Small, Cheap and Underappreciated: Spill-Kill Reflectors

I acquired my first spill-kill reflectors by accident. There were two, included in a set of used Profoto Acutes I bought from a dentist. (One of them is pictured above, at left.)

My first thought: These things are useless. Should I throw them away or try to sell them on eBay?

But these days, I generally do not stick a studio head into an umbrella without one.

Umbrellas are a good news / bad news thing. Good news is that they are cheap, and radiate soft light in a variety of beams. You can shoot through them for a quasi-lantern look (180 degrees of light). Or bounce into a black-backed version for a more controlled spread.

The bad news is the raw light that likes to flow out of the edges. And that raw light is far more powerful than the reflected or diffused light you are making with the umbrella.

You can fix this (somewhat) by using a standard reflector on the head. But this focuses too much light into the center of the umbrella, making it effectively smaller.

You can also bury your bare-bulb head deep into the umbrella to kill the overshoot. But that also gets the bulb too close center to get a good spread.

The spill-kill reflector was made just for this one purpose: It lets you put your head at the umbrella's sweet spot and keep any raw light from leaking out the edges.

You'll still get bounce-back as well as diffused light when using a spill-kill with a shoot-through. But there is no super-strong raw light spilling around, bouncing off of walls, causing flare, etc.

And when used with a black-backed reflective umbrella, a spill-kill reflector will turn it into a surprisingly controllable light source. It gets all of the light's energy into the umbrella for a nice, even source -- with none of the nasty bits leaking out.

Here's where spill-kills really kick butt: shooting on blow-away white backdrops. Generally, you'll want a reflective umbrella on each side to light the paper evenly. And without spill-kills, you'll be burying the heads in the umbrellas, and/or sticking the umbrellas well behind your subjects to avoid the raw spill.

Even then, raw spill can create hot spots on the white paper "floor" behind your subjects. Or you might have to rotate your umbrellas to a bad angle to correct.

With spill-kills, it all just works. You can have your umbrellas right even on the sides of your subject -- even a little in front sometimes -- and get a good beam on the paper without nuking the subject.

If you are working in a huge studio, this is not that big a deal. But when space is an issue (and how often is it not), these babies are worth their weight in gold.

Generally, these guys are the cheapest reflectors in a given company's product line. Many people do not understand their uses, so often you can get them for a song on eBay. Heck, Paul Buff sells them for Einsteins and AlienBees new for $13.00.

If you do a lot of lighting with studio heads and umbrellas, do yourself a favor and try out a couple spill-kills. You'll be glad you did.


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Blogger Dusey said...

Can someone make sure my thinking is right?

With speed lights this would be less of an issue, because the light is already directed, and you can change the zoom appropriately.

David, when shooting through the umbrella, do these completely eliminate that line that is created from the edge of the umbrella?

Now I'm going to experiment with my speedlights to see if I can get rid of that line both with and without my barn doors...

March 22, 2012 9:38 AM  
Blogger Dusey said...

Can someone make sure my thinking is right?

With speed lights this would be less of an issue, because the light is already directed, and you can change the zoom appropriately.

David, when shooting the umbrella, do these completely eliminate that line that is created from the edge of the umbrella?

Now I'm going to have to experiment with my speed lights to see if I can get rid of that line both with and without my barn doors....

March 22, 2012 9:44 AM  
Blogger Martin Phelps said...

I've got three of those profoto disc reflectors, and the best use I'd come up with for them is to bungee a cheap (bowens?) grid to the front.

March 22, 2012 10:04 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

Correct, they are not for speedlights. They are brand-specific.

March 22, 2012 10:26 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

David, maybe you want to clarify something: While these are not for speedlights, the problem of raw light spilling past an umbrella still exists with speedlights... something I learned from Lighting in Layers but was driven home by this photo from your Flickr Stream (maybe worth including in your post?).

Example of umbrella spill with a speedlight

I'm wondering if short, spaghetti box-type speedlight snoots would work in the same way as these spill-kit reflectors, just without the reflecting part?!?!

March 22, 2012 12:18 PM  
Blogger NYSTAN said...

another way to kill the hot spot with umbrellas (bounced) is to jam some Rosco Spun Glass around the center spokes....or just use large umbrellas....mind you, I have never been in a situation without reflectors with my heads and imagine it would be a nightmare with light flying all over the place. I am still digesting your post from Monday about the location shoot. It was fantastic. Inspiring. And the image was beautiful. Great post. But you already knew that.

March 22, 2012 1:16 PM  
Blogger said...

Hey David, I bought a frosted white dome from the lighting section in Home Depot and put some velcro in the right spots on the dome and reflector for a DIY Proglobe and i can still rip the dome off if I need the reflector back. Works great.

March 22, 2012 1:28 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I tell my assistants and my SVA student assistants that if you are looking for the most efficient position for a light source to be used inside of an umbrella, push the umbrella surface closer to the source until you block any light leaking past the umbrella edge. You do that in a darkened studio watching when the light leaking out from the edge dissappears on the ceiling or floor closest to umbrella. But look, if you are really so concerned about center hot spots then don't bother using a curved focusing effector such as an umbrella. Instead use a flat even surfaced effector such as a softbox that is at least 2-3 times larger than the surface you are lighting and keep in as close as you can get it.

March 22, 2012 4:14 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Please help; where else can I find cheap balcar mount "spill-kill" reflectors besides Paul C. Buff? I can't seem to find them anywhere online. Also, not interested in DIY.

Any help is greatly appreciated!

March 22, 2012 4:27 PM  
Blogger DougOrama said...

Seems like it would be an easy enough DIY solution. Maybe a big cool whip bowl or a small pie tin with a hole cut out or something.

March 22, 2012 6:31 PM  
Blogger Stephen Causey said...

I will have to try these. Simple but effective items to have around.

March 22, 2012 10:23 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Spill-kill reflectors and your dentist. In either case your head shouldn't go without one.

March 23, 2012 2:31 AM  
Blogger Victor said...

Excellent back-to-basics article that brings home the importance of the simple things. Along with the Q&A's this is the sort of stuff I relish Strobist for!

March 23, 2012 4:18 AM  
Blogger Jens said...

Dusey, I tried changing the zoom with a speed light a while ago, but sliding it in did the job for me.
See here:

March 23, 2012 4:30 AM  
Blogger The Epicure in Light said...

I always use "spill kills" when using umbrellas... much better control of the light!

I created easy spill kills by drilling a hole in Octabox speed rings (the round, silver ones for putting octaboxes on my Alien Bees). That way the unbrella post goes through the speed ring and into the umbrella holder.

Simple... multi-use, and cheap, since I already had the speed rings!

March 23, 2012 4:59 PM  
Blogger David H said...

So what would be the product code for these with Elinchrom?

March 23, 2012 7:05 PM  
Blogger Zach Johnson said...

I just watched a video that has a good example of a full sized reflector not fully lighting an umbrella.
It's a cool vid of Sven Lindbaek's NYC studio, but the end of it illustrates your post. He shoots a portrait using a full Profoto reflector into an umbrella and the umbrella isn't fully lit to the edges.
Sven obviously knows lighting, so maybe he's got his reasons, nevertheless I thought I'd share...

March 27, 2012 1:53 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Please help; I'm still trying to find cheap balcar mount "spill-kill" reflectors besides Paul C. Buff. Again, not interested in DIY.
Anyone? Anyone?

March 28, 2012 10:21 AM  
Blogger Naftolig said...

whats the diff btwn a spill kill and the 7 inch reflector that comes with the alien bees

March 30, 2012 12:45 PM  

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