What are the best light modifiers and how many do you really need?

Above: Portrait taken in Havana, Cuba 5DMK111 100 ISO F5.6 @1/125th sec
Above: Portrait taken in Havana, Cuba 5DMK111 100 ISO F5.6 @1/125th sec

I have a confession to make. I have a substance abuse problem – I’m addicted to light modifiers. I know, I know, it’s not very sexy right? I mean, most women are addicted to shoes and handbags, but shoes and handbags don’t do it for me like a good softbox does.

If you ask any woman why she needs 300 pairs of shoes she will be able to justify each purchase. Ditto for my light modifier collection.

My addiction started out as something fairly harmless. It started with a small purchase that I made with friends one night. No harm done, but then I started to buy gear alone.

My name is Gina Milicia and I’m a gear-aholic.

It had been a long week. I’d just come off a series of grueling back-to-back shoots. I was exhausted but couldn’t sleep. My mind was running at a million miles an hour and there was no way I was ever going to fall asleep in that state. I needed help, I needed a fix. Just one more, I told myself. You’ve been working so hard, you deserve it. Nobody will ever know. One little hit, go on…

Nothing good ever happens after 2am, I thought to myself as I opened my laptop and tapped in the address of my favourite website. The emotions were always the same. Guilt; why am I doing this? Desperation; OMG, I need this so badly. Defiance; I’m an adult and I can do whatever I like as long as it isn’t hurting anyone, right? Then I’m caught up in the moment and…*cue epic soundtrack and images of waves crashing on the shoreline*.

B&H is my happy place, this is where dreams come true. My most recent purchase is a portable, fold down beauty dish that I can use with my speedlight. It’s gorgeous, very portable and I can create a beauty dish look without the inconvenience and added bulk and weight of a traditional beauty dish. So that purchase was totally justified, right?

So, now I’m faced with a dilemma – kind of a “Sophie’s Choice”. I’m packing for a three week trip to Sicily where I will be running a photo workshop and filming content for my “How to shoot manual mode” and lighting courses. Which of my beloved softboxes do I bring with me?

When I’m shooting in Melbourne, the answer is a no brainer. I bring all of them and every light I own, but sadly the airlines don’t share my enthusiasm for having the right modifier for any given situation and I’m not prepared to sell my left kidney to pay for the excess luggage.

I’m working exclusively with speedlights on this trip and I’ve based my decision on portability, ease of use and quality of light. The two lights I’m bringing with me are a fold down beauty dish and a medium softbox. This will give me a great variety of lighting options and both modifiers are designed to be set up quickly and are very easy to use.

So how many light modifiers do you really need and which are the best ones?

All light shapers do pretty much the same thing. They control and diffuse light from your flash. Some do it in a very basic way without much finesse (like the umbrella) and require very little skill to master. Others (I’m looking at you, beauty dish) are very complicated and when used correctly, create dream lighting, but when used the wrong way, the dream becomes a complete nightmare.

The shape, quality and quantity of light is influenced by the shape, size and style of modifier.

Each of the light modifiers listed below can be purchased as budget, mid-range and high end.

If you’re not sure about a modifier, hire one first or borrow a friend’s to see if you like it.

Modifiers can be broken down into two groups:

  1. Soft light modifiers

Umbrellas, softboxes, umbrella boxes, octaboxes and scrims will all give a very soft light.

Soft light bounces all around the subject and fills any shadow areas. It’s by far the most flattering light source and is very similar to soft window light or the light outdoors on an overcast day.

Soft light can be used as a main light or as a fill light in conjunction with a hard light modifier. 

2. Hard light modifiers 

Bare bulb, grid spot, snoot, fresnel and beauty dish will all give a very hard light.

Hard light creates hard dark shadows. The smaller the light source, the harder the light relative to the subject. Classic hard light is midday sun on a clear day, when the sun is very high in the sky.

The Umbrella (Miss Congeniality)


  • This is the easiest light shaper to work with because the light is very soft and spreads around everywhere, making this the ideal light shaper to start out on.
  • Umbrella light is a great fill light that closely represents daylight, making it perfect for lighting large areas.


  • Umbrella light spreads everywhere making it very difficult to control lighting and create moody shots.
  • Umbrellas are a complete nightmare to work with outside because the slightest breeze turns them into a kite, taking your precious light with them.


The Softbox and Octabox (Mr Reliable)


  • Soft boxes create a soft light that is more contained than the light from an umbrella.
  • This is a better choice of light modifier if you only want to light certain areas of an image.
  • Soft boxes are completely enclosed and a much better light modifier to use outside because they are less likely to blow around in windy conditions.


  • The light is more contained in a softbox, which makes it difficult to light large areas.
  • Soft boxes are often fiddly and time consuming to set up and pack down. If you need to shoot really quickly then this is definitely something worth factoring in.
  • Soft boxes are more expensive than umbrellas.


The Umbrella Box (Miss Convenient)


  • The umbrella box is the most convenient of all the light modifiers because it combines the simplicity of the umbrella with the control of a soft box.
  • The box design eliminates the dangers of using this modifier outdoors.
  • They are also cheaper than softboxes so they make a really good first light modifier.


  • Cheap quality and materials means that these break very easily.


The Beauty Dish (Heaven and Hell)


  • The beauty dish creates a very hard controlled light. On the right skin tone this looks incredible because it creates a rapid fall from highlight to shadow, which really emphasizes bone structure. This is why this light modifier is a favourite of celebrity, fashion and portrait photographers.
  • The beauty dish is a relatively heavy and solid light modifier, so it’s perfect to use outdoors on a beach where it’s very windy.


  • This light modifier creates a very hard light and emphasizes every lump, bump and imperfection on the skin. This light modifier is not ideal for every skin tone and I find it works best on young models with great skin or older models to create character.
  • This is a very difficult light modifier to master and could easily be renamed the ugly dish.


The Deep Octabox (Best of Both Worlds)


  • The deep octabox is a combination softbox and beauty dish, so the light is still soft and controlled, but with more contrast that a traditional soft box.
  • This is my location light modifier of choice. It creates a really beautiful soft, yet crisp light and really nice round catchlights.


  • The deep octabox is one of the most expensive modifiers and it’s tricky to use with very little room for error.


Before selecting a light modifier, I think it’s really important to consider the following:

  • Your skill level as a photographer.
  • Hard light vs soft light.
  • Size of the area you are trying to light.
  • How easy it is to set up and pack down.
  • Your model.

If I was just starting out and could only buy one modifier, it would be a medium sized softbox or octabox. I think these are by far the most versatile and will work in every situation. They can also be used with speed lights and portable lights.

Lastolite Ezybox II Square Small 45x45cm

Lastolite LL LS2721 40.25-Inch Ezybox II Octa Large

What’s your “go to” modifier and why? Let me know, I’d love to hear from you.

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Gina Milicia is one of the most widely known and respected photographers in Australia. She is the master of capturing that ‘magical moment’... READ MORE

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