Lighting Modifiers: Softboxes
The advantages & disadvantages of softboxes
“I have a studio with many types of modifiers, from fresnels to parabolic reflectors, but as a commercial photographer I still find myself using softboxes in much of my work.”
Most photographers are familiar with softboxes and the results they produce. Varied in shape, softboxes are basically box-like in shape and enclosed around a light or speedlite. The light source then fires forward through an internal diffuser before passing through another sheet of white diffusion material that covers the front of the ‘box’. The resulting light, after reflecting off the interior and passing through both diffusions, has a pleasing homogenous and soft even look to it.
Softboxes are available in different shapes and sizes. I have a number of different broncolor softboxes in my studio, from the small rectangular 30x60cm to the larger 120x180cm and even a few octaboxes. This variety means I’m able to pick and choose my modifier and achieve different results with each one.
This versatility is one of the main advantages of softboxes. I’ve used them for everything from portrait to product photography and have got some great results.
In the video below I show you an example of how you can use a softbox for product photography.
I explore the effects of different sized softboxes in Chapter 7 of my Lighting Theory and Equipment Section. Here you’ll be able to see the results of different shaped softboxes and how, by simply changing the orientation of a softbox, you can achieve two completely different results with the same softbox.
You can also change the look of a softbox by simply adding additional diffusion in front of it or by moving the distance of the softbox in relation to your subject.
There are also various modifiers available for softboxes, which I show you here:
“Their weight is another advantage. The broncolor softboxes that I use are lightweight and easy to pack up. When broken down they’re not big and bulky, which makes them great modifiers to take if you’re travelling and shooting on location.”
Selecting the right softbox
You should choose the size of your softbox based on what you’ll be photographing and the size of the space you’re shooting in. The biggest available softboxes are always the most versatile, but if you’re working in a 3x3m studio, you won’t be able to move it far enough away to create a ‘small’ softbox look.
The image below was taken using the biggest softbox right up close to achieve the softest possible light.
If you are a keen portrait photographer whose work involves mainly three quarter or full length shots, then going for something like the 35x60 probably won’t be the best investment.
“Remember you can control the size of your softbox (up to a point) by moving it further or closer to your subject. The larger the light source is in relation to the subject, the softer the light will be while a smaller light will produce light with sharper shadows, higher contrast and greater texture (which is often not what you want when photographing older people).”
When people think of softboxes the first thing that often comes to mind is a rectangular shape. But they’re also available in square and octagonal shapes. Shape has an impact on things like catch lights and reflections so an Octabox definitely wouldn’t be the right choice if you’re photographing highly reflective bottles.
“Softboxes produce beautiful, soft even lighting which, as I’ve mentioned, is great for many different genres of photography. They make great key and fill lights but if, for some reason, you’re not sold on them there are alternatives.”
If you’re a portrait photographer on a tight budget, you might be able to get away with just using umbrellas, reflectors and scrims. But if you’re working with products or anything else a softbox is a must. If you have a bit more cash to spend, I’d always recommend parabolic reflectors for portraiture, beauty or fashion work (which you can read more about here) as they’re equally, if not more, versatile.
“Overall, a softbox (or two) will add great value to any studio, regardless of your area of work. To understand exactly how versatile they can be, I recommend you visit our Portrait section where I demonstrate a number of different lighting setups using softboxes and other modifiers.”