December 22, 2009

why use a flash modifier that is black?

This question repeatedly comes up as response to the various articles here on my favorite light modifier – the black foamie thing.

For anyone new to this, here are the two main articles on how I use a piece of black foam to flag my on-camera speedlight:
the black foamie thing,
my choice of flash modifiers

The question invariably comes up:
why a piece of black foam and not a white card or a piece of white foam?

Looking at this image, which also appears in my book on flash photography:

I wanted to place my light source (ie, the area where I am bouncing off), at some point to the right of me, and above me, but also a little to the front of the bride. This way her arm and back to me, are under-lit compared to her face (which we see here as a reflection in the mirror.)  Instead of a plastic light modifier or something similar, I used a black piece of foam to flag the light from my speedlight.

An open card with white on the one side might have thrown too much light into the room again, flattening the lighting.  I don’t want that.  I want directional light.  I want that interplay between light and shade.  I want contrast.

And in an opposite way of reasoning, a snoot might be too specific, since I do need a fairly large area to bounce effectively.

I like this piece of black foam. I can roll it a little bit with my left hand, and turn it into a snoot if I want to.  I can also roll it back and open it up.  Ultimately, this piece of black foam is simple, yet flexible.  And this is what I use if I need to bounce my speedlight with a fair amount of control over the flash’s light.

Then there are also two other perennial questions:

– if there are no bounce-able surfaces, then you have to make other plans.  You either have to use different light modifiers, or use direct flash, or ideally, off-camera lighting.  You will obviously not be able to use a piece of black foam to flag yourself and your speedlight out of all kinds of impossible scenarios.  You have to be adaptable in how you use light.

– yes, I do use other flash modifiers at times.  But indoors, (and even outdoors), where I have surfaces I can bounce my flash off, this piece of black foam gives me the control I need.   And the results are there in the images that I show on this site, as well as my work as a wedding photographer in New Jersey.

As a summary, I want to emphasize this point again – there is no quick fix.  I am staunchly against the idea of a cure-all approach to lighting and flash photography.  Specifically, the idea that a single piece of plastic attached to your flash will give you the best results all the time – that idea will hold you back.

You have to constantly adapt your technique by considering your subject, the scenario you’re in .. and the results you’d finally like to achieve.

 

help support this website

{ 23 comments. } Add a Comment

1 Roger December 22, 2009 at 8:04 am

Hello Neil,

Thanks for the detailed explanation, I follow your excellent blog daily and always learn something new.

Thanks for sharing,
Roger
Jhb

Reply

2 William December 22, 2009 at 11:07 am

Neil,

Thanks for the site and the book on flash techniques. I just picked it up.

I am a member of a photo sharing message board of over 100k members. “What diffuser should I get?” comes up at least once a week. I always refer people to your site and your book.

Your suggestions are practical, easy to understand and follow, and inexpensive. I have been able to completely change my approach to flash photography.

My pictures really do look like they weren’t taken with a flash!

Reply

3 Stephen December 22, 2009 at 1:27 pm

From a basic physics perspective, black absorbs all colors of the visible light spectrum, while white reflects all colors of the visible light spectrum. Thus, a black foam piece is highly directional, since any light striking its surface is effectively absorbed, while the other light “rays” travel to their destination. With a white foam piece, the foam will reflect any light that hits it, which not only results in more light in the scene, but possibly unforeseen contrast effects, as you have light “rays” going off in additional directions.

Using a black foam piece does mean you’re wasting some of the flash’s power, but the directional light is more important than the wasted flash energy.

Reply

4 Tom December 22, 2009 at 3:39 pm

Hi Neil,

Do you bounce of colored surfaces and how to you correct color casts in PS?

Thanks.

Reply

5 Daniel Sullivan December 22, 2009 at 3:53 pm

Thanks for again explaining this, Neil. I disagree that the view that this technique “wastes” any light from your flashgun. Your subject receives the same amount of light weather or not you flag a part of it from your scene and that light that you do flag is already being wasted and people and other foreground objects that are NOT your subject. I see no difference. Cheers!

Reply

6 Patrick Kelly December 22, 2009 at 5:59 pm

Hi Neil.
Stumbled across your website a couple of hours ago and have just ordered your book on lighting. This site has to be the most informative and enjoyable explaination of controlling flash that one could come across. Absolutely brilliant!

Reply

7 Brian January 2, 2010 at 7:53 am

Hi Neil,

Thanks to your generous sharing of skills and techniques, I am now a committed user of the “Black Foamie Thing”. One of its great advantages, as I have learned, is that it is infinitely variable. Thanks to the bendy properties of the foam, it can be easily moved up, down and around the speedlight to customize each shot.

Thanks again and all the best for 2010.

Reply

8 Fred - San Antonio, TX January 5, 2010 at 6:54 pm

Really great stuff here. I was feeling kind of stupid, now I realize I’m not stupid, I just have a lot to learn. I’m okay with that.

Thanks for taking the time to help this group understand the dynamics of flash photography. I’ll be at my computer for the next two weeks trying to absorb it all.

Reply

9 Sanele Chadwick January 7, 2010 at 8:16 pm

Neil,

I can’t thank you enough for the insight you have so willingly shared on your website. You are an inspiration for a young and enthusiastic photographer from New Zealand who is always experimenting with lighting. I can’t agree enough with you how you describe a photographer should be ‘adaptable’ with their lighting.

I’ve been trying to find one of these ‘black foamie things’ for a while now in NZ and can’t! Still on the lookout thought :)

Cheers Neil!
Sanele Chadwick

Reply

10 ted February 14, 2010 at 5:02 pm

Congratulations on such a great and successful site! i just found it and cannot believe how much common sense info you so generously present.
Thank you for your sharing.
Can you give me an idea of material that the “black foamie thing” can be made from? What are the common everyday names which I can look for in local stores?
Many thanks.
ted

Reply

11 Neil February 15, 2010 at 1:21 am

Ted .. Michaels art stores carry it. It’s called art foam.

Neil vN

Reply

12 Kirk April 14, 2010 at 10:52 pm

Loved your book. It gets you thinking. Hate it when I can’t bounce flash and have to use Larry Foo’s (cousin from China) peanut bottle, but it works. Have all of your recommendations: gels, white/black foam with velcro, stofen, and the peanut bottle. You are correct when you say that there is no one solution.
I am amazed how many photographers try to bounce flash off of a black church ceiling some 60 ft away. Canon system with 580 ex II gun, studio strobes. I personally don’t think that the thick piece of plastic in the can top allows much light upwards. I think it bounces it all over, sides, back, front and very little upwards. I will be using as many of your suggestions that I can during my weddings. thanks for the 411 A book worth reading and studing.

Reply

13 Kirk May 9, 2010 at 11:32 pm

An add on to my comments. I was showing my wife the different flash modifiers in our bedroom with two large mirror doors. You can take a photo of your self and see how the modifiers reflect light. Gary Fong’s does indeed bounce light upwards to the ceiling as well as to the sides. The biggest problem is no contrast and total lack of control. This is sometimes a good thing.

Reply

14 Chris May 16, 2011 at 7:50 am

Neil,

How can I purchase a similar product instead of having to make one up?
I have looked everywhere on the web and cannot find something similar to your invention, they all have a white backing.

Please help :-)

Reply

15 Stephen May 17, 2011 at 10:43 am

Chris,
If you really want to buy a black modifier, you can buy one here:
http://www.abetterbouncecard.com/

Otherwise, a black modifier is simply art craft foam that you can buy at a craft store for about $1.50 USD for a 8″x11″ sheet that you can cut to size.

Reply

16 Neil vN May 18, 2011 at 12:22 pm

Chris … I use Art Foam that I buy from an art supply store, like Michaels. And two hairbands.

It is decidedly low-key and home-made.
This really is about the technique and direction of light, rather than being about a specific device.

Neil vN

Reply

17 Stephen March 4, 2012 at 5:49 am

What thickness of art foam sheets are these? Do you have a Michael’s part number?
What is the final cut down size to fit your flash head?
how does the Velcro glue side stick if its going onto felt/foam?
anyone have a video on step by step instructions to make one?

Reply

18 Neil vN March 4, 2012 at 5:25 pm

Stephen .. I’ve collected all the posts about the black foamie thing on that linked page. It’s all in there.

Neil vN

Reply

19 N. M. April 17, 2012 at 3:37 pm

Hi Neil
Thanks for all the great info, what’s your way to correct colour when bouncing off coloured walls, do you use custom white balance and a grey card ?

Thanks so much

Reply

20 Neil vN April 18, 2012 at 5:34 pm
21 Steve November 15, 2012 at 6:29 pm

I have found that the difference between a black foamie thing and a white foamie thing diminishes the farther away the bounce surface (ceiling, wall) is. If the bounce surface is fairly close, the black foamie thing reduces the light at the subject by 1/3-1/2 stop compared to white foam, and it reduces light spray, which generally improves contrast.

Reply

22 deb July 23, 2013 at 10:25 pm

Hi!

So I am pretty good at off camera flash but always looking to get better…what do you suggest when you are in total darkness…let’s say a field with nothing to bounce off of. I have a lot off these kind of weddings, maybe they have a fire pit going and that is all. I am not a huge fan of the gary fong but do use it on occasion. Do you think the black faomy thing would work well in basically no ambient light or walls to bounce from?

Thanks!
Deb

Reply

23 Neil vN July 27, 2013 at 12:55 am

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: