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Light is the most important element of any photograph and creating it in studio conditions can be challenging at first, but ultimately very rewarding. Learning to shoot with artificial light means acquiring an in depth understanding of how light works.
Learning about studio lighting should be done gradually and it should start with learning to use a single flash. I've come across beginners who would try to learn studio lighting by skipping the very basics and trying to light a scene with three or four flashes. That's like learning to drive on a Lamborghini. One flash is all you need to start with. As soon as you start using it, you'll probably notice the results aren't as good looking as you'd expect. That's probably because all bare flashes produce harsh, uneven light that will also cast rough shadows. It's not the best looking light and it's certainly a lot different from what you see in portfolios of photographers you admire.
This is where light modifiers come in. You see, probably the most important investment in studio gear is represented by light modifiers. They are the tools to use for shaping light and giving it the exact look you want.
Light modifiers come in a lot of different shapes and sizes and all of them affect flash light differently. They also have different uses. Some of the most common modifiers are reflective umbrellas, shoot-through umbrellas, softboxes, octoboxes and beauty dishes, but there are many more.
The size of a modifier will affect the softness of the light. Thus, a small softbox will produce a softer light than that of a bare flash, but a harder light than that produced by a large octobox.
Following this guideline, the larger the modifier is, the softer the light will be.
Shape will also affect the final result. Because it influences the catch light in the eyes and the overall distribution of light. While a 60x60cm softbox will be ideal for shooting headshots, a narrow, vertical softbox is the best choice for full body portraiture.
Beginners usually start with umbrellas though, and that's because they are very easy to mount and use. They can be used with great results, but they do have certain drawbacks, like loss of light. To see how light modifiers work in studio conditions, check out this Adorama TV video with photographer Mark Wallace.