Photographers are always looking for ways to soften the light when doing portraits. The light from an accessory flash can be quite harsh so there are a wide range of modifiers to soften the light for more pleasing portraits. Here are my three favorites.
One of the simplest, smallest and least expensive light modifiers is the Sto-Fen Omni Bounce. It slides over the head of the flash – it’s as simple as that. Since it is held in place by friction, you need to buy one that is the right size for your model of flash. Prices range from $12 – $25 depending on your flash model. With the Stofen-Omni Bounce in place, you can angle the head of the flash up to combine the softer light output of your flash with bounce light off of a white ceiling. Depending on the distance to your subject, you may need to increase the ISO setting on your camera by one or two stops, something you may need to do any time you use bounce flash, even without a Sto-Fen Omni Bounce.
Larger, more expensive ($30), and more effective at softening the light is a Honl Speed Snoot/Reflector. This flexible reflector serves two purposes. Curved slightly and with the flash head pointed up at an angle (photo above), it bounces soft light back on to your subject. Rolled into a tube (photo below) with the flash pointed at your subject, it shoots a narrow beam of light onto your subject for special lighting situations. You can get a “silvery” reflective surface for neutral light, or a gold reflective surface to warm up the light from your flash.
The Snoot/Reflector attaches to your flash with a Honl Speed Strap (an additional $10). The Speed Strap wraps around the head of your flash with a hook and loop (Velcro) material. No glue necessary. It is easy on and easy off. The Speed Snoot-Reflector Velcro’s to the Speed Strap.
Rogue Flash Benders ($30 – $40 depending on the size) function in the same way as the Honl Speed Snoot/Reflectors, and the Velcro attachment strap is built into the reflector (which increases the price). On the one hand, this is more convenient since you won’t lose the strap. On the other hand, if you have more than one reflector (like a silver one for neutral light and a gold one for warm light), you are paying for more attachment straps than you are using at any one time.
The best accessory for softening the light from your flash is to use a reflective photographer’s umbrella ($22). This is a soft as you can get with an accessory flash, but the flash has to be off of the camera and mounted on a tripod or light stand. An umbrella adapter ($34) will hold the flash and the umbrella and attach them to a tripod (photo above) or a light stand.
You will also need a way for your camera to talk to the off-camera flash. If your camera has a built in flash, or if you have two accessory flash units, the least expensive way is to get a Wein Micro Slave ($35). It goes on top of the umbrella adapter and flash slides into the top of the Micro Slave. When the Wein Micro Slave sees the flash from your camera, it fires the off-camera flash. When used with a Wein Micro Slave, your off-camera flash must be used in manual mode. Automatic flash exposure is not a possibility.
If you want auto-exposure, you will need two accessory flash units that can talk to each other, or you will need an infrared remote. If you have two flash units that can talk to each other, set the flash ratio so the on-camera flash provides less light and the off-camera flash provides more light. The flash manuals will show you how to set the flash ratio, and also how to set up the two flash units so the on-camera flash controls the off-camera flash. the flash exposure is automatic.
Canon and Nikon both make infrared flash controllers. Canon’s is the ST-E2 ($248). Nikon’s is the SU-800 ($240). They will both control one of more off-camera flash units with automatic exposure, and if you are using more than one flash, you can set the power ratio between the flashes. This is a great way to do off-camera automatic flash.
The prices in this article as effective as of the date this article is written. Prices fluctuate and sometimes a lot..
All of the accessories in this article can be purchased in the Goodies section (pages 4-7) of my photography store (powered by Amazon.com with Amazon’s great prices, excellent ordering and shipping system, and guarantee). If you order from my store, you help support this site.
This is one in a series of articles: The Best of the Best: Photography Recommendations For The Best Photo Gear, Books, Software, and Online Photo Labs
More information about lighting, flash exposure, and using flash units in both automatic and manual modes can be found in my book, Digital Photography Exposure for Dummies.