Photography has always been about light. Whether capturing a bride as she prepares for her wedding, or a swimsuit model on the beach, proper lighting can make the average picture spectacular. Natural light is wonderful. Digital retouching is impressive. But nothing beats top-rate lighting equipment, especially when enhanced by light modifiers.
We all know how challenging outdoor portraits can be, particularly on clear, sunny days. Direct sunlight is one of the most "high-contrast" light sources there is, and is often too harsh for natural-looking portraits. Therefore, we need to modify the light from the sun to achieve better, more natural-looking results. Light modifiers come in various sizes and different levels of diffusion material. Photek, for example, sells the Sunbuster umbrella for outdoor and indoor use.
The advantages of light modifiers are many. The most obvious, of course, is creating the perfect light/shadow effect. But another key is its portability. Light modifiers (be they umbrellas, softboxes, reflectors, etc.) allow photographers to carry a one-light kit, making packing, hauling, and setup that much easier.
Recently, Studio Photography talked to several experts in the field to get their take on the state of the light modifier industry-what's hot, what's not, and where the industry is headed.
"The light modifier industry is strong and continues to grow at sustained double-digit rates," says Thomas A. Waltz, president, F.J. WESTCOTT. "This holds true for conventional umbrella-type modifiers and reflectors, as well as our higher-end softboxes and modular reflector system-type modifiers. Certainly, the huge ramp-up in digital cameras, particularly DSLRs, has helped fuel the continued growth. Regardless of how you're going to capture an image, still or video, digital or film, you still need to control the lighting, and light modifiers are the tools image-makers need to sculpt the light." Waltz adds that light modifiers have seen an increase due to special material use with hot lights in the TV/movie industries.
Waltz ended with a piece of trivia. "F. J. Westcott Company is responsible for the term 'light modifiers.' It started in about 1984. We introduced our Halo and Apollo products, which had the ability to offer both direct diffused as well as indirect diffused light in one 'light modifier.' Therefore, the term light modifier was designated and it has stayed with us ever since."
"Digital photography has removed the limitations of conventional photography and allowed photographers to be limited only by their own imaginations," says Jason Etzel at DYNA-LITE. "What was once impossible is now easily done with the assistance of light modifiers and enhanced by digital technology. But, no matter how many megapixels the camera has, no matter what features the lens may have, no matter what the software may do, the captured image is always the most important part of the photograph." Etzel notes that you may be able to tweak this and enhance that, but there's no substitute for having it right from the get-go. "And light modification has, over the past few years, become more and more relevant to a photographer's final image."
Depending on the image, photographers may be looking for a harsh light or a soft, natural glow. With light modifiers such as beauty dishes, says Etzel, photographers can create the desired lighting effect quickly and efficiently.
As an indicator of the strength of the industry, Larry Farrell, national sales manager at PHOTEK, points out that 17 years ago, when they introduced their first light modifier, the Softlighter, only a few companies were making modifiers. "Today, there are many more; almost all the flash companies have their own brand of light modifiers," says Farrell. "Also, the hot-light industry is still in its growing stage and more light modifier companies are getting into this field."
As for recent trends, Farrell says "We now have light modifiers for video cameras and light modifiers that snap open like an umbrella." Photek offers modifiers that are lantern-shaped, hex-shaped, narrow-profile, on-camera flash, and modifiers that bounce light instead of direct light. "These are all new trends in the light modifier industry," says Farrell.
"There is a definite trend in the increase of light modification," says Joe Crooks at PHOTOFLEX. "Whether people are using tungsten, fluorescent, strobe, or even direct sunlight, modification of that light seems to be high on people's to-do lists. The more we see people picking up a camera, the more we see the need for light and education on how to use the light and light modifiers. There are also more people shooting in direct sunlight, which needs a modifier. If you are shooting a Little League team, you need a reflector to get under the brim of the hat properly."
Crooks notes that Photoflex tries to make life easier for photographers by putting all of its light solutions in kits. "We offer one-stop shopping along with free lessons on how to use our equipment," he says, adding, "We have many kits that are specifically designed and made for the emerging digital market."
As for emerging trends, Crooks says the future may be round. "I'm a sucker for round catch lights in human eyes," he states. "Yes, I said human eyes. A rectangular catch light is fine if you're shooting a goat (which has rectangular pupils), but when I see them in human eyes, they just seem-well, wrong." Crooks claims that while everyone is trying to get a circular box in its lineup, Photoflex already has one: the OctoDome.
Another trend, according to Crooks, is quickly opening and collapsing boxes, much like an umbrella, but with a softbox depth and face to diffuse light. "As for reflectors," Crooks adds, "I think I can say with 95% certainty that Photoflex is still the only one on the market that has white edges so you don't catch a black reflection in a metallic or other highly reflective surface."