important to note, the closer to your subject, the better the light quality when it comes to softer, forgiving light.

The rule of thumb when it comes to lighting is that the larger the light source, or in the case of the softbox, in relation to the size of your subject, the sweeter or more flattering the light. There is one trade off, as light is softened, the contrast in your captured photo is reduced, though not necessarily flat contrast as found with photography umbrellas.

Softboxes produce one light quality while reflectors or umbrellas produce another quality of light, though all three can give you the same amount of light output necessary for the same lens aperture setting in creating an image. You have to decide what light quality you are trying to achieve for your photographic style.

Let’s think about our environment for a second, the sun, which is bigger than the Earth, is millions of miles away, but it is our primary light source—without the sun, we’d have darkness and death. Because the sun is so far away from the Earth, on a bright sunny day, the sun appears small in the sky. In essence it’s a small, specular light that creates harsh shadows and hard lighting. When the clouds roll in they act like the front diffusion panel of a softbox, in addition, the clouds are closer and larger in proportion to our size on Earth, thus the light becomes softer with lower contrast.

California Sunbounce Reflector, Maui Photography Workshop

California Sunbounce makes reflectors in many sizes, this one being used at our Maui photography workshop mimics the size of a medium softbox. The quality of reflected light is different than the quality of direct light from a softbox, though both are flattering to your subject.

Speaking about the outdoors, umbrellas are great when it rains outside, but they will bring bad luck if opened inside. In photography, umbrellas scatter light all over the place and I rarely use them unless I want to illuminate a background. I like to control the light that hits my subject and it’s much easier with softboxes than an umbrella. Softboxes will give you further control when you add a honeycomb, or egg-crate fabric grid on the front of the box.

Most photographers do not light with gridded softboxes because of economics, as grids for softboxes are about as expensive as the softbox itself—but if you can afford them and are about total light control, I recommend them. Grids also narrow the light path, hence slightly increasing the contrast and creating more defined shadows plus produce great catch-lights in your subject’s eyes.

There are many other light modifiers that change the quality of light, even homemade modifiers, but when it comes to someone entering photography for the first time my advice is still the same, one great lens, one great light, but part of that light should include a great medium softbox and my favorite is the Chimera Medium Super Pro as part of the softboxes in my photography gear box.

I can’t stress the importance of light to a photo and I stand by my original saying, “light is to an image what blood is to your body and without it there is no life.” While I’m not in the medical field, I really don’t think that blood comes in grade A, B, or C, but lighting and light modifiers do come in various quality grades, and if you take your photography serious, you won’t settle for less than top-grade lights and light modifiers. With that I close, and as always, please don’t forget the men and women who serve proudly to protect our freedoms, God Bless them, their families and friends, Rolando.


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