How Light Is Used To Create Images – II

by William Lulow

In the last article, we talked about MODIFYING light in order to create images. Today, we’ll talk about the various types of light modifying tools we can use. Since the simple reflector is limited in its ability to provide the kind of light necessary for good, commercial portraits and product shots, it needed to be changed. Over the years, photographers found that they still needed to direct light toward their subjects, but that light was much better if it was soft. So, they tried to figure out what could make the light soft. And, they discovered that a large light placed fairly close to their subjects would give a very pleasing effect. Manufacturers of photographic lighting equipment began making very large reflectors that were able to take large bulbs. Today, these kinds of light fixtures are sometimes referred to as “beauty dishes.”


They are large, very broad reflectors that are also fairly shallow. (The one pictured above is only 22” in diameter. But some were quite a bit larger.) They were of the theatrical variety in that they often took a fair amount of electricity to run and became very hot to handle. But, the science of these lights, in terms of the effect they had on the light they produced, made for nice, soft light that could be used to create great portraits. THE LARGER THE LIGHT SOURCE, THE SOFTER THE LIGHTING EFFECT.  This is one of the main ideas for portrait photographers. They need large light sources in order to provide the kind of light required for commercial portraits.  Photographers began to use these large lights in their studios to get that special, soft light they wanted. As a matter of fact, Francesco Scavullo, the famous Vogue Magazine photographer in the 1970s and 1980s, actually modified a very large theatrical Klieg light. He took out the bulb, replaced it with a specially made series of flash tubes, and put a double thickness of white plexiglass in front. It became known as his special light. A friend of mine, who used to assist for Scavullo, said it was about four-feet in diameter. At any rate, because they were so hard to handle, people began looking for ways to get the effects they wanted more easily.  As manufacturing practices improved, they found that this effect could be obtained with a large umbrella with a reflective material inside it. Light from a bulb had to travel to the umbrella, bounce off it and then travel the remaining distance to the subject. This served very nicely to soften the effect of the light. One of the problems with this application of light is that it tended to lessen the light’s brightness and therefore, called for longer exposures, something that often made portraiture difficult. (Remember: photographers in the 1940s and 1950s often used large view cameras with very slow lenses. They needed a great light output to be able to make portraits at f/11 or f/16 – something we do routinely today.)  As soon as electronic flash units began to be manufactured, photographers found that they did indeed, produce enough light for short exposure times as well as smaller f/stops.

7foot umbrella

This photographic umbrella has a diameter of roughly seven feet! It also has a black backing which prevents light from escaping through the material which would greatly lessen its effect. The one I use is about six feet in diameter and has about twice the number of ribs that normal umbrellas do. This is because the more ribs there are, the rounder the umbrella appears. This creates a beautiful “catchlight” in the subject’s eyes as well as giving the light an overall broader effect. Here is a picture of my umbrella in use:


You can see how large it is, relative to me and the camera.


Shooting products present slightly different problems for photographers in that you may have to deal with reflections and other highlights from shiny surfaces. And, many products have various shapes. But, the same principle of having a large light source as a mainlight still applies. It’s just that if you’re shooting a product like a bottle, for example, you may not want to have the reflection of an umbrella. So, photographers decided to make a box that was large and rectangular in shape so that the reflection would be more in line with the product. Hence, they invented the SOFTBOX!

6-foot softbox

Softboxes are great for product shots and other still life images because the light from them is even and the highlights produced are rectangular rather than round. Here is an example:


If you look at the highlights in this shot of three bulbs, you’ll notice that they are long and take the shape of the bulbs themselves. An umbrella light for this shot would have been all wrong because it would have produced a round highlight and not shown off the bulbs as well.

So, the take away from this article is that if you’re going to do commercial portraits, you will need a large, round light source as your main light. If you’re going to do product shots, you’ll need a large, rectangular light source. Remember again: THE LARGER THE LIGHT SOURCE IN COMPARISON TO THE SUBJECT, THE SOFTER THE LIGHTING EFFECT!

The next article will deal with modern uses of other light modifiers. Stay tuned!