why use an on-camera flash modifier that is black, instead of white?

why use an on-camera flash modifier that is black, instead of white?

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 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:

 

direction of light

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.

 

summary

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.

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.

 

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26 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. Roger says

    Hello Neil,

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

    Thanks for sharing,
    Roger
    Jhb

  2. William says

    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!

  3. says

    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.

  4. says

    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!

  5. Patrick Kelly says

    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!

  6. Brian says

    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.

  7. Fred - San Antonio, TX says

    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.

  8. Sanele Chadwick says

    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

  9. ted says

    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

  10. says

    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.

  11. says

    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.

  12. says

    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 :-)

  13. says

    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

  14. Stephen says

    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?

  15. N. M. says

    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

  16. Steve says

    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.

  17. deb says

    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

  18. Hazel says

    Just found your site through Canon Digital Forum. Excellent ideas. I always bounced flash from ceiling – just tried bounce from the side as in a studio strobe & got excellent results. Next stop is to buy the black thingy for my strobe. You put all this in easy to understand terms & I am so grateful & excited to have found your site! Thank you very much for sharing your expertise! Happy New Year to you!
    Hazel

  19. Alex says

    Hi Neil! Thank you for simplifying flash photography for us. I have been following and saving most of your articles that is has given me a new dimension using your flash on camera techniques. I wish I had known them during film days.

    You are a blessing to the photography world for your selfless contributions.

    God bless you and your family!

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