Tools to Manipulate Light

Tools to manipulate the Light in your Photographs

What you see with light isn’t always what you get, what you want, or what you are stuck with in Photography. There are a variety of tools that can be used during your shoot to manipulate the light in order to create balance, a mood, to soften or increase the light in your photograph. The choice of which tool to use depends on how you want the photograph to appear and some of the tools can be created fairly inexpensively if you are just starting out.

Flashes / strobe lights
Flashes and strobes can be used as a main source of light or as a fill light in photography. They are useful in every field of photography, even in landscape photography. Adding a little artificial light on a particular subject in the scene can really enhance the overall image.

A gel is a piece of colored cellophane that you place over your flash head or the strobe light. Gels are available individually or in more pocketbook-friendly multiple gel kits, which may contain anywhere from half a dozen to 20 or more different color variations. There are a variety of gels to choose from: primary, secondary, and tertiary colors. The light passes through the gel to add color in your scene.

Diffusers and Gobos
A diffuser is any device that spreads out or scatters light in some manner, to give a softer quality of light. There is a variety of different diffusers that you can purchase or make on your own.  A GOBO derived from “Goes Before Optics” is a template slotted inside, or placed in front of, a lighting source and it is used to control the shape of emitted light. There are different patterns on the gobos which cast the emitted light in different patterns on your scene.

A scrim is basically a framed piece of cloth that filters light; the thicker the cloth the less light that comes through it. You can buy them at any photo equipment retailer or you can be cheap like me and make your own …for under 10 bucks! I ended up making several different sized scrims out of 1/2″ PVC pipe and fabric from the art supply store. I simply sewed the edges like a curtain hem so the pipes could run through each side then pieced the pipes together with PVC elbows; I didn’t glue the pipes because I wanted to be able to disassemble the frames for transport, and so I could switch out the fabrics anytime I needed. A scrim can also be used as a reflector and with different colored fabric you can create color casts in your photographs.

I normally stay away from foil reflectors because they can reflect a harsh light back at your subject. I normally employee a 12″, 24″, or 36″ soft white reflector for portraits; for small subjects like flowers I use a 4″ x 6″  or a 6″ x 9″ piece of white card board that fit right into a pocket in my camera bag. When I first started out all of my reflectors were made out of white cake boards and aluminum foil. If I wanted to add color to the reflectors I used the colored Saran wrap. They were not very pretty or professional looking if taken on a portrait shoot but it worked in a pinch. For my situation, it helped me get through school without having to buy all the expensive equipment and tools right away.

Lightboxes are diffusers that you place your subject into and photograph them while the subject is sitting inside the box. Light boxes are mainly used in commercial photography for product shots. The light will bounce around inside of the box to produce a nice even light on the subject. I do however use them for some of my floral photographs while working in the studio. When I was in school this was another item that I built myself for just a few dollars.

Lens filters

Lens filters are filters that you can put onto your camera lens to control the light. There are a variety of different filters available but the most popular are neutral density, graduated neutral density and warming/cooling or color filters.

Filter Type Primary Use Common Subject Matter
Linear & Circular
Reduce Glare
Improve Saturation
Sky / Water / Foliage
in Landscape Photography
Neutral Density (ND) Extend Exposure Time Waterfalls, Rivers
under bright light
Graduated Neutral
Density (GND)
Control Strong Light Gradients
Reduce Vignetting
Dramatically Lit Landscapes
UV / Haze Improve Clarity with Film
Provide Lens Protection
Warming / Cooling Change White Balance Landscapes, Underwater,
Special Lighting

This is just a brief overview of the tools that can be used, please check back for more in-depth articles on each of these tools. I hope you found this article helpful…happy shooting!

4 thoughts on “Tools to Manipulate Light

  1. Errolyn Hatch

    Thanks for the follow. I loved checking out your site. As a novice photographer, I’m impressed by all of your work and thanks for sharing the tools to manipulate light. The chart is especially helpful! I will be back to learn more 🙂

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