Photography Tips: Lighting Modifiers on a Budget

Once you have had some time to play with lighting — speedlights, strobes, or continuous — you will discover that modifying the quality of the light is the really fun part. It’s tempting to spend big bucks to get new looks, and we often think that a new piece of lighting equipment will take our photography to the next level. In reality, creativity stretches much further. Coming up with creative lighting solutions when you are on a budget is a great way to push both yourself and your photography skills.

Here are a few ideas for light modifiers on the cheap to help get you started playing with light, even on the tightest budget.

A $2 piece of foam is an excellent reflector

A $2 piece of foam is an excellent reflector

5-in-1 reflector

In my opinion, you can’t get any more bang for your buck than a quality 5-in-1 reflector. For about $40, you get five different options with which to change the quality of your light. You need some sort of light to start with, whether it’s direct sunlight, window light or a flash. But the 5-in-1 lets you diffuse light, bounce a hard light, bounce a soft light, bounce a warm light and take away light.

5-in-1 reflector

5-in-1 reflector

White or silver umbrella

If you already have a flash of some sort, picking up a white or silver umbrella will give you a lot more options for soft light. For $20, one of these umbrellas can give you a nice wraparound portrait light when used close to your subject. Use this with a 5-in-1 and you’ve multiplied your options.

The white umbrella is generally a “shoot-through” umbrella where you point it toward your subject. The silver umbrella is pointed away from your subject and produces a harder beam of light. Both are great and yield different looks.

A white umbrella (left) and a silver umbrella

Diffusion panel

There are some fancy diffusion panels out there with soft grips and sturdy, lightweight frames. I prefer the DIY method (and much cheaper method) of buying a sheet of diffusion fabric and making my own frame out of PVC pipe. A large sheet should cost around $20 and the pipe should be about $5-10. When used outside you can create your own shade when the sun is even directly overhead. Used with flashes, it acts almost like a giant softbox. You can make these in just about any size and the most awesome thing is that they break down for easy storage.

White foam core board

My first lighting modifier was a white piece of foam core board. You can purchase one that is big enough for a head and shoulders portrait for less than $5. The foam core should be placed close enough to the subject that you can bounce some additional light in as a fill or a catchlight in their eyes.

Foil window frame

Anything that reflects or changes the quality of light can be used as a modifier. Crinkled up foil is a good example because it is highly reflective and bounces the light in nonuniform directions. Try using it in different configurations: in sheets, in strips or as a frame. This is another modifier that costs less than your lunch.

Foam speedlight bouncer

There are quite a few speedlight modifiers out there for event photography, like the Gary Fong Lightsphere, Sto-fen Omni-Bounce, or those mini-softboxes. My favorite is still a piece of foam taped to the top of my flash. For about $2, it takes a pretty hard light, bouncing some of it off the ceiling and some of it forward, filling in shadows and giving you a pretty decent quality of light for the size. If it didn’t look so cheap, I would use it all the time.

There are a ton of other Do-It-Yourself modifier ideas out there, and entire websites devoted to them run by people making stuff on a budget. I’m sure some of you have made some creative modifiers too.

What are some of your best modifiers for people on a budget?

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