I Built That: 5 Homemade Light Modifier Recipes

November 20, 2017

By Greg Scoblete

Why do photographers build their own light modifiers? Some do it to save money. Others to scratch a creative itch or solve a problem. Others to better understand their craft. PDN spoke with five photographers to learn the hows and whys of their homemade modifiers.

© Joe Edelman

Joe Edelman rigged a shoot-through umbrella with a foam core disc at the center for a softbox effect. Cost: $13. © Joe Edelman

Joe Edelman’s Beauty Dish

“Any good photographer is a good problem solver,” Joe Edelman says. In his case, the problem was how to get the “dramatic but flattering” light of a beauty dish on a budget. His solution was to build his own using a shoot-through umbrella. He opted for a 30-inch umbrella which, since it doesn’t have a true 30-inch diameter, was “just slightly bigger than most beauty dishes,” he says.

“I knew that the umbrella would throw a lot of light around the room but that didn’t concern me because I quickly established that I would want to place the umbrella very close to my subject to ensure rapid light fall-off, just like I would get with a beauty dish,” he says.

To avoid hotspots caused by placing such a large modifier close to his subject, Edelman cut a piece of inexpensive foam core and placed it in the middle of the umbrella. “I simply took a dinner plate and used it as my template to cut the circle. Depending on your umbrella, you can just poke the end of the umbrella through the foam core, or if your umbrella doesn’t have a point, a small circle of gaffer tape will hold the very light foamcore in place,” he says.

“By placing the disc in the middle [of the umbrella], it blocks the light at its brightest point—especially if you are using a speed light—and forces the light to wrap around your subject,” Edelman notes. “But because of the closeness of the umbrella—that wrap has a very rapid falloff.”

You can build your own for about $13, Edelman says—$12 for a shoot-through umbrella and a buck for the foamcore at your local dollar store.

© Amanda Ringstad

Rather than drop thousands on the real thing, Amanda Ringstad built her boxlite out of a discarded Ikea organizer. The resulting effect can be seen on the right. © Amanda Ringstad

Amanda Ringstad’s Boxlite

“I actually really like making modifiers because it’s kind of like craft time,” Amanda Ringstad told us for her PDN’s 30 interview. Beyond the creative outlet, building modifiers has helped her understand lighting better—and save money.

One of her favorite modifiers to build is a derivation of the Broncolor Boxlite. “Since I shoot a lot of still life/tabletop scenarios, having a light that is not obtrusive, is an edge-to-edge light and can be used in multiple ways is ideal,” she says. A real boxlight can run into the thousands of dollars, but Ringstad’s is far more economical.

“I have made different versions of this modifier with other materials, but for me this one [pictured] is the best one I’ve made so far, mostly because its solves the problem well, plus took little money and effort,” she says. “I was helping a friend move her studio and she was tossing this Ikea paper organizer. It dawned on me that a metal cube could work well for this modifier. I used black foil to replace the back and cut a hole for the light source.”

Ringstad uses cut opaque acrylic to fit the opening and has extra pieces to layer on and increase the diffusion as needed. “There are small magnets with wire that attach to the cube that keeps the acrylic in place.”

For Ringstad, the DIY boxlite is more than just an economical tool. “Using my own modifier is a fun [way to] experiment and come up with ideas that I wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s part of the learning process for me.”

© David Patiño

A detail of the PVC pipes, lug nuts and clamps on Patiño’s DIY scrim. © David Patiño

David Patiño’s Scrim

Like many new photographers, early in his career David Patiño had a keen eye for cost savings. Rather than drop about $300 on a 6 x 6-foot scrim, Patiño saw a brand-name scrim online and decided to reverse engineer it.

Patiño designed a frame with 1.5-inch diameter PVC pipes, Cardellini clamps he already owned and sheer fabric. The pipes were held together by corner clamps that were screwed in for a bit more security. The fabric was hooked around lug nuts and could be removed in favor of taped-on diffusion paper, he says.

The scrim not only had the benefit of being significantly less expensive than a store-bought alternative, Patiño says, but was also lighter weight. Can it withstand the rigors of intense road work? No—but it managed to survive in an active studio setting for several years, he says.

© Nick Fancher

Behind-the-scenes with a model and Nick Fancher’s hand-built modifier, and the final image. © Nick Fancher

Nick Fancher’s Speed Light Barndoors

Portrait photographer Nick Fancher hit upon his modifier after searching for a creative solution to a portrait lighting challenge.

“I had a portrait shoot coming up and had the idea to make a thin ray of pure white light illuminating the subject’s eyes,” Fancher says. “I didn’t just want a spot of light on him, as a grid snoot would provide, but instead I wanted a thin line of light that ran across the wall and led through the frame to his face.” It was then that he realized he needed a barn door for his flash, but after “coming up short” at the camera store, he went the DIY route.

“I grabbed a sheet of black foam board, some black gaffer tape and a utility knife,” he recalls. After measuring the width and height of the end of his flash, he cut pieces of foam board to match it. “After taping the four pieces together to make a tight-fitting box for the flash, I cut two additional strips of foam board and taped them over the opening. These flaps were the barn doors.”

The gaffer tape over the seams allowed them to hang open at a rough 45-degree angle. “If I wanted an extremely small opening, I could pinch the flaps closed to the desired opening and then hold them in position with a strip of tape,” Fancher says.

“The best part about the modifier is that you can smash it flat in your camera bag once it’s removed from the flash because there is an opening on the front and back of it. It’s the smallest, cheapest and most effective light modifier that I own and I use it now on almost every shoot.”

For Mat Sutor, building a modifier led to building his own factory to commercialize the design. It’s in his garage. Courtesy of 3D Flex Flash

Mat Sutor’s WYNG

Many DIY modifiers live out their glorious lives in obscurity, known only to their creators. Mat Sutor chose to commercialize his, but he not only built his own product. He built his own factory.

Holly and Mat Sutor, the wife-and-husband duo that is Sutography Weddings, had used “every flash diffuser there was” and were always left wanting, says Mat Sutor. “We found that we actually liked the look of plain craft paper with a rubber band around the speed light to bounce and reflect the light at the same time.”

While craft paper and rubber bands are fine instruments, they’re not built for the rigors of wedding photography. Sutor knew the basic design of the modifier he wanted—one that closely resembled the paper rig he and his wife routinely used—but couldn’t find anyone to prototype it. “In 2013, my wife discovered that her cousin was doing 3D design, so he made a model for us.”

Sutor found a local shop with a 3D printer that agreed to print out a prototype. At the time, the filaments used in 3D printers were hard plastic, but Sutor needed the modifier to be more flexible. Fortunately, just as Sutor was casting about for better materials, Ninjatek introduced one of the first flexible filaments, dubbed NinjaFlex.

For a while, Sutor and his wife “were the only ones using our product.” After field testing what they dubbed the WYNG, the Sutors realized they wanted to tweak the design. The original model had a curved back but Sutor found that a flat back would reflect more light. The resulting, final WYNG is a lightweight, 2-ounce piece of plastic that slides over the top of a speed light. “It’s not obscuring the top of the flash, so you’re not losing light,” Sutor says. And unlike the craft paper and rubber band kit it replaces, the WYNG can be tossed in a gear bag, roughed up and not crumble to pieces.

With a revamped 3D design file in place, Sutor created the company, 3D Flex Flash, to market it. He also decided to try his own hand at 3D printing. Whereas printing with hard plastic filaments is fairly plug-and-play, Sutor says he found a much steeper learning curve with the more flexible material. One particular challenge was finding a program that could transform the WYNG’s 3D design file into individual flat “slices” so the printer knows how to lay down the liquefied plastic, one 0.3 millimeter layer at a time.

“If the printer makes too many moves, you can get sloppy globs” of plastic, not clean edges, Sutor says. After trying many “slicing” programs, he found one that could interpret the 3D file correctly.

Then, he built a factory to produce the WYNG. It consists of several LulzBot 3D printers that produce the WYNG and another modifier (dubbed the NEST), Sutor designed for distribution through B&H Photo and Amazon. It’s located in the Sutors’ garage.

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