Making great light is essential to making great portraits. And I mean that: you’ve got to make great light. You can find a good source of available light, but I’ve rarely seen any available light that couldn’t be made better, either with reflectors and flags or by adding light somewhere with a flash. When you need to use a flash, you also need to modify the light coming out of it, and my favorite new modifier for small flash is the Magmod system. Let me share a few ideas about modifying light, and why I like Magmod.
Modifying light allows us to make it softer, more isolated, more spread out, and even change the color. I modify the light every time I use a speedlight. I may bounce the light off a wall or ceiling, but I almost always add a modifier to the light itself. A modifier is anything that changes the light coming from your flash. I use softboxes, beauty dishes, Tupperware containers, and gels on a regular basis.
Make the Light Softer
The number one reason I use a modifier is to make my light larger in relation to my subject, which is the only way to soften the light. This makes the shadows transition into highlights gradually, and it reduces the glare on my subject’s face, both of which make it easier to make a flattering portrait. I use softboxes and beauty dishes and the diffuser from a 5-in-1 reflector kit to soften the light.
Change the Color
The number two reason I modify the light is to change its color. There are only two times when I don’t need to change the color of my speedlight, and that’s when I’m in the full noonday sun, and when the only light in the picture is coming from my speedlight. All other times, my speedlight doesn’t match the color of the surrounding lights.
This is basically a white balance problem. Our cameras can adjust to the color of light in a scene using the white balance controls, but it can only compensate for one color at a time. When I’m in a house or office that uses traditional light bulbs, I need to add a warm/orange filter to my flash so that it matches the warm light from the light bulbs. This colored filter is called a gel (and the filter for matching incandescent tungsten light bulbs is a called CTO–color temperature orange).
When I’m in an office building or hospital that uses fluorescent lights, I usually need to add a little bit of green to the light so it matches. This green is subtle and often overlooked, but it makes all the difference in the world when you get it just right.
Furthermore, I can change the color of light for fun and effect. Adding theatrical colors to a photograph is unique and fresh and keeps me interested and adds energy to any shoot when your subject sees the results.
Magmod is a tool that helps me both shape my light and control the color. There are literally dozens of tools out there that do similar things, but I’ve never seen one that does it as quickly and as easily as the Magmod system. Most systems require some sort of velcro on the speedlight, which is noisy, and most require adhering the velcro permanently in place, which limits the usefulness of the tool (not to mention how it performs on a hot day when the adhesives melt and make a mess).
Magmod uses ridiculously strong magnets (neodymium magnets) in the modifiers and the flash mounted grip. All you do to swap tools is break the magnetic attachment and plop the new one in place. Plus, the tools are all made of durable molded silicone. The whole system is quiet and precise and doesn’t require any instruction to use, which is great when I have a new assistant lending a hand.
Magmod has the usual modifiers for speedlights, but they’re all a little better. They’ve got the dome, but it’s less massive and quiet, and the scoop style reflector, which is again quiet and more precise. The snoot is marvelous for throwing a precisely focused beam of light, and it changes spread by expanding each section. But my personal favorite tools are the gels and grids.
Gels and Grids
Thanks to Joe McNally’s excellent book, The Hot Shoe Diaries, I use gels in practically every shoot, and I’ve usually used the cellophane style gels that come in a swatch book of hundreds of colors from Rosco, which are perfectly sized for speedlights. I’ve been tempted to buy other brands of gels that are stiff, which are great because handling the flimsy cellophane and taping them in place can be exasperating–especially in a breeze. But, these other systems all use velcro or adhesives, and I just can’t use velcro in an event setting, like a quiet wedding or concert.
The Magmod gels are stiff plastic, and they fit into a holder that snaps on with magnets. It’s so easy to use that I’m using gels all the times I should be instead of finding excuses not to because it takes too long. I use the gels with soft boxes and beauty dishes, but the gel holder snaps in place under the other Magmod modifiers, too, so there’s never an excuse for not matching the light colors. Reception pictures look so much better when everything is balanced. Furthermore, I can fit several gels into the one holder so I can make a great effect with colored light.
Magmod’s grids are marvelous because they just snap on top of the gels. Grids focus the light and keep it from spilling where you don’t want it, but not in a round spotlight like a snoot. Stacking grids together makes the light more focused and directional. Grids and gels are the part of the Magmod system I use most frequently.
Making great portraits simply requires great light, and if you’re using flashes, I recommend Magmod’s tools to make your light into the right tool for the job.
Magmod sells several kits at various prices. These tools fall into the mid to high price range for speedlight modifiers, but since they are so easy to use, you’ll employ them more than any other modifier, so I think they are worth the samll extra cost. Check them out at www.magnetmod.com.
Levi Sim is passionate about making photographs and helping others make their pictures better, too. Join him on Twitter and Instagram (@PhotoLevi), read more of his articles here, and join him at the upcoming WPPI and Out of Chicago Conferences.
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