April 30, 2015

review: comparing various light modifiers for on-camera flash

Many of the tutorials and articles on the Tangents blog deals with getting the best from your on-camera flash. My approach has always been one of – what technique would give me the best light? Of course, there are so many different scenarios we could find ourselves in – so we have to adapt to where we are, and what we want to achieve.

With on-camera flash, I’ve always pushed back against the idea of there being a single do-everything device that will make your flash photography look better. Specifically with light and lighting, We need to be aware of where we are, and then adapt to get the best results. It really is up to us as creative photographers, to either take control or to adapt.

This is the main motif in my book, Direction and Quality of Light – once we understand and see this underlying principle of lighting – that it is all about the direction and quality of light – we have much more range in our abilities as photographers. And that has been my approach to using on-camera flash as well – I want good clean light.

Over time there has been many requests for a comparative review of the various on-camera flash modifiers on the market. So I decided to use a representative selection of them, and show the results from them in a very specific environment – bounce flash indoors. Keep in mind that I did not edit the photos of Adrienne, so that you’d have an idea of how much glare there is on her skin with some of the modifiers.

The focus of this video review is limited to just that scenario then. We don’t look at how these flash modifiers perform outdoors, or in venues where there isn’t much of anything to bounce flash off. The caveat of course is that we might just surprise ourselves when we find out how effective bare speedlight bounce flash is indoors in cavernous areas: high-ISO bounce flash photography.

Still, there is a huge amount of curiosity about how these flash modifiers compare and how well they fare against each other. Check out the video, and follow the linked articles for more.

 

summary

Long-time readers of the Tangents blog will already have a clear idea of where this was headed – the moment you throw light forward from your flash with one of these light modifiers, there is direct flash – and this affects the look of your photograph, and also limits your results. It comes down to this – you have to put thought into your lighting and how you use flash. There is no short-cut here that any $50 device will solve for you. It really is up to you to control your light.

 

black foamie thing

I use the black foamie thing (BFT) as a truly inexpensive flash modifier to flag my on-camera flash to give me lighting indoors that looks nothing like on-camera flash. The piece of foam (Amazon), can be ordered via this link. I cut the sheet into smaller pieces of (very) approximately 6×7 inches.

The BFT is held in position by two hair bands (Amazon), and the BFT is usually placed on the under-side of the flash-head. I slide it up and down, and roll it back, as is needed to just give enough of a lip to block direct flash. So the effective size does vary!

The linked articles will give clearer instruction, especially the video clip on using the black foamie thing.

 

related articles

 

a little bit of homework

How do you think these light modifiers would compare to each other outdoors or in a scenario where there is nothing to bounce light off?

 

video tutorials to help you with flash photography

If you like learning by seeing best, then these video tutorials will help you with understanding flash photography techniques and concepts. While not quite hands-on, this is as close as we can get to personal instruction. Check out these and other video tutorials and online photography workshops.

 

on-camera flash modifiers

 

bouncing the flash off non-white surfaces

When I bounce my flash off colored surfaces, then I rely on the latitude of the RAW file to give me enough to work with to adjust the color balance. Most often though, the surfaces available to us are warm tones, and then adjusting the Kelvin setting gives us good enough results in-camera already.

Here are examples where I bounced off non-white surfaces, including brickwork and wood panels, and some info on how I handled it in post:

With Blue or Red surfaces, you will most likely have a discontinuous spectrum if you bounce your flash off that.  So for those instances, and times when there is nothing to bounce your flash off:

 

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{ 41 comments. } Add a Comment

1 Phil April 30, 2015 at 6:48 pm

Very informative and interesting. How are you compensating for coloured walls when bouncing the flash off them ? Do you correct the cast in post process? Also, what happens if the walls and ceiling are dark ?

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2 Neil vN April 30, 2015 at 7:00 pm

To cover the situations where you have to bounce flash off non-white surfaces, I’ve now added further links to the bottom of the article.

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3 Keith R. Starkey April 30, 2015 at 7:24 pm

There it is! A decent modifier/diffuser for outdoor non-bounce flash scenarios, and the BTF for everything else. BAM, what!

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4 Alan W April 30, 2015 at 10:11 pm

Awesome review, thanks, Neil!

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5 Gregory April 30, 2015 at 10:27 pm

As always, GREAT tutorial.

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6 Noel Del Pilar April 30, 2015 at 11:05 pm

Wow, I am going to conduct a 30 minute presentation next Sunday and that is my theme, On Camera Flash! Great presentation as always! I also add that the flash needs to be in TTL and sometimes +1 Flash Exposure Compensation when bounce. You are excellent!

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7 Alan Rogers April 30, 2015 at 11:30 pm

Hi Neil, did I miss something? I didn’t see a shot taken with the flash bare/bounced behind you as you described. So we saw all the modifier shots and black foamie aimed to the wall to your right only. Great comparison thank-you. However I’m skeptical about throwing flash light behind and into a big open space/room, because logically it doesn’t make sense that it will fill that huge void and make it back onto the models face.

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8 Neil vN April 30, 2015 at 11:37 pm

Look again. I show the photo around 02:15

You may be skeptical, but bouncing flash like this works. Here is an example of high ISO bounce flash photography in a huge venue. Follow the related links for more articles covering the topic.

Here is a further explanation: Bounce flash photography and the Inverse Square Law.

In comparison to some of the massive venues I use as an examples there, my studio is small. So it is most definitely possible in a 1,000 sq ft area with 14′ ceilings.

But the only thing that will overcome your skepticism, is to do this yourself. Try it.

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9 Aydin Odyakmaz April 30, 2015 at 11:59 pm

Neil,

Love that you shot with he major company modifiers. I have the Rogue and Magmod and they do specific things, but overall your certainly right about bouncing off a nice large wall the best way.

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10 Neil vN May 1, 2015 at 12:03 am

I would agree with the Rogue Flashbenders and Magmod … they are versatile modifiers. The point I wanted to stress with this tutorial is that if they are used in a simplistic way as a do-all bounce flash modifier (like too many photographers do), these modifiers fail just like all the others … because no thought was put into what needs to be done to fix a lighting problem.

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11 jason May 1, 2015 at 3:58 am

I’m just curious what ISO setting you would use on a D300 in a gymnasium that has approximately 40ft white ceilings with over 300+ parents/students/teachers. Using f4 and I’m guessing full power manual on a SB800. And yes, I read most of your articles on big venues but they don’t seem to talk about gyms and cameras with older ISO tech. Any advice Neil?

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12 Neil vN May 1, 2015 at 5:10 am

You will have to balance that equation: flash power + aperture + ISO
And if you can’t quite do it for that size venue, then you will have to increase any of those three variables. I can’t offer you a magical solution further than that.

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13 Alistair May 1, 2015 at 5:36 am

I’m glad that you have the same opinion as me on the indoor use of these modifiers, it always amuses me seeing them being used indoor at weddings when bounce would give better light and as you so wonderfully put it a black foamy thingy stops the light “Bluxomeing” ito the eyes of those behind.

Surely, even for out door use (which a video of the might also be interesting) I think only the directional ones, like soft box types, would help just to soften the light ,the others are just going to light the sky up

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14 Charles May 1, 2015 at 9:33 am

Maybe those photographers that use them indoor at weddings have an older camera that does not yield a good image at high ISO’s like my 50D. ISO 1600 and above you may as well forget it, the noise is pretty bad indoors. I like what Denis Reggie said when someone asked him about bouncing where there are high ceilings and you are far away from the walls, he said to use HIGH ISO’s and fast lenses. But not every photographer has that kind of money so using modifiers indoors on weddings is a must for good images for the equipment they have.

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15 Till Ulen May 1, 2015 at 6:38 am

I knew the black foamie thing would come out as a winner. :)
Could you please post the original SOOC pictures? They just beg to be compared side by side.

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16 Neil vN May 1, 2015 at 8:09 am

Till … what would you be able to see better? That the sideways shadow (which is unwanted and completely avoidable here), varies in ugliness?

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17 Dave Amadio May 1, 2015 at 9:29 am

Neil, (Or anyone) what is the main purpose of the black foamie thing..
(1)to block the flash from blinding people behind you when you bounce?
(2) to concentrate the light to be bounced?
Also, would the flash be zoomed or wide when you bounce it?
TTL or no TTL
Thanks to anyone who can answer!
Dave

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18 Neil vN May 1, 2015 at 9:00 am

Dave, as mentioned in the article, I use the black foamie thing (BFT) as a truly inexpensive flash modifier to flag my on-camera flash. You will have to follow that link, and further linked articles for more info, especially the video clip on using the black foamie thing.

I used TTL in this instance for this video, and generally I prefer TTL. But I often use manual flash.

I zoom my flash-head to a tighter focal length, so I don’t lose as much light being eaten up by the black material.

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19 Dave Amadio May 1, 2015 at 1:46 pm

Truly appreciate the info Neil, Thank you!

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20 David May 1, 2015 at 1:47 pm

Neil – I know this is off topic, but since it was mentioned, do you have any loose rules of thumb about zooming the flash head when bouncing? Maybe an example of when the room is relatively “normal” size and walls/ceiling are sort of close, and an example of a cavernous room. I know every situation is different, but just some things to consider would help me a lot. Thanks.

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21 Neil vN May 1, 2015 at 6:19 pm

I zoom the flash-head as a matter of course … otherwise too much light gets eaten up by the BFT.

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22 Devin May 1, 2015 at 9:33 am

Thanks for posting this! One thing I noticed is that you didn’t use the Fong Lightsphere correctly. Since you had a ceiling you should have bounced it straight up without the dome on (in the video you used the dome). In theory this gives you a bounce with some light going forward. The dome is only when the ceiling is really low. It might not make any difference, but it would be interesting to see if your result is the same. I agree that bouncing behind (or side) is the best. We don’t always have a surface to bounce off of, so I’m curious what works best then. Good homework assignment…I’m at a loss and have no answer to this question

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23 Neil vN May 1, 2015 at 10:00 am

Devin … if I had taken the dome off, then the Lightsphere would still throw light forward. It would still fall down then on that one problem – you’re creating two light-sources, of which the one is unnecessary and ugly.

Re what you’d use outdoors – whichever gives you the largest light source, with the least amount of waste of light thrown off into the sky or behind you into nothing.

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24 Johan Schmidt May 1, 2015 at 10:08 am

Excellent – simple cut through all the marketing fluff that gets put out there! Thanks Neil

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25 David May 1, 2015 at 10:58 am

Thanks, Neil, for the video. Very well done. As far as using a modifier outdoors, I just did an art festival last week in bright sunshine. When I was able, I either positioned myself or the subject(s) so the sun was behind them. Underexposed the ambient, FEC down a bit, and shot direct flash for fill with no modifier. They asked me to come back in two weeks to shoot their annual fundraiser, so I guess I did OK.

I have a Lumiquest 80/20 ProMax, a medium-sized Rogue Flashbender, and a Fotodiox 8-inch octagon softbox. Although I have shot a lot of experimental photos to try and make comparisons, I have yet to use them “for real”.

Oh yes, and a BFT for sure always in my bag!

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26 Frank Angelico May 1, 2015 at 12:48 pm

Great video Neil! I always struggled deciding if and what type of modifier to use indoors – you certainly answered that question. I do wonder however what should be done when walls are not white and sometimes too dark as in a restaurant. Thanks again!!

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27 Neil vN May 1, 2015 at 1:00 pm

I’ve now added further links now to the bottom of the article, that will explain those scenarios.

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28 Joe May 1, 2015 at 1:12 pm

Nice video, Neil! Definitely some great tips there. I’ve been using the smaller Rogue modifier to flag my flash like you do with the BFT. Do you see an issue with that? Can’t quite understand why you would skip that otherwise. What am I missing? :)

Thanks again!

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29 Neil vN May 1, 2015 at 1:34 pm

If you’re using a light-modifier with some thought, and not to arbitrarily create two light sources which conflict … then go ahead. No issues.

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30 Zofia May 1, 2015 at 2:40 pm

Timely post, Neil. I just got the Mag Mod Sphere specifically for the venue I’m shooting a wedding in tomorrow. Tall ceilings, no room to set up a light and dark wood walls with colorful paintings – a tight restaurant with no good surfaces to bounce off of.

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31 Dan R. May 1, 2015 at 3:43 pm

Great article Neil!
I used to be a big fan of using of all those gadgets but mostly because I was using a smaller flash the SB600 (when first starting out which seemed to work ok). Over time I learned even then the SB600 did not have enough power. I quickly moved up to a SB900 and a SB910 but didn’t know if I still needed to use the diffuser to help spread the light (especially with very large venues).
I was not happy with my results while shooting a charity bowling event. So out of frustration I took the darn thing off and thought I would try just bouncing off walls/ceilings. And Wow!!!
There it was!!
My light was always there, it was just hiding under a piece of Tupperware. I gained two more stops of light with out it, and gained control of which direction my light was coming from.

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32 Heather May 2, 2015 at 8:35 pm

So Neil, I see that my question is actually your ‘homework’, but I don’t know the answer. Which would you recommend outside or someplace you can’t bounce? In a previous comment you said whatever gives the largest light source, so would a Flashbender be an appropriate modifier to give the best quality of light? It seems most of the gadgets gave similar results inside when not bouncing.

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33 Neil vN May 3, 2015 at 10:18 am

Heather … you’ve answered your own question there. The largest light source would give the softer light.

Some light modifiers throw too much light upwards, which would be lost when shooting outside. So any of the light modifiers that are large, and somehow contain more of the light to throw it forward, would work.

In essence then, most of them work about the same outside, and most of them fail the same when shooting inside when you can bounce flash.

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34 Thiago May 5, 2015 at 5:33 pm

Hmm this is very interesting, really. Thanks for the video.

I always tried to throw a little bit of light to my subjects never to prevent it altogether. Maybe I should be trying the opposite! :D

Anyway Neil.. Light was really good. Do you think there really would be any tangible difference from bouncing or say, a big softbox?

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35 Neil vN May 5, 2015 at 5:40 pm

A softbox would be more efficient, and you’d get better apertures / ISO settings than you could with bounce flash. Also, you’d have more control over the light and direction of light.

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36 Randell John May 14, 2015 at 11:38 pm

I must admit, I’ve tried a lot of flash modifiers over the years and never really liked any of them besides the Rogue Flash Benders, and thats only because I can fold it up and stick in a side panel of my camera bag.
I’ve been using your BFT technique for the last year or so, and the difference it’s made to my photography has been very noticable.
It made me stop and think about the direction of my light, rather than just blasting away with Stofen on my flash, and basically hoping for the best.
Thanks very much Neil for sharing your knowledge so freely. Tangents has helped me so much over the last couple of years.

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37 BipinD May 15, 2015 at 11:49 am

Great review Neil, and glad to see that BFT is still rules:) I have it in my camera bag all the time since i picked up the tip from you a couple of years ago. Very light and takes up not space in the bag.

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38 Laura N. May 17, 2015 at 10:55 pm

Hi Neil! I couple of years ago or so you reviewed the Spinlight and I purchased it after you gave it good reviews. Although it is pricey, it has been the one piece of equipment I cannot do without. Thank you for taking the time to compare and review all the gear you have access to. Articles like these help me make better decisions about what to add to my gear bag.

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39 Arthur Argote May 18, 2015 at 1:39 am

Hey Neil,

Thanks for doing this. I agree with using the indoor environment to bounce flash. I;ll add that when I’m in dark bars, even with the dark ceiling, having a high iso makes the camera far more sensitive to flash so even then you get some good toplight. My only disagreement is the dismissal of the flash benders because I sue them with off camera flashes via radios. In particular the snoot an the larger XL flash bender/softbox, now redesigned with a grid, offers some beautiful light in cramped situations. Also having the flash bounce of the ceiling and illuminating everything doesn’t help isolate you subject.

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40 Keanot May 30, 2015 at 10:09 pm

Hi Neil. My friend does an event every month. It is at a variety show of dancers. People sitting down at tables. Nothing stuffy at all. It’s darkish with some spotlights on stage They also interact with the crowd. My question is my friend has asked me to take photos a few times. I can’t bounce flash because I feel it would disrupt stuff being dark. For this scenario would I choose one of the others over the expensive heavy Gary Fong. It seemed like the MagSphere or the small cover you preferred. I don’t know what the small one was.

Second question was for outside on camera flash would using the Rogue Bender be better used not placing the flash inside but attaching to outside and manipulating the RB to tasty towards subject?

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41 Neil vN June 3, 2015 at 10:02 pm

For both scenarios, something like the Rogue Flashbenders would be the better choice, since you can angle the light forward, while still having a larger light source than just the flash-head.

Outdoors especially, you don’t want to waste too much light blasting off into the darkness above and behind you.

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