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Size Does Matter In Photography

The Smaller The Harder, The Larger The Softer

When it comes to size in photography, one often thinks of lenses, and while proper lens selection makes sense, it’s often dictated by a photographer’s shooting style, not necessarily hard rules. The same applies to photographic lighting, when it comes to selecting the size of a light modifier a professional photographer tends to choose the size based on their shooting style—but they also understand the principals and fundamentals of light.

Some photographer’s like hard lighting, others like it soft, and still others use a hybrid combination, however, many inexperienced photographers choose light modifiers because they are “cool” or someone else they admire is using that same gear, and herein is where many new photographers fall into a trap. They tend to purchase something because of marketing hype and not doing their research or understanding why it works for someone else, but perhaps not for them.

There are several reasons why a light modifier may not work for a photographer. The most common reason a photographer fails in light modifier selection is because they don’t understand the lighting principle that the quality of light is relative to the actual distance of the light modifier from the subject—not just the size of the actual light modifier.  As an example, one of the biggest misconceptions photographers often have is that soft boxes produce soft light constantly. While true if used properly, it’s not always true if a photographer doesn’t understand the primary fundamental of light—the smaller the light source in relation to the subject, the harsher the light, the larger the light source in relation to the subject, the softer the light quality.

Let’s illustrate this example by using the great outdoors. If you took the top off the sun to fill it with marbles the size of planet Earth, it would take over a million earths before you could put the top back on. Yep, the sun is humungous, but it’s also 93-million miles away, thus on a bright sunny day, it looks like one big marble from where we stand. This is why on a bright sunny day, the largest source of light in our universe, is harsh and hard, not soft. Just image for a moment how many Chimera soft boxes it would take to fill up the sun?

Model window, natural light

Often editors ask for “over-lit” backgrounds, as in this photo of Eleya where hte light source was just natural, filtered, window light.

Even though the sun is so huge, it’s distance to planet Earth is so far that the light becomes specular and harsh, not large and soft like the output of a Chimera Octa 57, which opens up to 5-feet across and with the optional extension becomes a 7-foot soft box, octagonal shaped. This seven-foot octabox, if placed near your subject, is pure soft light. Large sources of light, or light altered with large modifiers, are soft light when near the subject and larger than the subject, relatively. Though once distance is increased, between the light source and the subject, as in the case of the sun vs. the planet Earth, then the light becomes harsher with increased contrast, and specular.

Playboy Playmate Holley Dorrough

When Playboy Playmate Holley Dorrough came to me for her new “Playmate” promo headshot, I decided to use a Chimaera Octa 57 in its 5-foot width.

The physics of light state, “The more specular the light, the more harsh the light.” Think of it as someone pointing a flashlight at your subject in the dark, usually you’ll see some harsh shadows on the wall behind the subject. Soft boxes are no different. If we took a medium Chimera Super Pro soft box, approximately 3- by 4-foot rectangular dimension, and placed it twenty feet from our subject, it’s no longer a medium soft box, it is in fact a tiny soft box, or a harder, more specular light source that will increase contrast in the image.

Take that same medium Chimera Super Pro soft box and place it five feet from your subject and it becomes a source of light similar to a medium sized window, or a soft, sweet, forgiving light. This is important when working with female subjects. If your subject has a soft complexion, it’s not as much of an issue as if your subject has a more imperfect complexion. The key to remember when it comes to soft boxes, the larger the light source (soft box in this case) in relation to your subject, the softer the quality of the light, which in essence is like adding a layer of make-up to your subject. Yes, I’m repeating myself, forgive my U.S. Army background where drill sergeants teach by repetition (and push-ups), but that’s how we learn, through practice and repetition.

A photographer needs to understand why they’ve chosen a soft box over other light modifiers, like a beauty dish or a strip box. Basically, a traditional soft box, often simulates the size of standard windows in most ordinary homes and professional photographers know that one of the sweetest sources of light to work with is diffused window light, especially when it comes to working with female models.

This is light “passing through” a window, such as a strobe head placed on the back of a soft box emitting the light through the inner baffle then through the front of the soft box—this is direct light, diffused as it passes through the soft white materials, not reflected light which is what a beauty dish emits. The beauty dish does provide some soft light, reflected from dome to pan (board to board lighting), but if used properly, its design is a hybrid form—soft light with a contrast punch—thus not as soft as a soft box, but not as hard as specular light.

It’s often said, “There’s nothing sweeter than diffused window light.” I have to agree, especially when you place your subject next to a large, North-facing window. Not to worry if you can’t find a large window, just use something like the Chimera Super Pro Large Soft Box, which is approximately 4- by 6-foot in size, just like a large, standard window.

Private Photography Instruction with Model

While conducting a private photography instruction in North Dakota, the photographer and I illuminated Chandra with several light modifiers including an octabox and 7-inch relfectors with grids.

The combination of the white interior surface of the soft box with the fabric inner-baffle placed between the strobe head and the front of the soft box is like sweet, diffused sunlight coming through a window when the flash fires. A silver-lined soft box increases the overall light intensity with only a negligible increase in contrast and brilliance. Don’t get caught up in the marketing hype of soft boxes with dual-lined (gold/silver or white/silver) interiors.

An even sweeter, more diffused light is the Chimera OctPlus 57, which comes with a 5-foot, stop-sign-shaped looking front. If you have the room, the best way to go is with the optional 2-foot extension, which makes it seven feet across the front for an even more forgiving light modifier. Not to mention, an octabank is like an umbrella with a soft box front, it wraps the soft light around the subject for an even, natural, but soft effect. It’s what I like to call a fail-safe light modifier. An octabox, because of its shape, also produces a beautiful and more brilliant catch-light in the eyes of your subject.

Now let’s go back to the great outdoors, it too can turn into a large soft box. Remember that specular sun on a bright, sunny day? Well, when a sheet of clouds roll in, presto, you have the front of the soft box directly above us and much closer than the sun (thousands of feet, not 93 million miles), hence why cloudy days give us softer light, often shadow-less light.

Outdoor fill-flash model photo

When shooting outdoors, using fill-flash to add “pop” to an image is always effective.

The down side to “shadow-less” light is a lack of contrast, and often we want that “punch” in an image. There are several ways to accomplish this, one method is through post-production, tweaking the levels, curves, contrast, colors, or a combination of the four in Adobe Photoshop®. However, if you’re the type of photographer like me who likes to get it right in the camera, you can add contrast, or a flattering punch to your image with a little fill-flash. Just be careful, if it’s on-camera flash (speed lights), it’s still specular and harsher, so power it down so it just adds a “tad” of fill, not whole F/stops of light.

If your plans are to overpower the sun with flash, a technique often used by professional photographers, then ensure your light modifier is large and close to your subject—this is where portable studio flash units, like the Hensel Porty systems, come in handy.

In the end, understanding one of the primary fundamentals of light, the smaller the light source in relation to the subject, the harsher the light, is the foundation for great lighting if a photographer applies that knowledge when making choices in their light modifiers. Photographers must also understand the principle of distance of the light to the subject impacts light quality too. Bottom line—size (and distance) does matter when it comes to light modifiers, not just lenses.

I close by saying, don’t forget our men and women in uniform along with their families and friends, for they help protect our rights to practice photography both indoors and outdoors, not to mention protecting all our freedoms. God Bless them all! Rolando

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Welcome to (Lens Diaries™), a hybrid photography blog with social flair. The photoblog provides photo tips, photo tutorials and photo diaries by professional photographer, author, writer, speaker and social media consultant, Rolando Gomez.

Lens Diaries™ is open to all levels of photographers, beginners to advanced, including fine art photography, fashion photography, wedding photography, portrait photography, people photography, baby photography, sports photography, nature photography, iphoneography, landscape photography, studio photography, underwater photography, etc.

Our primary photography focus is digital photography and digital cameras. From iPhones to Canon’s and Nikon’s, you can count on us!