Geoff Harris suggests five accessories to help you photograph your best portraits yet.
There’s a bewildering choice of flash- and studio-lighting accessories competing for the keen portrait photographer’s attention, so it’s not surprising that many people get confused. You can go from spending some spare change on a plastic flashgun diffuser to many thousands of pounds on a studio lighting rig that a Rankin or Bailey would covet, although you don’t need to spend much money to get better-looking portraits with just a dedicated flashgun. Here are five accessories that anyone with a basic flashgun can use, with a little on how each works.
Reflectors are one of the cheapest and easiest ways of enhancing your portraits. As their name implies, they are normally fold-out discs that redirect light back towards your subject’s face, helping to fill in any shadows. You can use these to bounce both natural and artificial light, the latter being useful when shooting outside in bright, sunny conditions (while shooting in these conditions is something that travel photographers, for example, try to avoid, wedding and other commercial portrait photographers can’t always pick and choose when they work). Small reflectors are good for plant and macro photography, but you will need a larger one for portraits.
Many reflectors offer a choice of silver, gold or white reflective surfaces to widen your creative options. Gold surfaces will warm skin tones significantly when used outside, while silver is more neutral but reflects a lot of light back – so be careful you don’t dazzle your subject! The best reflectors have rigid rims, which allow you to hold and shoot with them at the same time, although you may need to get an assistant to hold them in place or invest in a boom stand. You can even use reflectors with off-camera flash. Considering how cheap and versatile reflectors are, there is no reason not to own one!
2. Flashgun diffuser
Flashguns can be a good friend but a dangerous enemy when used on camera; nothing is worse than harsh, in-your-face flash, which tends to wash people out, generate ugly shadows and underexpose the background. A great way of avoiding this rather crude custard-pie look is to soften the light using a flash diffuser. At their simplest, these are shaped plastic boxes that fit over the flashgun head and spread out or soften the light, although an ever-growing range of more complicated and expensive models is available that claim to act like mini softboxes (they all basically do the same thing).
Diffusers are particularly effective when you also bounce the flash light against a white or pale-coloured wall or ceiling, or even behind you. Colours are enriched, shadows are reduced but you still get that nice flash catchlight in the eye. Remember, flashgun diffusers are designed for indoor use; they’re ineffective outdoors and will just drain your batteries quicker.
3. Ringflash adaptors
Ringflashes are prized by portrait photographers as they produce a very soft, even light with very little shadow – although conventional ringflash units can be expensive. A good compromise is a ringflash adapter. These are very easy to use and simply clamp on to a hotshoe-mounted flashgun. You then position your lens through the centre of the ring and, as you fire the flashgun, the adapter bends and shapes the light through an ingenious circular structure to give you the desired effect.
Ringflash adapters are great for head-and-shoulders shots and they create a lovely circular catchlight in the eyes. They can also be used with off-camera flash, acting like a mini softbox. You should try not to place your subject too close to a wall to reduce the risk of shadows even further, although some fashion and lifestyle photographers deliberately exploit this effect.
So what are the downsides? Ringflash adapters can be a bit awkward and bulky to carry around in your bag, and can be distracting to your subject as they dominate the front of your camera. Ringflash adapters also tend to drain your batteries more quickly, but so long as you bear all this in mind, they are a great way to get professional-looking results for amateur money.
4. Portable softbox
For more control over the quality and direction of light, try off-camera flash. This sounds intimidating but off-camera flash with a single flashgun is relatively straightforward. All you need is a flashgun, a tripod or flashgun stand, and some way of firing the flashgun when it’s separated from the camera. This can be achieved via wireless triggers (hotshoe-based transmitters and receivers), although you might not need these at all; depending on your camera and flashgun type, you can activate your pop-up flash’s Commander mode, which fires the other flashgun for you. Clever, eh?
Check your camera and flashgun manuals to see if they support this, then try firing the light through a softbox. This tent-like accessory encloses the flashgun (or other types of lighting) and consists of reflective side, back walls and a diffusing material at the front. You can move the softbox around easily, but try placing the light source/softbox to the side of your subject and angle it about 45 degrees for nice even results that still reveal skin tones and facial structure. Remember too that the bigger the softbox, the more powerful your light source will need to be in order to get the maximum benefit.
If a softbox seems like overkill for your portrait needs, don’t forget the good old umbrella. This is another form of light modifier that opens like a conventional wet-weather brolly. There are basically two types: a reflective umbrella that reflects and then bounces the flash light fired into it; and a shoot-through umbrella, which produces a softer, more diffused light when you fire light through it.
Regardless of their type, umbrellas come in a range of sizes and styles and, as with reflectors, reflective umbrellas can have silver or gold linings. The main advantages of umbrellas are their portability, ease of use and relatively low cost. That said, umbrellas can suffer more from light spill than sealed softboxes, and softboxes are better able to control the direction and shape of the light.
As with softboxes, the larger the umbrella, the softer the quality of the light, but you’ll need a more powerful light source to begin with. With softboxes getting cheaper and more portable by the year, it’s no longer such an easy choice for the keen amateur. Of course, it’s not an either/or thing, and as your confidence and experience grows, you can combine a range of light modifiers as required.
We’ve only just scratched the surface of the vast body of lighting accessories available for the portrait photographer, but this overview should give you an idea of the main types of gear to be thinking about. Remember, though, that while it’s great to get to grips with light modifiers, don’t forget the importance of your core camera equipment, particularly lenses. Rather than splurging on a high-end flashgun or fancy portable softbox, you might be better off putting the money towards a classic portrait lens, such as a 50mm or 85mm prime. These are fixed focal-length lenses and usually have a constant wide aperture (at least f/2.8), so they’re great for working in low light or blurring out the background on a portrait while keeping the subject sharp. They also suffer from less optical distortion than longer telephoto lenses and force you to get closer to your subject, which many masters think is an essential part of the portrait-taking process!