You’ll have to forgive me a little geekery for this article. I have been on the lookout for a second diffusing umbrella for my strobist (artificially illuminated) photography for a little while and on returning to Foto Zumstein in Bern this week, and them still having none in stock, I decided to take advantage of a 50% discount to upgrade to a large multi-use reflector/diffuser.
The Helios 5-in-1 (actually 6 uses, bear with me…) is a 75cm disc in a bag when folded up, which unfolds with a pop to a 120cm x 168cm rectangle. You can use a Helios of this size (and other comparable reflector/diffusers) as a diffuser (to soften light falling on your subject), a reflector, with both silver and warming gold surfaces, a shade (using a black surface included in the set) to block unwanted light, and (the sixth use) as a small plain background for head and shoulder portraits. The Helios is light and portable, and even the notoriously tricky manoeuvre to return it to the collapsed disc size is fairly easily achievable… if you have long arms and a little time to practice!
The series of shots in the gallery show the results in my home studio space, for the shoot-through (diffuser) option, as well as for the reflective versions. (You can download the photos from this article here, by the way.) The light source here was provided by a couple of Nikon SB26 flash guns, but the type of light effect you achieve would also work well with direct sunlight; either placing the diffuser between your subject and the sun, or by positioning them with the sun at a 45° angle behind them and reflecting the sunlight back onto them.
In all of the examples, using the Helios to provide an large single light source means that the surrounding area is also filled with light. To achieve a more directional soft light, you’d need an directional softbox, which are unfortunately a fairly expensive.
For the example photos, the exposure settings in the camera were fixed: 1/200s at f5.6, ISO 100. This means that the close up reflective shots are underexposed, but this shows you how much light is lost when using these options.
Diffuser (“shoot through”)
As you can see, the diffuser takes the harsh, direct light of the flash guns and makes it much softer, providing a more flattering light. I’ve used two flash guns in the examples to ensure that the coverage on the diffuser is as wide as possible. There is little difference in how soft the light is with the flashes zoomed to a wide or narrow angle; the main difference is that when the flashes are set to wide angle mode, the light leaks around the diffuser a lot more, potentially affecting the shadow which will appear on the background or floor in front of the subject. As you can see in the example photos, moving the light source closer to the diffuser hardens the light and causes a larger shadow to fall from your subject onto the background.
The white reflector is probably the most efficient way to get a lot of soft light onto your subject. (Shot 5.) Where I used two flashes for the diffuser shots, I used just one for all the reflector shots. So, the same amount of soft light using half the lighting power. This is the best option in my opinion.
The result of using the silver reflector is much more directional than using the white options; correspondingly, this means that you have to ensure that you either use two flash guns to illuminate both top and bottom of the reflector, or you have to be more accurate with the angles at which the light is reflected from the silver surface. As you can see, I didn’t adjust the angle of the reflector and so my face is underexposed. (Shot 7.) Think of a snooker ball bouncing off the cushion to imagine where the light will be directed.
Much the same as the silver reflector, but with noticeably more light loss than the silver and white versions. (Shot 8.)
Remember that all of these photos were shot using the same exposure settings, so you’ll need a much more powerful light when using the silver and gold reflectors, in comparison to the white reflector or diffuser.