The Ultimate Light Modifier Shoot Out and Test


As someone who has taught off camera lighting for some years now, as well as taught dozens of workshops on the topic – I’ve always heard the same question from photographers who are using off camera lighting for the first time. “What’s the difference between ____ and ____.” When working with off camera lighting, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the large variety of tools you have available to you. What’s the difference between an octabox and a regular softbox? I’ve often tried to explain these differences, but it’s always best to just show them with light, so I rented out a ton of gear and decided to demonstrate the difference between each light using my friend Trevor as a model.

All of these tests were performed at 2ft, 5ft, and 8ft from the subject. These were taken using a variety of light modifiers available for rental here at, as well as from my personal collection of modifiers. Additionally, they were metered and left unedited while being taken in a controlled environment in a studio. All test lighting were also performed using a Profoto B1 lighting unit. Additionally, these were taken at a 45-degree angle, shot directly onto the subject (not feathered). And finally, the light was exposure balanced to the subjects face and adjusted based on the distance to match the exposure – while the exposures aren’t 100% perfect, it was the best that could be done with the given constraints.

Profoto B1 Strobe (Bare)

These photos are taken with the Profoto B1 strobe without the use of a modifier.


Profoto OCF 24″ Foldable Beauty Dish

Taken using the Profoto OCF 24″ Foldable Beauty Dish.


21″ Beauty Dish

Taken using the Profoto Beauty Dish in White.


XL Umbrella White

Taken using the Profoto XL Umbrella in White. Similar results can be found using the PCB 64″ PLM in Silver.


XL Umbrella Silver

Taken using the Profoto XL Umbrella in Silver. Similar results can be found using the PCB 64″ PLM in Silver.


Large Umbrella White

Taken using the Profoto Large Umbrella in White. Similar results can be found using the PCB Foldable Octabox 47″.


Medium Umbrella White

Taken using the Profoto Medium Umbrella in White. Similar results can be found using the Westcott 43″ Collapsable Umbrella.


47″ PCB Octabox Without Front Baffle


47″ PCB Octabox With Front Baffle


PCB Strip Box Without Front Baffle


PCB Strip Box with Front Baffle


2’x3′ Softbox With Front Baffle


Large PCB Softbox (30″x60″)


Westcott Rapid Box


Large Profoto Octabox (5ft)

Taken using the Profoto Large Octabox. Similar results can be found using the PCB Foldable Octabox 47″.



As you can see, this test showed me that there is a lot of diversity when it comes to lighting modifiers. Between distance and placement, a single modifier can be very soft or hard lighting. This is due to the correlation of distance from the subject. When the lighting modifier is closer to the subject, it is bigger by their perspective, thus providing a softer light. When the modifier and light begin moving away from the subject, their perspective of the light shrinks, and will provide harder light as a result.

While the test was initially about seeing how the size and shape effects the subjects face, I quickly found myself to be more interested in how it affects the background. Naturally, the smaller the light source, the more controlled the light becomes, and that as the light gets larger, so does the spill from the light. This is where the control aspects of lighting come into play more than anything.

So what did we learn today? Well first, lighting isn’t as complicated as many may have thought. A lot of the lights modifiers had very similar results and weren’t nearly as unique as many would try to claim. However, these were controlled tests shot directly on the subject – obviously feathering and using the modifiers in unique ways will show you where they shine. But if nothing else, hopefully, this has convinced you to give lighting modifiers a try, as this has shown that they’re not as complicated as you thought.


Zach Sutton Editor

Author: Zach Sutton

I’m Zach and I’m the editor and a frequent writer here at I’m also an editorial and portrait photographer in Los Angeles, CA, and offer educational workshops on photography and lighting all over North America.

Posted in Equipment
  • Marc Stowe

    Great article and the results are presented very well. Above all else though, the fact your model never changed expression throughout the entire shoot is killer!

  • Justin Berrington

    Hey Zach, Love this post. These are the types of articles that protect my bank account. haha.

    After looking through the images, one of the things I found really interesting was the differences in shadow density. Particularly between the Profoto OCF 24″ folding beauty dish and the Profoto 21″ beauty dish. The 21″ shadows are less dense than the 24″ shadows. I would have guessed opposite just based on modifier size. I suppose depth of the modifier and the material may play a roll in shadow density as well.

    Would love to hear your thoughts on this.

  • David Alexander

    While I find this a useful empirical test, you might describe in greater detail how you can predict the effect of each modifier.

    We can say:

    * The smaller a light is relative to the subject, the sharper the shadow transitions will be.
    * The closer a light is to the subject, the higher the contrast of the shadow transitions will be.
    * Light falls off with the square of distance.

    A good illustration is the bare bulb at 2 feet and the 21″ beauty dish at 8 feet. The two lights are (more or less) the same relative size, so we’d expect the shadow transitions to be equally smooth; and so they are. The bare bulb is much closer, though, so we’d expect much higher contrast; and so it is.

    If we use a modifier with reflective foil, we’re trading an even light source for one with one or more concentrations. These concentrations are effectively smaller lights, so we can expect (and indeed see) sharper shadow transitions.

    Many modifiers are intended to control lighting spill on backgrounds. Should we care about spill? Considering the third principle, no, if the light is sufficiently close relative to the background. That positioning introduces compromises in the shadow transitions we can predict as above.

    It’s all straightforward enough with a little thought.

  • Christopher J. May

    Certainly a different gig for a model to be sure!

    And taildraggin, it could be worse. They could have used Roger. J/K, Roger! Couldn’t resist!

  • D’awww. Poor Trevor. He’s actually a model with LA Models if you can believe it.

    Just the “Sit here, don’t move, and hold a blank expression” isn’t usually his best look.

  • taildraggin

    Aye. And, for the lazy among us, the more attractive the subject, the less noticed the lighting. (you really notice the lighting here.)

  • steven_nc

    Exploit what you have before moving to something else. That’s not a bad lesson.

  • This study was an interesting one. It really just affirmed what I already knew, that the speciality in lighting doesn’t come from the tools, but how they’re used.

    It was really frustrating to do all this testing and see that the large majority of the light shapers were visually close to identical, and the speciality within them comes from how they’re used. Cause that speciality can’t really be shown in a controlled environment and highlight the technicalities of each.

  • taildraggin

    Closer, bigger, baffles, grids… Great topic.

    One of those things (like lenses) that you would have to test all the types and brands and try to sort it out. Or, we buy whatever someone recommends and end up using a roll of tape, tissue, cardboard, and reflectors all over the place.

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