Left: on-axis flash. Center: Sto-Fen OmniBounce. Right: Flashpoint Q Dome Diffuser.

I’ve said before, “it’s not how many Speedlites you have, it’s where you put the ONE Speedlite you have that matters.” Right after light position, it is the size of the source that determines the character of the light. How do you make a Speedlite seem bigger or smaller? You modify it. Each of the three headshots above was created at the same exposure. The difference is created by the position and modifier on the single Speedlite — in this case, the Sto-Fen OmniBounce and the Flashpoint Q Dome Diffuser. Dome diffusers are simple, inexpensive mods that can create surprisingly beautiful light.

The Flat Light Of On-Axis Flash

On-axis (aka: on-camera) flash lights both sides of the face equally.

The telltale look of a headshot lit entirely with a small flash that sits above the lens is that both sides of the face are lit evenly. While there is nothing wrong with the shot above, there’s also nothing dramatic about it. Remember, if you light everything equally, then nothing will stand out.

Also note how the light that flew past Alora illuminated the background. The other two headshots in this series were made at the same camera settings. So the difference in the tone of the background is created solely by the Speedlite.

Sto-Fen OmniBounce – Boxy, But Good

The dramatic light is created by moving the Stofen-covered Speedlite in very close.

This is my favorite of the three shots in this series. I like it because of the dramatic falloff. You may not like it for precisely the same reason. That’s O.K. Note how the shadows on the cheeks and under the chin make Alora’s face appear more slender.

I almost always carry a Sto-Fen OmniBounce dome diffuser — which is a translucent plastic box that slips directly onto the Speedlite (as shown below). When you buy one, be sure to get the model that is specific to your flash as they are custom molded for each design. The Sto-Fen does not significantly increase the apparent size of the flash — rather it just throws the light out at more random angles than a bare Speedlite.

The dramatic fall-off (“chiaroscuro”) is created by the position of the flash. As you can see just below, I mounted the Speedlite on the arm of a C-stand and positioned it just out of the frame. Since the light was much closer to Alora’s forehead that it was to her shoulders, the light falls off into a natural vignette. One point to watch when you’re lighting aggressively like this is that you don’t blow out the detail in the forehead. I went right to that line and then backed off the power just a bit.

The Sto-fen was angled in close to the model's face.

The Sto-Fen OmniBounce is model-specific for your flash.

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Flashpoint Q Dome Diffuser – Like An Ostrich Egg

The larger size of the Flashpoint Q Dome Diffuser lights the face more evenly.

The other dome diffuser I have in my kit is the Flashpoint Q Diffuser Dome — which is about the size of an ostrich egg. As you can see below, this mod definitely increases the apparent size of the Speedlite and sends light in a spherical pattern. As with the Sto-Fen, I positioned the Flashpoint Q dome diffuser just outside the frame. The falloff is less intense than the Sto-Fen because of the increased size of the source. Feel free to pick this one as your favorite over the Sto-Fen.

The Flashpoint Q Dome Diffuser throws light in a wide arc.

The Flashpoint Q Dome Diffuser straps onto your Speedlite.

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14 Responses to Headshots With One Speedlite + Dome Diffuser

  1. Stefan says:

    Interesting post – thanks for the pics and making of.
    What I don't like with the dome diffusers is, that they're spreading light all over the place – there is a lot of light going into directions where I don't need it. So I like to work with bouncers :)

  2. stakx says:

    Hi Syl,
    No fair– you didn't shoot one w/o modifier from the off-camera C-stand?

    BTW: can't wait for your book!

  3. Doug says:

    "The falloff is less intense than the Sto-Fen because of the increased size of the source." Is that really true? Isn't the falloff entirely determined by the inverse-square of the distance from the light source? ie, 2x the distance from the source equals four f-stops? Isn't that true for everything from a single-point source to a quad softbox?

    • Syl Arena says:

      Doug – In my view, the Inverse Square Law relates to the apparent brightness of a source. So a light that is moved 2x the distance from the subject is 1/4 as bright, which is two-stops, not four-stops. [Half as bright = 1-stop. Half of the half = 2-stops.] Technically, the ISL only applies to point sources. In practice though, you're right, a softbox that is pushed back will appear dimmer, just as a small source would.

      I was referring to the way that the light falls off in the headshot — namely the way the shadows are created. With the diffusers at the same distance from Alora's head, the Sto-Fen creates more dramatic light (meaning deeper shadows) because it cannot reach around her face or under her chin. The Flashpoint Q diffuser — because it was quite nearly the size of Alora's face — fills the shadows on the cheeks and neck because it's larger size is able to send light to the face from more angles.

    • mathieu says:

      Well, the inverse square law has its limit… in order to work perfectly the light source has to be a single point. The law is basically the formula to calculate the surface area of a sphere (4 pi r^2)… if you elongate the source the surface you want becomes a tube… expand it to a surface it becomes a plane.
      In my opinion Syl is correct. The inverse square law is more of a guide line. Probably only reliable if you are using the same light modifier. You can't use a tiny modifier and a larger one at the same distance and expect the same results in term of power (not talking about softness here).
      At least, that's how I see it. Still pretty new to photography (but loving it) but I have a decent background in physics so the inverse square law feels very natural to me.

  4. Adrian Hudson says:

    Absolutely love that shot with the sto-fen! Gotta get one of those. So simple!

  5. Jon says:

    I can assure you that most customers would like the first picture, with flat lighting !!

    Most customers want to see there faces well lit.

  6. Harry Lim Photography says:

    I like the last shot with the Q-Dome because the light seems softer and more even which would be expected from a larger light source; and it still reveals the shadows created by the butterfly lighting pattern.

    I wonder, however, how that Q-Dome compares to the Gary Fong type modifiers. I've always been a little wary of those because they send light everywhere including behind you, which to me, seems like a waste of photons and power unless there is something there to bounce it back.

    • Syl Arena says:

      Harry – I once borrowed a Fong-mod from a workshop student and pushed it in real close as I did here. It yielded similar results to the FpQ diffuser dome. In "normal" mode, if the Fong-mod is used in a small room with light walls, it seems work as advertised. In large spaces, spaces with non-reflective surfaces, or outdoors, I've found that the bounce effect is limited to nil.

  7. Jon, you are right to a point. Most customers don't know anything about dramatic lighting. That's the beauty of digital, you can take a flat image and a dramtic image, then turn the camera around and talk about the difference. Not only does it make you look like more of a professional, but the customer will appreciate the chance to be part of the process, instead of just paying to look good. Digital gives us as photographers so many more ways to interact with clients, which also ensures they won't go with just anyone with a camera. Almost all of my competition flat light, which is why most of my new clients are blown away when I show them the difference.

    • Jon says:

      Hi,

      You are also correct !! Except when shooting a wedding, one can't explain to the grand parents Etc. about lighting, they just want to see there faces well lit. There is a time and place for dramatic lighting!

  8. Ernie says:

    I use a Stofen for indoor shots such as wedding receptions. I have seen people use them for outdoor portraits. That makes no sense to me. Can anyone justify that approach?

    • Syl Arena says:

      Ernie – I'm with you on the outdoor use of a Sto-Fen…it makes no sense to throw light in directions where there's nothing for it to bounce off of.

  9. jkob says:

    There`s always a downside with the pricey StoFen. It ates quality of light.

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