Does SIZE and SHAPE Really Matter?

Come on, get your mind out of the gutter, I am the photo guy not Dr. Ruth!  I am talking about the size and shape of our main light modifiers.  When we start into photography, we select our main light modifiers by what the speakers and other professional photographers are using that we admire.  We typically don’t question or really understand why they use soft-box X or octobox Z, we simply assume they know what they are talking about and if it is good enough for them it is good enough for us.

The problem with this blind trust when select a main light modifier is that the majority of speakers are sponsored by who, lighting and light modifiers companies, right?  What light modifiers are the most expensive, the largest ones, right?  Have you noticed how many speakers suggest we buy the huge 4×6 feet light boxes over the last 5 to 10 years?  There was one speaker that suggested getting 2 4×6 soft-boxes to create a virtual wall of light.  Do we see a pattern here?  Call me a cynic, but I never trust anyone completely that stands to make money from me taking their advice.  Years ago there was a speaker at a convention professing the only film he would ever shoot is Kodak, “he would never think of changing”.  Exactly 10 months later I went to his seminar which came to our city and he was saying that Fuji film was the best.  I guess Kodak wouldn’t sponsor his tour!

The idea here is you should know the best possible tool for the job at hand. First we will talk about size.  In general, the larger the size the softer the light source will be relative to the distance to the subject, meaning a 2 foot light box placed 6 feet away from a subject will produce a harder light quality than a six-foot light box at the same distance.  This is important to understand. Next you have to understand, the larger the light source, the less control you have over where the light will strike the subject. If you deal with perfect people, you want to illuminate them from head to toe. however in our ever enlarging society not too many bodies can stand to be illuminated in a portrait.  In today’s world you are better using a smaller light source closer to the subject, achieving soft light and only illuminating the area of the face and body you want the viewer’s eye to go to.

Large light sources do have their place. We use small to medium light boxes in our areas of the studio that we shoot our head and shoulders/waist-up portraits in. To achieve the same look in our lighting in  3/4 and full length poses we have the same light box in a larger size, since we will have to position the light box further from the subject in a full length composition.  Although this sounds like a “duh” statement, there are many studios/photographers that use one light box for all their portraits and try to get the same light quality and characteristics in their full lengths and their head and shoulders.   I am not saying don’t use really large light sources, however you should know when to use them and when you would be better off using something smaller.

Shape is irrelevant, I can do anything with a square shape that I can do with a round or octagon.  The argument about the shape of the catch-lights in the eyes is based on opinions from people who have way too much time on their hands and like hear the sound of their own voice.  Square, rectangular, round or octagon is really a choice of what you get used to working with and have on hand. I have them all I don’t really prefer one over the other.

Much more important than the shape of the light box is the type of front panel it has. Most soft-boxes have a flat front panel with some being recessed, meaning the front panel isn’t at the very end of the light box, but inset  two to three inches (giving it a lip which directs the light more and reduces the light rays coming off the side of the main beam of light).  The second type of front panel is the convex front panel or front panel that curves out passed the side walls of the light modifier. The Halo and Starfish series of lights are known for this type of front panel.

One isn’t better than another, each is suited for a specific purpose. A flat front panel, especially a recessed front panel gives you more control over your light. The beam of light is controlled to go where you place it and fall-off or fade in intensity very quickly on the subject. I use this type of lighting in corrective lighting and take it one step further using grids on the recessed soft box is place light precisely where I want it to appear.

A light with a convex front panel, like the Halo and Starfish are excellent for feathering and just using the edge light it produces for very soft, very beautiful light, provided this is the kind of light you want to light the subject with. Lighting style needs to coordinate with everything else in the portrait.  Too many photographers use one lighting style (the same lighting they learned from the speaker that suggested their light modifier) for every  style of portrait and type of client. Your first client is a refined lady in an elegant dress in which you coordinate with a very classic tapestry background and elegant chase.  Shouldn’t the light be selected to fit that same style.  Your second client is a high-class “biker chick” with leather jacket, 6 inches of cleavage and thigh high boots, shouldn’t the style of lighting be different for the obvious style differences.  Maybe something with a little more contrast or little more fashion oriented?

Since we specialize seniors we use a huge variety of lighting styles and light modifiers.  Large and small, flat front and convex, strip lights, ring-lights and spots.  Each tool has its use and your job is learn the  correct use for the different tools!


~ by jeffsmithbooks on August 15, 2010.

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