Tools Focusing Light

With almost all types of studio lighting, precision is paramount. Whether it’s separating a portrait subject from the background or placing a tiny sliver of light on one element in a tabletop still-life setup, when it comes to placing light precisely, broad lighting just won’t cut it. Whether you’re working to eliminate spill or you want to create columns of light for special effects, here are the go-to modifiers to help shape and focus light.

Snoots create a tight beam of light, excellent for hair lights.


A snoot is a cylindrical or sometimes conical reflector that fits on the front of a fixture to focus the light output into a narrower beam. This is useful not only for creating a focused beam of light on a subject, but it’s also a great way to control spill.

For instance, when used in a portrait setup, snoots can be used as a hair light and a background light. On the background, the snoot will create a circle of light that’s narrower or wider based on the distance from the light to the background. Snooted light can be a fairly hard-edged transition from light to shadow, especially when compared to a grid. The smaller the diameter of the snoot, the narrower the beam of light will be; the longer the snoot, the more defined the edge will be.

As a hair light, an open dish reflector would theoretically do a fine job, but it would scatter light everywhere, from the background to the lens. Not only does that spilled light change the look of a scene, but it could ruin it with flare. By using a snoot, the light is focused on the subject and spills neither on the background nor the lens.

Optical snoots are similar to the basic reflector and tube design, but they feature internal moving lenses that focus the beam of light. Optical snoots have a devoted following among photographers who need precisely sized and shaped light.


A grid spot (often known as a grid or honeycomb for the honeycomb-like hexagonal shapes into which the metal is divided) is another great way to focus light into a tight beam. If the grid is circular in shape, and fits into a seven-inch silver dish reflector on a studio strobe (a very common application), the light will be focused into a circular shape. If the grid is rectangular and placed on a rectangular hot-shoe strobe (another common use), the focused beam will maintain that shape.

Whatever the shape of the grid, light can only pass through in one direction, dictated by how big or small the individual cells of the grid are. The smaller the cells, the tighter the focus—much like with the opening on a snoot. Grids are usually measured in degrees—from 10º to 50º, commonly, with 10º producing the tightest circle of light.

Available in a variety of sizes and shapes, grids offer a more gradual falloff at the edges than snoots or Fresnels.

While snoots can make a well-defined circle with a hard-edged transition from light to shadow, a grid’s circle of light is softer at the edges. This can make the grid useful for subtler applications. For instance, as a background light in a portrait setup, the grid’s circle of light is more conducive to the type of subtle transition from light to dark that works well in that situation.

When used on a key light, a grid won’t change the quality of the light source—i.e., it will maintain a hard light’s hard-edged qualities—but it will limit the spread and focus the light on a specific area of the frame. For instance, keeping the key light on a portrait subject’s head, or in a larger-scale product or industrial photograph, a gridded key will put light where you want it without spilling into areas you don’t. This ability to create separation in lighting makes grids a very powerful and versatile tool for any subject, in the studio as well as on location.

While a grid focuses light, it isn’t as applicable for fighting spill and flare. Flags are still necessary with grids, just as they can sometimes be with snoots.

Fabric Grids

What if you want focused light, but a softened light source? Well, there’s actually a fabric grid option available for softboxes. The principle is the same, although the results are quite different. While a small honeycomb grid focuses light from a small source into a tight cylinder of hard-edged light, the egg crate-style grids that can be affixed to the front of a softbox will simply keep the light from spilling far beyond the primary axis of the light. In practice, that makes this type of fabric grid ideal for keeping a softbox key from spilling onto the background and changing its exposure. Fabric grids may not be glamorous and unique, but they’re quite functional as a great way to maintain separation in lighting elements throughout a scene.

Fresnels like this ARRI light create collimated output.


Some lights have a built-in Fresnel (named for the inventor who first developed them for use in lighthouses) lens in the front of the fixture in order to adjust the spread of light from wide (flood) to narrow (spot). You may have seen Fresnel lenses in action if you’ve ever seen motion-picture lights, such as the fairly iconic Mole-Richardson hot lights (which helped to define the golden age of Hollywood, both in films and in the actors’ iconic promotional portraits). They’re also incorporated into many tungsten lights, like those from Photogenic and ARRI. ARRI’s lineup of tungsten lights makes it easy to build a kit of constant lights from 150 watt output to 650, 1000, 2000 watts and more.

While Fresnels are most common in constant light sources, they’re also available for some studio strobes. The Profoto MultiSpot has a removable frosted Fresnel lens that can be adjusted to focus the output between 10º and 40º, and an optional clear Fresnel is available, as well. The difference between a frosted Fresnel and a clear one is edge definition and falloff from light to shadow. A frosted lens will be slightly broader and softer; the clear lens will be specular and hard-edged. Speedotron offers the DeSisti 10-inch Fresnel Focusing Spot, which can output 4,800 watt-seconds of power, with a Fresnel that focuses the output as narrow as 10º and as broad as more than 50º.

Closeup of a Fresnel lens.

The nice thing about a light with an integral Fresnel is that you don’t need an external modifier to change the focus of the light. They’re fairly compact and light, as well. Other manufacturers also offer Fresnel strobe options, including the Hensel Starspot and Maxi-Spot lines, while still others, such as Bowens, offer detachable Fresnel attachments for use with a number of strobes. The Bowens Fresnel 200 attachment also includes a built-in iris for adjusting the diameter of the beam of light produced by the Fresnel.

However you utilize Fresnels for spot lighting, they’re an ideal way to light several parts of an architectural interior or tabletop setup without spilling light broadly across the scene. And they’re handy for portraiture in much the same way as grids and snoots—when keeping light separate is paramount.

Barn Doors

Barn doors are one of the most common modifiers, and you should be well verse
d in them. The barn door is like a set of metal flags that affixes to a light fixture, and can be adjusted to cut and shape the pattern of light. Fresnel lights often include a bracket for attaching modifiers like scrims and barn doors, and many strobe manufacturers also offer barn doors that easily mount to the front of dish reflectors.

Barn Door Light
Barn doors are one of the most common modifiers. They’re easy to use and quick to set up and adjust. Barn doors do an outstanding job of cutting the light and keeping the viewer focused on the subject.

At their simplest, barn doors are a great way to flag light at the source and contain spill or prevent illumination from hitting a background without changing the quality of light. But barn doors are much more than flags. While barn doors don’t optically focus light in the same way as a Fresnel or optical snoot, the effect of cutting light at the source makes barn doors especially versatile. In some cases, barn doors allow you to physically shape the beam of light more precisely than would be possible with snoots and grids. For instance, to add an eye light to a portrait subject, a round modifier like a snoot or grid would create a round beam of light, but with barn doors, the light can be shaped into an oblong or a rectangular shape to precisely add sparkle to a subject’s eyes.

Want to put a precise square of light on the background, or maybe fit a thin shaft of light between two scene elements in order to deliberately light a third? Barn doors are the perfect modifier to offer this fine control in delivering light exactly where you want it.

Other Modifiers

There are a handful of other light modifiers that don’t focus light so much as they shape it in specific ways. The beauty dish, for instance, is a large dish reflector popular among fashion and beauty photographers for its unique ability to create output that’s focused, yet soft. The beauty dish softens the light, while its conical shape focuses it into a directional beam. In practice, that means a soft light that still produces fairly hard-edged shadows and a center hot spot with light that falls off gradually at its edges—the best elements of both hard and soft lighting, all rolled into one. Another popular light-shaping modifier is the gobo, which is short for "goes before optics" because these little metal and glass patterned sheets fit into fixtures between the lamp and lens. Gobos are used to create patterned light. This could be as simple as a dappled effect, or a crisp pattern or corporate logo. Gobos, and the spotlights used to project them, are also popular in theatrical lighting.

While they can certainly be used in still photography, even more popular than patterning light with a gobo is the use of a cookie. Short for "cucoloris," a cookie is like a patterned scrim or flag that’s positioned between the light fixture and the subject (or background, depending on the application) to create patterned light. The closer the cookie is to the light source, the less defined and softer the edges of the pattern will be. The closer the cookie is to the subject or background, the more hard edged and well defined the pattern will be. Cookies are an easy way to break up a plain background and add texture via the background light, or to emulate the look of light dappling through foliage. They’re even used to simulate window light, or any other shape that can be cut into metal, wood, cardboard or foil. One word of caution when working with cookies: Hot lights don’t mix well with flammable materials like wood and paper; be careful.

Light Modifiers For Hot-Shoe Flash

It used to be that the biggest difference between studio-style strobes and hot-shoe flashes was that the latter didn’t offer the wealth of light modifiers that are available in the studio. Thanks to manufacturers like Rogue, Gary Fong and Honl Photo, that’s not the case anymore. Photographers now can apply studio-style light-focusing tools to compact handheld strobes.

The Rogue FlashBender looks like a normal bounce card when mounted to a flash, but it’s much more. The FlashBender is essentially a fabric-covered wire frame that can be bent and shaped into any number of contortions, including the cylindrical shape of a snoot. With white fabric on the inside and black fabric outside, the snoot also can be reconfigured for use as a normal fill card or flag, kind of like a barn door. FlashBenders also can be outfitted with a diffusion panel to turn the device into an actual tiny softbox.

Honl Photo‘s Speed Snoot works in much the same way to become a bounce card, flag or snoot on a handheld strobe. Three choices for interiors—gray, white and gold—offer further tweaking to make the output contrastier or flatter, warmer or cooler. Both Honl and Rogue also offer grids that can be used to focus a strobe’s output.

Gary Fong‘s Lightsphere for flashes is certainly versatile, but it’s not ideal for focusing light. For that, Fong created two options. The first, the PowerSnoot, turns any flash into a spotlight. With its chrome-painted reflector, the light is already focused when it leaves the flash device, and with the addition of the PowerGrid cover, it can be focused even further. The Lightsphere Collapsible Snoot makes the same sort of focusing control a bit more compact and portable, important for people working with hot-shoe strobes. The black Lightsphere Collapsible Snoot also can be used with the same PowerGrid for further focused effects.

William Sawalich is a professional photographer, and he teaches studio photography at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. A frequent DPP contributor, you can see more of his work at

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