Understanding softboxes and how to use them
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.
In our recent live show, I took a much closer look at the ever-popular softbox. But despite their popularity, there are many misconceptions about softboxes and some photographers still don’t understand the fundamentals of how they work.
Softbox lighting & theory
Now available to watch on replay
Learn all you need to know about softboxes in this informative live photography workshop, where Karl takes a closer look at these versatile modifiers, explaining how they work and what sets them apart from other light shapers.
How do softboxes work
Most photographers are at least somewhat familiar with softboxes and the results they produce. Varied in shape, softboxes are basically box-like in shape and enclosed around a light (they work with flash light, continuous light or speedlites).
The light source then fires forward through one or two internal diffusers and then one that covers the front of the ‘box’. After reflecting off the interior and passing through the diffuser(s), the result is the homogenous light characteristic of softboxes.
Types of softboxes
Known for their versatility, softboxes come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Shape-wise, they are generally rectangular or octagonal, although you can get square shaped ones too. Their size varies dramatically. For example, the smallest softbox in the broncolor range is just 35x60cm and the largest 120x180cm, with their octaboxes ranging from 75cm to 150cm (Elinchrom offer a larger 175cm octabox while Profoto offer a smaller 30x40cm softbox). This variety means you’re able to pick and choose the modifier best suited to your needs and achieve precise results with each one.
Advantages of softboxes
This versatility is one of the main advantages of softboxes. They can be used for anything from portrait to product photography and produce some amazing results.
A further advantage is the ability to modify softboxes. Using accessories like grids, edge masks, strip masks or even additional diffusers, you can precisely control the effect of your softbox.
Softboxes are also fairly lightweight and compact, which makes them ideal for working both in the studio and on location.
Disadvantages of softboxes
When it comes to cost, softboxes aren’t the cheapest modifiers available (but the good news is they aren’t the most expensive either). However, if you are on a tight budget some softboxes are compatible with speedlites. So if you’re looking to slowly grow your equipment, you could easily save yourself some cash by simply sticking with speedlites, using them with a softbox and upgrading to studio lights as and when you can.
How to use softboxes
Despite their popularity, you may be surprised by how many photographers don’t totally understand how to use and control softbox lighting. Most commonly, they tend to use softboxes too far away. Although this isn’t necessarily wrong, you can get much more from your softbox if you consider the following points:
Distance from your subject
How far away the light is from your subject will influence things like hardness or softness of the light. It will also impact the reflection in gloss surfaces (including eyes or glasses). This is because of the effect the light has on directed reflections (for example, eyes or glasses) and diffused reflections (for example, matte skin, wood, matte plastic).
By changing the distance of the light from your subject, these reflections will each be affected differently. While diffused reflections (such as on skin) will change according to the inverse square law, the same does not apply for directed reflections. Here, it is the light source itself that is reflected.
For example, if we were photographing a model with the light placed further away, a higher power will be needed to achieve the correct exposure. This higher power will result in a brighter (yet smaller) reflection in the eye because the light source itself is brighter. If we were to bring the same light closer to the model, we would need to decrease the power of the light to achieve the same exposure. Because of this decreased power, the reflection of the light, although bigger, will be greatly reduced because the power is less.
A smaller, brighter reflection is visible in the eyes when the softbox is used far from the subject.
A larger, softer reflection is visible in the eyes when the softbox is used closer to the subject.
Considering the size of your softbox is important, but it’s not the direct size you have to consider. Rather, it’s the size from the subject’s perspective. This too has an impact on the hardness or softness of the light. However, it’s important to keep in mind how large the light is from your subject’s perspective. You can move the softbox closer or further away to control the hardness or softness of light, but if it still appears large to your subject, you won’t create hard light with it.
The shape of your softbox will not only have an impact how the light wraps around your subject, but also on things like catch lights and reflections, so using an Octabox definitely wouldn’t be the best choice if you’re photographing highly reflective bottles, the same way a thin stripbox may not be the right choice when photographing shiny berries.
It’s quite common to see softboxes placed above the subject, but you can get some great results using them lower down too. The image below is a good example of using a softbox in a low position. A lower position can often enhance texture and form, which is very useful when photographing products.
I cover each of these considerations in much more detail and show exactly how they work in our Softbox Lighting live show, which you can watch on replay here.
Choosing the best softbox
“What softbox should I buy if I’m just starting out?” Is a common question we get asked. Quite simply, the answer depends on what you’re using the softbox for. Perhaps three of the most important things you need to consider are what you’re photographing, the size of your studio and your budget.
Personally, I recommend buying the biggest softbox you can as this will allow for the greatest degree of versatility and flexibility as you can always mask a big softbox to make it smaller. Other things to consider are what accessories you’ll be able to use with the softbox as you may find these help you further modify the light and achieve different results with just one size. Again, I go into more detail about this in our softbox live show.
Softboxes vs umbrellas
Like softboxes, umbrellas are popular modifiers and are often used by photographers just starting out with studio lights. Available in a variety of sizes, umbrellas are usually transparent (shoot-through umbrellas) or have a white or silver inner coating (reflective umbrellas).
The greatest advantage umbrellas have over softboxes is the price. Some photographers also prefer them for the round catchlight they produce when shooting portraiture. However, these affordable modifiers don’t offer quite the same amount of control as softboxes, which contain the light and stop it from spreading around your studio. They’re also harder to modify (although the broncolor Focus 110 umbrella does allow you to move the light source within the umbrella and therefore control the hardness or softness of the light, similar to their Paras).
Softboxes vs beauty dish
Highly popular among fashion and beauty photographers, beauty dishes are highly effective modifiers both in terms of the light they produce and the cost. The shadows produced from the beauty dish, although soft, have a rapid fall off from light to dark which results in a beautiful, sculpting light.
Like softboxes, beauty dishes are available with a variety of modifiers, including the interior colour, grids and socks. They are also available in different sizes. Although they are more expensive than softboxes, they too can be used with both studio lights or speedlites.
Although I prefer the beauty dish to softboxes, I don’t prefer it over parabolic lighting, which I’ll look at next.
Softboxes vs parabolic lighting
If you’re in the market for a softbox, chances are you may not have the budget for true parabolic lighting. However, it’s worth mentioning these because of their versatility. Paras produce beautiful, sparkly light that you can control by adjusting the position of the light within the modifier. This precise control of the light means you have the ability to achieve a number of different results with just one light. They also have the option of attaching a front diffuser, which essentially turns them into a round softbox. Although this shape might not be ideal for some genres, like product photography, it does mean you essentially have several modifiers in one.
Overall, a softbox (or two, or three) 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 - you’ll see how to get creative with one light as well as two, three and four light setups. Our food classes (found in the Product section) with Anna Pustynnikova also demonstrate just how useful softboxes can be for food photography.
To learn more about softboxes and how to use these popular modifiers, we have a selection of relevant classes throughout the site. Below is a selection of recommended content that you may find useful.