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“Valor is strength, not of legs and arms, but of heart and soul; it consists not in the worth of our horse or our weapons, but in our own.” Michel de Montaigne, Cannibales
“The Master said, “A true gentleman is one who has set his heart upon the Way. A fellow who is ashamed merely of shabby clothing or modest meals is not even worth conversing with.” (Analects 4.9)” Confucius
Both the above quotes refer to the fact that expensive is not always the best, nor is it always necessary. That’s the topic of today’s post, inexpensive lighting mods.
Firstly, this is not to say good equipment isn’t worth the price. A good set of lighting modifiers can be worth their weight, if they’re used. For most of us, a reflector, flash, and maybe something like a Rogue Flashbender are more than enough. There are also times when having something like a soft box or snoot can add a little something to your photo, especially in portraits.
ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/30
This was shot in a local church. I used a Rogue Flashbender on my YN-560 flash wirelessly triggered. The flash was above and to the right of the camera. The soft light wraps, but still has direction to it, giving a nicely lit portrait of our Jesus' love for us!
When I first started out with homemade light mods, the first thing I built was an ice chest soft box. By cutting a hole in the bottom of a Styrofoam cooler the size of my flash head and covering the front with a white pillowcase, I had a soft box. The soft box softens the lights by giving us a larger light source, diffusing the lights internally to the box, and softening the light as it exits the box with a piece of diffusing fabric.
Take your ice chest, with the hole cut in it, and line it with aluminum foil, shiny side out. Tape of glue the foil to the inside of the chest. Let it crinkle up and have lots of texture, as this diffuses the light more. Once that’s done, tape, or glue a piece of white fabric to the inside of the ice chest to cover the opening. Taping it about 1 inch back from the edge gives you some spill control and allows for more directionality of the light. If you’re particularly ambitious, you can add some support to keep it from sagging, perhaps mounting it to a tripod.
Another great mod is a snoot. This allows a focused ray of light to be targeted to your application. One easy method is to cut both ends from a Pringles can. Using one end over your flash, and the other end open, you have a beam of light for a spot effect or hair light. Cover the flash end to prevent light leaks. You can even wrap the can with some colored paper and have a nice looking snoot. Placing the cap over the end of the can softens the spot a little, giving you a wider beam. A snoot can also be made from a rolled up cereal box, although you may want to line it with foil.
Another simple mod is a pie pan beauty dish. By taking a solid pie pan, or even some larger, a very nice light can be created. Cut an opening in the back for your flash, and drill 3 small holes. Place a 2-3 inch disk about 2-3 inches above the opening using stand offs or long screws, and voila, instant mod! Great for a more focused, glamorous light and ring like catch lights in your subject’s eyes, that adds drama to your scene.
For more advanced stuff, like large scrims or reflectors, PVC can be used as a frame with white sheets cut and sewn to fit. You can even make adjustable mods this way, and add legs or stands. Scrims are great for shooting in sunlight, as they soften the sun’s light and create nice shadows. You can even use a space blanket for extra large reflectors. They have a gold side and a silver side, like most commercial reflectors, and smaller sections can be used for fill light on product shots or close ups of flowers. When you’re making the larger sizes, it pays to measure everything out and have your fabric cut and sewn to match the several options you’ll have available. There are instructions online for making the larger PVC mods, and that’s a great way to build up your kit without breaking the bank.
With a little effort and ingenuity, a lot can be done. Even going back to Ansel Adams and many of the older era photographers, simple and cheap was a good thing. Ansel Adams was known to use the white side of his dark cloth for fill light when needed. Improvisation was often necessary, and following in that vein, we can get great shots without breaking the bank. A great place to start is DIY photography. They’re listed on our resources page!
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