Basic Equipment – Shaping Light

In shaping light within a photograph there are a number of tools we can use. Our main concern in shaping light is it’s direction, size, intensity and hardness or softness. The color of light is also important to our decisions as cinematic photographers but we don’t use the same tools to affect color.

We’ll discuss the attributes of light in future posts and focus this week on the lighting tools we can use to adjust the light we are creating. As a reminder, we can use flash, continuous light or strobes to illuminate our images but regardless of the light we choose, there are tools such as flags, nets, diffusers, etc., to help us shape the light.


When lighting a scene, our first step is to eliminate the light we don’t want in the image. This can be natural light or practicals (lamps, ceiling lights, etc.) that already exist within the scene. Flags come in all sizes and shapes and can be as simple as a large black cloth draped across the source of the unwanted light (windows, glass doors, exit signs, etc.) or it can be professional piece of lighting equipment.


A standard flag used in cinematic photography is solid black cloth wrapped around a metal frame with one end that can be held by a “grip head” that attaches to a “c-stand”. This allows the flag to be positioned exactly where and how it’s needed to block the unwanted light.

Nets or Scrims

These are similar to flags in that they are used to block light, but they also allow some of the light to get through into the scene. Nets often come with one end that has a soft edge that is somewhat feathered so that the shift from the partial light to full light, between where the net is partially blocking the light and where the net isn’t impacting the light at all, isn’t visible in the image.


Depending on how close the net or flag is placed to the scene, the shift between where it is impacting the light and where it is not can be more or less obvious. The closer the flag or net is placed to the subject, the harsher the transition and the more visible the line between its impact on the light will be.

Nets are graded and color coded based on their impact on light and so they typically will reduce the light passing through them by ½ stop or 1 full stop (green is ½ stop and red is a full stop)


These are typically a white cloth or other material stretched across a metal frame and are used to soften the light so that the shadow edge transfers are not as harsh as they would otherwise be. These will also reduce the intensity of the light by some amount and the different diffusers will indicate the number of stops of exposure they will reduce the light by when used.


Diffusers are often used outside in bright sunlight to reduce the intensity of the sun and provide a more even light with softer shadows. This can also allow the photographer to use strobe lights as their key light and have the sun act more as a fill light.

DIY Equipment

While it would be great to have all of the professional equipment we could ever want so we had every option in terms of shaping the light in a given scene, there are much less expensive ways to achieve the same lighting results.

  • Tarps in dark colors are great for blocking light and by using clips, tape, pins, etc., to hold them in place, we can attach them to windows, walls, rods, etc.
  • White sheets can diffuse a bright light and can be draped across windows or suspended above a subject by two people standing on chairs, ladders, etc.
  • Cardboard can act as a flag to block light and by cutting holes into it, allow light to come through and strike very specific content within the scene.
  • Thin black cloth can block some light while also allowing some light through and so act as a scrim or net to reduce the light in certain areas.
  • Thin wood, plastic pipe, etc., can be shaped into frames to hold any of the above and so create a small scrim, flag, diffuser, etc.

While we need to keep an eye on safety with DIY equipment so that we aren’t endangering the models or others that we are working with, a bit of creative thinking can go a long way to creating the needed equipment for almost any situation.

My favorite professional equipment

I wanted to end this post with one of my favorite pieces of equipment. While it is definitely NOT cheap, it is very versatile and packs down to a small, light size that can be carried anywhere. I have supplemented mine and use it on almost every shoot.


It’s the Matthews Road Rags II Kit. It comes with two collapsible frames that snap together in seconds and onto which you can load any of the included flag, scrims or diffuser. I added two extra collapsible frames and an extra flag and scrim/net with mine which means I can have 4 light modifiers up in minutes and use them to create the photograph I am after.

While its very expensive, this is the one piece of lighting equipment that I am never without. It took some number of years before I could afford it and I used a variety of DIY equipment before I owned it. Stick to your budget, but when you have cash to burn – this is a kit that I highly recommend.

Only my two cents,

Gregory Beams

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