A brief disclaimer here: light modifiers are about personal preference and taste and vary wildly from photographer to photographer. Natch. There are stylistic and situational reasons why a person would choose a circular-shaped modifier (like an octabox or a beauty dish) over a square-shaped light one (like a softbox). What it boils down to is this: The size of your light modifier relative to your subject is the biggest determiner of the quality of your light (soft, harsh, dramatic, etc). It has less to do with things like the reflective material used, shape or the brand name (or lack of one) that graces the modifier’s exterior.
With that caveat, here are five of the most oft-used light modifiers in my arsenal. I shoot with speedlights and studio monolights–sometimes together–so these modifiers are a bit varied as a result.
1-Photek Softlighter II. If it were socially acceptable and/or legal, I’d marry this lovely piece of gear. As it is, it goes everywhere with me. It produces glowing, wrap-around light, produces great catchlights and then folds down basically into an umbrella. It’s inexpensive but looks the same as an octabox many times its cost. I keep several on hand because they tend to be fragile.
2–Gary Fong Lightsphere. This $10 peice of plastic has been kicking around in my bag forever and is much abused. They get a bad rap from some photographers who think they’re cheesy, and candidly I never really liked walking around with this huge white thing sticking to my flash. But I love it as an even light spreader when using speedlights to light up a room or doorway in the background, or even as a very close-in direct light mod for a portrait in, say, a sunset situation. If you gaffer tape the outside, it can turn into a pretty effective snoot, especially if you put a grid over the front of it.
3–Honl Kit. This kit is really a bunch of little pieces of gear I throw into a bag. It includes a bunch of the velcro speed straps, a filter correction kit (which I use all. the. time.), a couple of grids, gobos and snoot. This is perfect when doing portrait work and I put it into play when shooting interior spaces as well.
4--22″ beauty dish. I love the light produced by beauty dishes and I have both a silver one (for outside daylight shots) and a white one (this one, by FTX lighting tools) for indoors. The light is very directional with very even illumination, is extremely stable on breezy days outdoors and is tough. If you put it in close, you get amazing softness with a little drama. Move it out and you’ve got dramatic tasty light. .
5–Lastolite Triflector MKII reflector. This is really a set of three reflectors in one, each with white and silver (or gold) sides. They are triangular in shape and are great when you need to get a wrap-around reflection for a portrait. With a stand they can be mounted anywhere and can produce reflections from multiple angles at once. It’s kind of like having a tiny little photo assistant with you wherever you go whose only job is to hold reflectors and make your subjects look good. I use this tool on too many assignments to count.