Giant soft boxes. Parabolic umbrellas that look like radar stations. Reflectors equaling the size of tea clipper top-sails from a time when photography was young and nothing but alchemy - or even blasphemy. Size does matter when it comes to light formers - so they say.
We are living in a world of extremes, aren't we? It’s either "supersize me" or "small is beautiful", where the latter usually applies to consumer hardware, environmental compliant cars or skinny super models - and in all cases it’s a euphemism for being charged with a premium while getting less. Photography usually applies the "size does matter" formula: That could be a camera body, as solid as an Edwardian bookshelf. Lenses, deliberately sized to compensate for any shortcoming its owner may feature, now or at any given time in the future. And, talking light formers, gargantuan light banks that could easily be misinterpreted as military communication equipment by any drone that happens to pass by, armed and certainly remotely dangerous.
While there might be some logical reasoning – in addition to boosting the photographer’s morale - for the heavy artillery look on cameras and lenses, however with light it is supposed to be a whole different ballgame. For portraiture, everyone seems to be heading for the so-called soft light. Which does call for at least one big light source, and – as they say – the bigger the better. That’s because of the laws of physics as a big light source in relation to a smaller subject will allow the light to gently wrap around it, thus softening the look by not casting hard shadows and smoothing transitions.
And you can’t argue with physics and expect to be on the winning side, except if your social media status confirms you being at least mythological. But even if you are not, you may want to rejoice: physics tends to be somewhat relative, and that's not entirely my idea. It very much depends on what you are trying to achieve, especially when shooting outdoors. For budget or practical reasons, you may just have only a small or even no light former at hand, but of course there is usually the available light at hand. That’s why it is called available – as it is, just like the Force in those ancient but original Star Wars movies, always around, encasing everyone *and* it does come for free.
Which then allows you to use either one of the two sources to be your main or fill light, thus controlling, directing or possibly taming the overall contrast in your frame. Furthermore the more ambient you would like to retain in your shot, the less important the size, shape and type of your light former will be, as the ambient acts as a natural fill light, camouflaging the size of your main light. Example: your camera reads the scene with f5.6, 250th of a second at ISO 100. You could set your strobe to deliver the exact same f-stop – or even a tad *below* - just to get a highlight in the eye and a very slight and decent lift of the shadows. One click more and the subject starts to receive a more uniform lighting, which usually cleans the skin. All of this – and more – does not require a very fancy or oversized attachment to your strobe. Especially when just heading for a little hint of light you may even keep your flashgun on your camera, as there is no need to make things more complicated than they should be.
And apart from the fact that you don’t always need go big and bulky, there are some more practical reasons for the small and sturdy reflector approach. One, it is small and sturdy, making it easy to pack and easy to transport or move on location. Two, as it so small, it can be covered easily in case it rains - just wrap a translucent bag around it. Three, the wind is no longer your biggest enemy. Four, their efficiency will allow you to shoot with a smaller power setting, thus conserving battery life and enjoying a faster recycling (See also: Power Issues) . And - finally - five, the light usually has a better reach, allowing you to position the lightstand a bit further away from your subject, therefore giving you more room to play without having to constantly move the light out of the frame.
Besides these practical considerations, I do like the shape, edge and punch a hard light delivers. That's why small reflectors have become a strong first consideration whenever I plan to use strobes outdoors. Not every face will benefit from a hard source, nor is it a safe old bet like a predictable big soft box is. Sometimes it is even not a good idea at all, but when it works, it really shines as it defines forms and structures in much more refined way than a broad light source. Sometimes I do have the strange feeling that the reason why dodge & burn in postproduction has become so popular lately is because many seem to shoot soft, plain and forgiving at first, only to then paint in the desired definition that went lost by adding in lights and shadows thus sculpting manually.
So, next time you see a giant Briese light bank in one of those supermodel talent shows, you may want to take a second look and try to determine the reason why it is there - and why it is so distant and why it is pointing towards Ulan Bator. Maybe it is just eye-candy. Just there to impress the audience or the junior art-director on duty. Just keep in mind that as long as you are shooting outdoors (or, to be more precise, in any environment that has a lot of usable available light), the type and the size of the light former might not always be as crucial as you think. In fact, it might not be that crucial at all.
Disclaimer: I don't dodge and I am too lazy to burn. I have no intention in becoming a digital artist or a painter. Everything I do, I do with light. Yeah, call me crazy. And please like this if you do, or comment if you don't.