Matthews Road Rags & Road Flags: Venerable Swiss Army Knives for Soft Lighting

By Kevin Bradley

There’s that famous saying: “If the hard light is your friend, the soft light is your lover” and it’s true in a sense, although I would add one caveat to it, a soft source fixture is just that, soft! A soft light cannot become a point source light, so I would consider it be a one trick pony in many ways. However, a fresnel, open face or par light can become a soft source with beautiful results. Normally this is achieved using a soft box physically attached to the light.

I’ll state for the record that I am not a big fan of soft boxes, never have been. They’re expensive, they break easily, they weigh down the light and like I said before, they can only perform one job.

When making purchase decisions on equipment, I determine the value of any tool in 4 factors: bang-for-the-buck, durability, portability and versatility. While they are wonderfully portable, soft boxes are not terribly cost effective, durable or versatile.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my Kino Flos and Lanternlock China Balls when the right situation calls for it. However, I tend to think the light quality from tungsten is better than fluorescent, and both Kinos and China Balls typically spill light all over the place!  What you need when you’re trying to dynamic soft light is control!

So, without a soft box to diffuse a hot point source, how do you do it? All the time I see guys on sets attaching frost and other diffusion gels to fresnels using a few C47’s, that would be fine if they were altering the backlight, the fill, hair light or whatever, but they’re doing it in an attempt to make a soft key!

This fundamentally defeats the meaning of the word: “broad source” or “large” source light.

Of course, you could move the light further from the subject to soften it, but that’s not always an option, esspecially if you’re shooting in a small environment. Frost gel on a 650w fresnel is not a broad source, it’s a softened point source, and that’s an important distinction.

I’ve been using Matthews Road Rags & Road Flags Kits for about 2 years now and they have been a great solution for me and my distaste of soft boxes. I highly recommend them to anyone wanting a broad source solution that’s not from a Chimera, Kino, or LED. When using Road Rags and Road Flags to soften a light source, you gain back one thing lost with a softbox, control.

For example, the distance between the light source and the silk on the box can’t be changed, therefore the only adjustment that can be made is spot to flood on the fixture, which doesn’t make much of a difference if the distance between the light and the diffusion doesn’t change. By using portable silks instead of a box, you have full control over the fresnel.

As you can see here in this simple table top set up, I have my Mole Richardson 1k on a boom shooting through the 4×4 silk, all while retaining flood-to-spot and the ability to attach the barn doors to control the edges of the light.  I’m also using the second Road Flag frame as a 4 foot flag to block out the sunlight filtering into my living room.  

One bag, two ways to control your light source.  Versatile!

I’ll admit that this approach to broad lighting does have drawbacks, for one makes it necessary to carry a little more gear, which sometimes is a pain, but I believe the extra weight is worth it. Also, the speed at which you can build Road Rags and Road Flags frames is faster than that of a soft box.

At $500+ for the Road Flags Kit and $200 for the Rags, they’re not the cheapest option out there, but they’ll last forever and their versatility is invaluable.

Check them out.

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