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The Gear and The Look

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Throughout this book, I’ll show you examples of many different types of light and light modifiers. Umbrellas, softboxes, reflectors, and even sheets of white board, any and all can be used to create stunning images of beautiful women. The key is how they are used, alone or together, with similar or dissimilar modifiers.

You may find a technique (I hope you find many) that you really like but are reluctant to try because you don’t have the same style or size modifier that I used. Don’t be. The principles are the same although the look may be slightly different. If you follow the diagrams I’ve included but modify them as necessary for your gear, you’ll still get stunning images.

When seeking to purchase any modifier, consider the size of the product versus the size of your studio. If you were to buy a 4×6-foot softbox, would you have room to use it to its full advantage or would it extend too far into your shooting space? Do you have the space and the height to accommodate 4×8-foot bookends, or would you be better off cutting them down a bit? Would collapsible reflectors be better?

You will be working with your gear for years. Think it through, and buy only what you need.


Softboxes IMAGE 1.1.

Softboxes (image 1.1) are the mainstay of my studio, and I use them more than any other modifier. Certain styles of softbox work better for some applications than others, but they can be considered, essentially, interchangeable, as long as you understand their properties and limitations.

Large. My large softboxes are 4×6 feet and take up quite a bit of real estate in the studio. Still, they produce great light.When placed close to the model, the light is soft with open shadows. Because it’s so large, you can move it quite far from the model before you see evidence of the contrast and specularity you’d see with a smaller source.

On average, the distance from the main light to the model is 6 feet for a head-and-shoulders portrait. For purposes of comparison, all the following samples will show the main light and modifier at that distance, and without any additional fill. You’ll be able to see the differences between the effects created by the various modifiers quite easily. Please bear in mind, though, that shadows and specularity will increase when the light is moved farther away and will decrease when the distance is diminished. Here, I’ve placed my model closer than usual to the background—about 3 feet away—so you can see what the shadow looks like. See image 1.2.

Medium.Medium softboxes (mine are 3×4 feet) are the most valuable modifiers in my arsenal. I use them for everything from portraits to product, and I rely upon them more often than any other modifier. They are extremely valuable for location portraiture as well, whether it’s a glamour shoot or business portrait, indoors or out. See image 1.3.

Small. Small softboxes are available in many sizes, from the extra-small 15×18-inch version to 2×3-foot unit. I think you’ll find these most useful for background or hair lights, or to add underfill highlights, but they do make effective main lights. You can see from my sample that, at 6 feet, contrast and specularity are more evident with the 2×3-foot unit than with the previously described sizes. However, should you move a box like this in quite a bit closer to the subject, you’ll find that the main light it throws is very dramatic: soft, with open shadows, but with rapid falloff. See image 1.4.

IMAGE 1.2.
IMAGE 1.2.
IMAGE 1.3.
IMAGE 1.3.
IMAGE 1.4.
IMAGE 1.4.
IMAGE 1.5.
IMAGE 1.5.

Strip Lights. Strip lights (long, narrow softboxes engineered to produce an even output of light across their length) are a somewhat specialized accessory. I have several 1×6-foot strip lights that I use frequently as accents, sidelights, background lights, or hair lights. They are not cheap and require a special speed ring that not all strobe manufacturers make, but they produce a light that’s both beautiful and hard to define. Profoto (my brand of choice) is one of the few making a 1×6-foot box. Should you decide to purchase them, and you don’t use Profoto equipment, please make sure your strobe’s manufacturer makes a speed ring that will accommodate them.

They can be used as a main light, with a different look from any other softbox. See image 1.5.

Quality softboxes have an additional layer of diffusion— an internal layer of nylon called a “baffle” that diffuses the light even more before it reaches the front of the box and exits.When buying softboxes, be sure to check that the corners are heavily reinforced to withstand the constant pressure from the rods that connect the box to the speed ring.


Most umbrellas spread light by acting as a reflector. The light itself is aimed away from the model and beamed into a reflective fabric shell.

White is the most common umbrella fabric. Silver provides a slightly “snappier” look with a bit more brightness. A silver umbrella will, almost always, impart a slightly different color to the scene, necessitating a custom white balance but potentially skewing the color of all other lights. Gold reflective umbrellas are available, but they significantly warm the color of the light. Consequently, you may not want to use one for everyday images. This sample was shot with a white umbrella. See images 1.6 and 1.7.

The other common umbrella style is called “shootthrough.” When using this style of umbrella, the light is actually aimed at the subject, passing through the translucent fabric of the umbrella and onto the subject. While it functions much like a softbox, the light the shoot-through umbrella emits is not as soft as that from a softbox because there’s only one layer of diffusion. Most softboxes, at least the quality boxes, have a second, interior layer of diffusion. See images 1.8 and 1.9.



Working without a modifier on the strobe can produce terrific results, from simulated sunlight to simply saturated color with deep shadows. As you go through the book, you’ll see a number of ways to create great looks with bare-tubed strobe(s).

I’ve found the best position for the tube, with most gear, is in the 11 o’clock position. It avoids any reflection from the (usually) chrome casing at the base of the tube and produces a cleaner shadow. See images 1.10 and 1.11.


Basic Parabolics. Basic parabolic reflectors are usually included with the purchase of a strobe head. Most are 6 or 7 inches in diameter and designed to throw a hard light evenly over the subject. These are not generally recommended for portraiture (there are exceptions, of course) but are used along with umbrellas or as fill or bounce light. See images 1.12 and 1.13.

Grids. Very cool little toys, grids are honeycomblike devices, about 3/8 of an inch thick, that reforms light that passes through them to a straight line, expanding it in a specified amount from its center. Depending on the manufacturer, sets of grids for parabolic reflectors may be purchased individually or in sets, in a range from 5 to 40 degrees (grids for beauty bowls are not as numerous). The specified degree means that, when a parabolic is fitted with, say, a 20 degree grid, the light will expand from the center of the reflector at 20 degrees.

Grids can be used to create spotlight-like effects, as controlled hair or accent lights, or to skim across a surface. One of the great features of grids is that they can throw bright accents from behind a subject yet keep light from striking the lens, which could produce flare.


Many grids will fit into many manufacturer’s parabolics. They are sort of a one-size-fits-all modifier. Some manufacturers make a parabolic specifically to hold grids. See images 1.14 and 1.15.

Beauty Bowls. Beauty bowls (also called beauty dishes) are large reflectors that have a baffle in front of the strobe head that reflects direct light back to the sides of the dish. The result is a direct but softer light than one would get with a basic parabolic. Beauty bowls are usually at least 18 inches in diameter, though some can be purchased that are 24 inches or larger. They are pricey, as are their accessory grids, but they are more than worth it for the quality of light they produce. Some manufacturers’ beauty bowls allow the center diffuser to be removed for a more contrasty light source.

I use beauty bowls in a number of ways but find them especially valuable as hair lights when used with a grid. This image was made with the grid from the predetermined distance of 6 feet. See images 1.16 and 1.17.

Panels and Collapsible Reflectors. As you will see, I use a number of reflectors in my work. My favorites are bookends—two pieces of 4×8-foot foamcore taped together along a common spine. You’ll see many examples of how I work with these, especially my favorite and my own invention, the bookend bounce, in chapter 3. See image 1.18.

I also use a number of Lastolite’s collapsible reflectors. Usually meant for bouncing light when working outdoors, I’ve found these wonderful gadgets extremely useful for studio work. See image 1.19.

A word of caution: Always custom white balance whenever you change a modifier on the main light. Clients will put up with (probably not even notice) minor color variations on hair or background lights but will shy away from off-color main lights. They may not know why they don’t like the shots, but they will know there’s something wrong.

IMAGE 1.18.

IMAGE 1.19.

IMAGE 1.20


I’ve found accessory arms, essentially short poles that clamp over light stands, to be invaluable tools in the studio. I have a number of these, under the Avenger label, that do a great job for me. Some are engineered with clamps for reflectors, some are just rods to which I can attach reflectors, flags, or whatever. Two of them together, raised to the same height and pointed to each other, can support a roll of background paper or a cloth background. Depending on the weight of what is being attached, a sandbag or counterweight may be necessary to keep the stand from falling over. See image 1.20.

Astute readers will realize that I’ve written about some of this equipment before. I apologize if I am repeating myself, but it’s necessary information for new readers. Believe me, this little chapter is only an informational introduction to a beautiful, compelling, and artistic lighting adventure.

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