By Gina Milicia

Paperbag main 717

I photographed Luke Deslandes with a homemade modifier and a lighting kit that can be created for less than $200

One of my favourite TV series from the 90s was MacGyver, an action-adventure series about a US government secret agent with a fabulous mullet, who improvised and built complicated devices from household objects such as rubber bands, paper clips, pens and a Swiss Army knife.

The show was so incredibly popular that the term MacGyver made its way into the dictionary:

MacGyver (v): To make or repair (an object) in an improvised or inventive way, making use of whatever items are at hand:

  • He MacGyvered a makeshift jack with a log.
  • He has a shock of short red hair and a pair of rectangular-framed glasses, MacGyvered with duct tape.

The other week I was caught short on a night shoot because I’d misplaced my small softbox modifier, and needed to come up with a way to soften and control the from my speedlight to create portrait lighting.

I searched my entire kit and car, found nothing useful, then I asked myself, “What would Macgyver do?”. I rummaged through my bag and found a chocolate donut (Nutella filled, so good!) in a white paper bag, and a hair elastic which would be perfect substitutes for the softbox I’d forgotten to bring to the shoot.

The really cool thing about lighting is that the basic principles will work with any kind of light, regardless of budget, or the type of modifier used. So whether you’re working with a $150 lighting kit (similar to the one I used for these images) a $1,500 hit, or $15,000 one, the light will still react in the same way.


One of the best lessons I learned from working with film and television crews is that ordinary household objects can be used to shape and train light. I’ve seen soft light created using sheets of Perspex, calico, and even shower curtains. A light modifier is basically designed to do two things:

  • It controls the shape of the flash
  • It controls the quality of light coming from the flash
  • Some modifiers, like umbrellas, will spread the light over a large area and soften the quality of the light. Other modifiers like grid spots contain the light to a very small area and create a hard quality of light (click image above to read more).

    The main differences between the high-end options, and MacGyvered lighting are: light quality, consistency, and build. A light modifier that has been cobbled together using found objects is not going to look pretty, and you may attract some odd looks from passers by. On a positive note, I believe a MacGyvered light modifier is a perfect way to get your head around how lighting works, and to vary your lighting styles without having to empty your bank account.

    This is how I created my mini softbox using a paper bag, an elastic band, and a chocolate donut.

    The Gear

    Boom 750
    Booms are an awesome way to add light above your model, as they allow the freedom to work without stands getting in the way of your shot. Using a boom is also the best way to position the light exactly where you want it.

    I’ve created this lightweight location boom by using a mini-boom arm on an umbrella bracket, attached to a light stand. Always remember to use a weight on the light stand, to avoid it tipping over in high winds. You can buy a sandbag, or MacGyver your own using two-litre drink bottles filled with water in a canvas bag.

    A cheaper alternative to the boom is to use a light pole, and to ask a friend to hold it for you. If you are new to working with off-camera flash, I suggest you read one of my previous blog posts: A Beginner’s Guide to Working With Flash Off-Camera.It will walk you through the step-by-step technique of shooting with off-camera flash .