In the previous sections, we talked about the basic properties of light. In this post, we’ll discuss light modifiers – that is, devices that are used to shape and control light. Light modifiers are extremely useful, to the point of being nearly a necessity, particularly when shooting indoors but also even when shooting in sunlight. We’ll talk about some of the different types of modifiers and what they can be used for. In the next post, we’ll look at some practical ways that they can be used.
A softbox is a modifier that softens light. Specific details and construction vary, but all of them are basically designed the same way: they are enclosed containers with a white diffusive surface that comprises the front face. Light is focused forward through that front face, enlarging the light source and thus softening the light. There are two common configurations; with many smaller softboxes, the softbox is placed in front of the light, which fires forward through the diffusive surface, whereas with many larger softboxes, the light is placed inside the softbox, pointing to the rear, so that the light reflects back forward through the front surface.
There are a ton of softboxes available for purchase, and selecting the right one can be a confusing process. Fortunately, with anime figures, you don’t have to bother; you can build your own with materials that you probably already have. Indeed, being that there aren’t really any manufacturers that cater to the tabletop-shooting-with-desk-lamps market, building your own softbox to your own requirements may get you better results than anything you can buy.
To construct your own softbox, you will, of course, need a box. That likely won’t be a problem, being that most anime figure collectors will have a ton of shipping boxes. You will also need some sort of diffusive material; the typical material is some kind of white fabric. The softbox pictured above uses white fabric cut out from a fabric shower curtain. I folded the flaps on the open end back into the box to give it some rigidity; otherwise, the box tends to collapse very easily. To use this softbox, you would simply put your light in the open end and shine it forward. Note that one thing I did not do was to glue or tape some white paper in the interior of the box; being that most boxes are brown, they will impart a very slight warm cast to the light. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since warm light is generally more pleasant to look at than bluish or greenish light, but it is something to be aware of. We’ll revisit this idea of color casts a couple more times.
The optimal size of your softbox will, of course, depend on what you’re photographing. For figures, I typically use a softbox that measures 8 inches by 9 inches (19 by 21 centimeters) and I find that it delivers very soft light on anything up to about 1/5 scale. I think that a box that is a few inches taller than what the largest figure you’d typically shoot would work okay, but you will of course need to take into account your own space requirements and desired photographic style.
I use flashguns for the most part now, but back when I used desk lamps, this is the softbox that I used:
This sad-looking contraption comprised the key light for most of my photographs up to around February 2011 – over a hundred reviews. It worked well for me, and it was one of the most essential elements of my photographic toolkit. Hopefully the softbox you use will be a little more robust and cleanly constructed.
A scrim is basically a softbox without the box; it’s just a diffusion surface, sometimes mounted to a frame. They are sometimes used when lighting large areas where it would be impossible to find an adequately-sized softbox; for example, when lighting a large group of people outdoors, or when lighting a large object such as an automobile. They are sometimes improvised; for example, it’s common for photographers to use a white curtain or bedsheet in a window to soften incoming sunlight.
In anime figure photography, I often taped a white paper towel to my desk lamps, to soften the light a bit. It would spread out a bit, and then it would soften even more when used with a softbox. Do note that if you are double-diffusing your lamp in this manner, you need some space between the two diffusive surfaces; you can’t just stack them up one after another. All you’re doing when you do that is cutting down your light output.
Also note that apparently, the term “scrim” seems to mean something along the lines of a neutral density filter in theatre lighting. My advice is to not worry too much about the specificity of photographic terminology and instead think more about the context and meaning. In photography, it’s tempting to be pedantic but frankly, I don’t think it’s very helpful.
Other Light-Softening Devices
There are a whole host of other tools used to soften light: reflectors, umbrellas, beauty dishes, and so on. We’ve talked extensively about using reflectors as fill cards, so I won’t get into that here. I have no experience using umbrellas, but my experience suggests that for anime figures, they’re overkill. I do have some experience with beauty dishes; Adorama sells a very small beauty dish under their Flashpoint brand name, and I bought it to try it out. Unfortunately, I found that it didn’t work very well; it imparted a very warm color cast to the light, which made it useless to me.
A snoot is a funny name for a simple concept; it’s basically a tube that wraps around your light to constrain its spread. A longer tube obviously results in a tighter beam of light.
There are some companies that sell professionally-made snoots, but it’s trivially easy to build your own. I recommend using black construction paper or posterboard; you really want to use a black material, since any colored material will impart a color cast to the light, which you don’t want (I used to use red construction paper for snoots and then I’d find little red highlights on my figure photos). If you want to make them more durable, you can wrap them up with black tape; the snoot depicted above is wrapped in black gaffer’s tape.
Snoots are tremendously useful for shaping light. What’s more, you can use them in conjunction with other modifiers, such as your softbox, which gives you a light that is a little softer and a little more directional. Remember that lighting is often very nuanced and subtle, and I highly recommend experimenting with different combinations of tools to see what different looks you can get.
A grid, sometimes called a gridspot or (when used with a large softbox) egg crate grid, is also a device that constrains the spread of light. It has two advantages over a snoot; it is smaller and it is generally more effective at limiting the spread of light. They are also much more time-consuming and annoying to construct yourself (there are some DIY guides involving cutting up cardboard or drinking straws, but I’ve always found it to be a big hassle). Grids that mount to flashguns are not too expensive, but it’s harder to find grids that will mount to desk lamps (though there are companies that sell pre-cut sheets of honeycomb material, and I recall that Adorama sells a set of grids for that aforementioned beauty dish, and those might fit a standard desk lamp).
A flag – sometimes called a gobo, a cutter, or (when used in pairs) barn doors – is basically just some material placed next to a light that blocks its spread. A flag is typically rectangular in shape and is often used to block spill, particularly from the key light onto the background, or from a background light onto the subject. A flag can also be placed to prevent light from flaring into the lens; this is particularly useful with rim lights, especially if you aren’t using a lens hood.
Flags are extremely useful, and I use them all the time. The picture above shows one of the flags I frequently use (it’s actually the snoot pictured above, unrolled and attached by velcro to the side of the flash head). I typically (but not always) like to light the background separately, and using a combination of a split light position with a flag blocks a lot of light from hitting the background.
Flags obviously don’t have to be very fancy; the ones I use are made of regular printer paper, wrapped up in tape. I also frequently use pieces of cardboard. However, I really recommend wrapping your flags in black tape, or using black material. Stray light reflecting off your flag can cause warm color casts (even cardboard can reflect some light), and sometimes it can cause other complications. For example, here’s an image of Samus Aran; notice that brown outline running down her right side? What do you think that is? You can probably guess; it’s a reflection of the flag I used to block one of the background lights from lighting up the figure. I wanted to use that picture in Samus’s review, so I had to spend a lot of time getting rid of the problem in Photoshop; it would’ve been easier to have just used a black flag in the first place.
A cookie – a shortened version of the term “cuculoris” – is an object placed in front of a light to cast a shadow or pattern on the scene. Obviously you need to use a fairly hard light; otherwise, the shadow’s edge will be diffuse and possibly unrecognizable (although it’s possible that might actually be what you want).
Perhaps the most famous cookie is the “Bat-signal” featured in the Batman series. Also, a gobo is sometimes used to describe this sort of device, particularly in stage lighting; again, I wouldn’t worry too much about specific terminology.
Neutral Density Gels (and Substitutes)
A neutral density gel is a fancy, high-tech term for a piece of transparent gray plastic. What this does is cut down light, typically by a pre-calculated amount. You can typically buy sheets of neutral density gel rated to drop light by one-half stops, full stops, or two stops.
These can be handy things to have when using improvised lights like desk lamps. Many professional photographic lights (like flashguns and dedicated LED lights) have adjustable power output but desk lamps typically do not, and sometimes – maybe often times – you will want one light to be brighter than another light. Neutral density gels give you the ability to control relative light brightness.
However, when I used desk lamps, I just used paper towels and toilet paper instead. I’d tape them over the lamp and if I needed to cut down the brightness even further, I’d just tape another one on. It worked well and I didn’t have to spend any extra money.
If you use desk lamps, it can also be handy to have light bulbs of different brightness. You can typically find compact fluorescent light bulbs in 60W and 100W equivalent sizes, so if you need one light to be brighter, you could use the brighter light bulb with that lamp.
A Note About Product Boxes
I really do not recommend using a product box for photographing anime figures. For one thing, they’re unnecessary; you can get very soft light without one. They’re very restrictive; you obviously can’t get low or high angle shots without getting the box in the picture, unless you’re using an absolutely gigantic box. They also limit your creativity; for example, you obviously can’t use hard light or a custom-made background unless you disassemble part of it – and if you’re going to do that, why bother with it at all?
What product boxes are good for are for photographs where you need pictures to be very consistent – product shots, for example. If you’re photographing bottles of shampoo for your local supermarket’s weekly sales flyer, then a product box makes a lot of sense. However, I don’t think product boxes make sense for anime figures.
The next post, which will wrap up this guide, will feature a few sample shoots, where we’ll take what we’ve learned and integrate it all together.