If you’re just getting into shooting portrait shots, here are some tips on adding the right light modifiers to get those professional looking photos. Now, you can get some amazing pictures shooting in just available light (if you have a fast enough lens) which I’ve done a lot. But for studio shots and many outdoor locations, you’ll want to upgrade from just an on camera speedlight.
First off, I’d definitely recommend you invest in some monolights. There are a lot of good brands out there. Personally, I use a lot of Paul C. Buff lighting equipment. The prices are very reasonable—especially for those just starting out. And, as you’ll find from other comments online, there customer service is outstanding.
When you purchase your monolights, you usually get a standard reflector to attach. In certain cases, you can just use this when you shoot. But most of the time, you’ll want to use a different modifier for a more pleasing effect. One of my favorite light modifiers is the beauty dish. You can get either a white or silver one. I have used both and think it’s really a matter of personal preference as to which is right for you. The silver BD does reflect more light which can be great outdoors, but may be too harsh inside—again just depends on the look you want. The white beauty dish is great for studio work and outdoor shots. You can also use grids and diffusion socks on your beauty dishes to further control the lighting. I’ve gotten some great dramatic shots using grids.
A lot of photographers prefer to use softboxes or octoboxes with their lights. They are great for softer diffused lighting indoors or as fill lights outside. These modifiers require a little more setup than a beauty dish, but are more portable. Personally, I like the beauty dish look over softboxes—both in terms of how skin tones are produced and the rounder catch lights in the eyes. But again, it’s really a matter of personal preference.
Umbrellas are another light modifier used by many photographers. They are primarily used indoors as the wind can play havoc during outdoor shoots. Umbrellas are often less expensive than softboxes or beauty dishes and you can use a silver one to get the reflected light or a white umbrella to shoot through for a look similar to a softbox or octobox.
Buff makes a large size umbrella system PLM or Parabolic Light Modifier. These are huge silver or white umbrellas that can really expand your light source. Lately, I’ve been using a white PLM to shoot through and really like the results. Instead of having to setup two monolights, I can just use one with the PLM and have more than enough lighting.
While Paul C. Buff and other top lighting companies sell their own light modifiers, you can also find some cheaper ones online. The quality does vary, but some are just as good at getting the right look as those more expensive ones. Monolights and light modifiers can really make your photos pop. Consider trying them out if you’re just not satisfied with your speedlights.