Bare-Bulb Flash | What ALL Photographers Need to Know

Understanding Bare Bulb photography is the first tutorial in our comprehensive guide to studio photography lighting. You have access to over 20 FREE studio lighting tutorials on our website covering all you need to know about lighting modifiers in photography. When ready, simply click here to jump to the complete lighting modifier menu.

In this simple video, I introduce you to bare bulbs, standard reflectors, and other essential lighting modifiers and accessories for studio photography.

Flash tube vs modelling light

Any studio light worth its salt features a flash tube wrapped around a modelling light. The modelling light allows you to see what you’re shooting without having to trigger the flash.

The quality of light it gives is not on a par with that of the flash tube, but it is enough to enable you to compose your shot and position and style your subject.

The flash tube is triggered by the shutter on your camera and gives a burst of light at the instant you capture the photo.

This light overrides any illumination coming from the modelling light, meaning you don’t typically need to figure the modelling light into your desired exposure for the image.

Studio light bare bulb close up
The flash tube is wrapped around the modelling light bulb.

Bare-bulb lighting

When you use a studio light with no accessories or modifiers whatsoever, you are shooting with a bare bulb.

Light from a bare bulb escapes in all directions (including backwards!). In a studio, it will bounce off the walls. If you’re shooting outdoors, it will disappear into the ether.

When directed at a subject (such as a model or a product), bare-bulb studio light gives very sharp hard shadows because as a light source it is small relative to your subject.


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Standard reflectors

Most studio lights come with standard reflectors. These are the simplest, most basic lighting modifiers. They vary from one brand to the next (I use broncolor lights, but there are many brands out there, including Godox, Elinchrom, Neewer and others), but they all serve the same essential purpose. So what is that?

As I explained above, when you shoot with a bare bulb, a lot of light energy is getting lost. What the reflector does is trap the light and funnel it forwards, preventing that loss.

Here’s a bare bulb pointed at the wall of my studio:

Bare bulb light
Light from a bare bulb spills out in all directions.
And here’s the same light, modified by a standard reflector. You can clearly see that the reflector gives a more concentrated beam of light.
Standard reflector light
The reflector gives a more concentrated beam of light.
I use standard reflectors regularly, whether I’m photographing people or products. They’re great for lighting backgrounds, but can also come in handy when I want to create a harder key light. Sometimes, I use them in combination with other modifiers to add a little more punch and kick to a shot.

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Why is a P70 reflector called a P70?

The standard broncolor reflector is the P70. Why is it called that? Simple: the '70' refers to the angle of the beam – that is, the angle of the spread of light coming out of the modifier is 70 degrees.

How is this calculated? The angle is defined based on a measurement of exposure. Where the exposure falls more than one stop darker than the brightest point at the centre of the pool of light, that is the extent of the light that defines the angle.

When you compare the P70 with the P65 and the P45, you can clearly see the difference in the angle of the light they emit. Of the three, the P70 gives the broadest beam of light, while the P45 gives the narrowest.

Lighting the shot
The name of the reflector is defined by the angle of the light it emits.

Photography with barn doors

Each brand has a standard reflector designed to hold accessories. In the case of broncolor, this is the P70.

One of the simplest accessories is a set of a barn doors. These are hinged metal panels that can be attached to the rim of the reflector. They allow you to control the spill of light – as you close the doors, you tighten and narrow the beam.

Barn doors can be very useful when you’re working in a studio environment – particularly a small one. For example, if you want to light a background wall without having light spill on to your subject, barn doors can help keep the beam directed solely at the wall, with no spill.

Barn doors photography

Closing the barn doors further narrows and concentrates the beam of light.


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Gels, diffusers and grids

Barn doors also hold gels. Gels are thin sheets, made of heat-resistant plastic and designed to modify the light from your reflector.

Gels come in a variety of types. Coloured gels change the colour of the light. Neutral density gels reduce the brightness of the light, while polarising gels (you’ve guessed it) polarise it.

Similarly, a standard reflector can hold a piece of diffusion material. This makes the spread of light appear subtler and smoother. The edge of the beam appears feathered, with the light falling off in a smooth gradation. This kind of lighting is particularly good for backgrounds.

Another accessory that can be attached to a reflector is a grid. Grids, which come in different strengths, shrink the ball of light emitted by the reflector down to a narrow beam. This makes for harder lighting, which helps you achieve sharper shadows and brighter highlights.

Coloured gels photography

Coloured gels can easily be attached to the barn doors.


Lighting Comparison Visualiser

Use our awesome tool to try out every modifier in our studio and compare the results.
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Compare 25+ different lighting modifiers

To compare a bare bulb with a P70 standard reflector (plus many, many other modifiers), check out our amazing Lighting Comparison Visualiser.

This handy tool allows you to quickly and easily understand how different modifiers give very different effects. Don't have a big studio full of professional equipment? No problem – use ours!

Ready for more lighting techniques? Click here to watch our next free guide on Octabox (150cm) and expand your understanding of studio lighting modifiers.

If you'd like to learn more about lighting modifiers, we've got dozens of classes on Photography Lighting for you to explore.

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  1. Hi Karl,
    There are 2 types of barn door for P70 in Broncolor, barn door with 2 wings and barn door with 4 wings. Which one do you recommend ?
    thank you

    1. Mhhh, I have both. Usually the 2 door is enough and easier to hide the doors if you have to fold them backwards when you are just using the barn door accessory to hold a square gel. I don’t use the 4 door as much as the 2 door.

  2. Hi Karl, there is a grid set for P70 , it includes 3 grids, and there is another grid for P70 known as extremely narrow, did you expereince , do you recommend?

    1. Hi, yes I have both. The extremely narrow gives just a slightly smaller ball of light but I don’t use it very often.

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