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Photography Lighting

What is a Softbox?

September 4, 2023 by

In this guide, I’ll be covering everything you need to know about softboxes.

While this guide is tailored primarily to photographers, the tips I’ll be providing apply to videographers as well!

After reading this guide, you’ll know what a softbox is, tips to remember when using one, why softboxes are important, and lots more.

Let’s dive in!

Learn softboxes From Credible Creators
Table of Contents

What is a Softbox?

A softbox is like a personal cloud for your flashlight or strobe. It is a tool used in photography and videography, usually attached to a studio lamp or flash, made of an opaque material like polyester or nylon, with reflective interiors and covered in the front with a translucent white material.

The concept with a softbox is to take the lamp’s light, bounce it around inside, and release it through the front covering.

This process creates a more diffused, natural-looking, and soft light. It’s this gentle light quality that helps minimize harsh shadows and makes the subject of your photo appear softer and more visually appealing.

Imagine a sunny day. The sun’s rays shine directly on you, leaving sharp shadow-lines and brilliant contrasts, somewhat like a spotlight.

Now consider what happens when those rays hit a cloud. The sun’s rays hit the cloud, bounce around inside, and then exit as a much more even, diffused, soft light.

This is the magic of what we call ‘soft light,’ and it’s what a softbox in photography aims to replicate.

Softboxes are also pretty versatile in size and shape.

You might be picturing a box right now, but they also come in forms like octagonal or square. So next time you’re looking at a portrait photo and notice a beautiful window-like reflection in someone’s eyes, there’s a chance that’s the work of a softbox in the shape of a window!

Now, where can you use a softbox? From portrait photography and product photography to videography—even outdoor shoots, softboxes can help create that perfectly balanced shot.

Think of them as your controlled pocket of cloud on a sunny day, ensuring your subjects are always in the best, flattering light.

Much like choosing between a coat or an umbrella on a rainy day, photographers often have to decide between using a softbox or an umbrella for their lighting setup.

Each one has its advantages and uses. But remember, the setup isn’t as important as knowing how to use these tools effectively.

The magic truly lies in the hands of the photographer who knows how to manipulate light, after all, photography literally means ‘drawing with light’.

softbox in a studio
softbox in a studio

Softbox vs. Umbrella

A softbox and an umbrella are both lighting modifiers used in photography, but they differ in how they diffuse and shape light:

Diffusion: A softbox uses a solid, opaque fabric material on its front side, often with an inner baffle and diffuser, to diffuse light and create a soft, even illumination.Diffusion: An umbrella uses a reflective or translucent fabric material, which bounces or scatters light in multiple directions, creating softer but less controlled light.
Light Control: Softboxes offer more control over the direction and spread of light, reducing spill and providing precise, directional lighting.Light Control: Umbrellas are generally less precise in directing light, and they can create more light spill, making them less suitable for specific lighting setups.
Shadows: Softboxes produce softer and more controlled shadows due to their directional nature.Shadows: Umbrellas produce softer shadows compared to direct flash but may not provide as much shadow control as softboxes.
Portability: Softboxes can be bulkier and less portable than umbrellas due to their rigid structure.Portability: Umbrellas are often more compact and portable than softboxes due to their collapsible design.
umbrellas lighting

How To Use A Softbox In Photography?

How do you use a softbox in photography?

The answer lies in understanding not just the ‘what’, but also the ‘why’.

Here are 12 tips you need to remember when using a softbox:

1. Understand Softbox Types

The first tip when using a softbox is to understand and know the different softbox types.

Just like other lighting equipment and accessories, softboxes come in various shapes and sizes.

There are square, rectangular, octagonal, and other types of softboxes.

The varying shapes aren’t just for aesthetic reasons. Each shape can produce a different catchlight and lighting effect.

For example, if you’re shooting a portrait and want to create round catchlights in the subject’s eyes, consider using an octagonal softbox.

different softbox types
different softbox types

2. Use the Right Size

The second tip when using a softbox is to use the right size.

You’ll want to match your softbox size to your subject’s sized and desired lighting effect.

Remember that larger softboxes often create a softer, more even light while smaller ones can produce more dramatic lighting due to a stronger contrast.

For example, when photographing a small product like a wristwatch, opt for a smaller softbox to provide precise, controlled lighting.

using a smaller softbox
using a smaller softbox

3. Diffusion Material

The third tip when using a softbox is to pay attention to your diffusion material.

You’ll want to ensure the diffusion panel is clean and in good condition to avoid any unwanted artifacts in your images.

For example, if your diffusion panel has wrinkles and is not in a good condition you may find unwanted shadows or textures in your images.

4. Adjust the Distance

The fourth tip when using a softbox is to adjust the distance.

The distance between your softbox and your subject will affect the softness of the light.

If you want a softer light, then move the softbox closer to your subject.

If you want a harder light, then move the softbox farther away from your subject.

Why may you want to do this?

Well, for example, moving the softbox closer to your subject for a headshot can produce soft, flattering light, while placing it farther away can create a more dramatic look with sharper shadows.

It’s all about the look you want to go for and the story you’re trying to tell in your images.

softbox different distances
softbox different distances

5. Control the Intensity

The fifth tip when using a softbox is to control the intensity.

If you want to easily adjust the intensity of the softbox, you can use the power settings on your lighting source.

You can also use a dimmer or adjust your aperture to control the exposure.

For example, if you find your subject appears too bright with the softbox at full power, reduce the power setting on your lighting equipment to achieve proper exposure.

This will help you avoid overexposure or underexposure.

6. Angle and Position

The sixth tip when using a softbox is to consider your different angles and positions.

Based on the lighting technique and effect you are going for, you can position your light source and softbox at different angles for different creative effects.

For example, you can position your light source 90-degrees from your subject for a split, side lighting effect, 45-degrees for a Rembrandt lighting effect, and 30-degrees for a loop lighting effect.

softbox 45-degree angle overhead
softbox 45-degree angle overhead

7. Avoid Hotspots

The seventh tip when using a softbox is to avoid hotspots.

Hotspots will appear when the light inside your softbox isn’t evenly distributed.

To avoid this, you can use an inner baffle or diffuser if you have one (most softboxes come with one).

8. Use Grids and Flags

The eighth tip when using a softbox is to consider using grids or flags.

By attaching grids to your softbox you can narrow the beam of light.

Using flags or barn doors can be used to shape the light and direct it in a precise direction.

For example, let’s say you’re photographing a headshot, if you attach a grid to your softbox when photographing your subject, you can limit light spill and direct the illumination precisely where you want it.

attaching grid to a softbox
attaching grid to a softbox

9. Combine with Other Lights

The ninth tip when using a softbox is to combine it with other lights.

Softboxes can work well as single key lights, but you can also use them with other lighting sources such as reflectors, hair lights, and backlights for more complex setups.

For example, in a studio setup, you can use a softbox as the key light, a reflector to fill in shadows, and a hair light from behind to separate the subject from the background.

using softbox with other lights
using softbox with other lights

10. Avoid Overpowering Ambient Light

The tenth tip when using a softbox is to avoid overpowering ambient light.

If you are using a softbox in an outdoor setting or in mixed lighting conditions, you’ll want to pay attention to the lighting ratio between your softbox and the ambient light.

A bigger ratio will result in a more dramatic lighting effect with more contrast and vice versa.

Depending on the look you are going for, it’s important to be mindful of the lighting ratio and perhaps consider using a light meter to accurately get light readings in your scene.

mixing ambient light with softboxes
mixing ambient light with softboxes

11. Watch for Catchlights

The eleventh tip when using a softbox is to watch for catchlights.

If you are shooting a portrait or headshot, I recommend paying attention to the catchlightin your subject’s eyes.

The shape and position of your catchlight can add character to your portraits.

To easily create catchlights in your subject’s eyes, ensure that the primary light source in your photo is positioned towards the front of your subject.

It doesn’t need to be directly in front; in fact, having it at a slight 45-degree angle to either side often produces the most appealing results.

12. Experiment

The twelfth tip when using a softbox is to experiment.

Like many other techniques in photography, it takes practice and experimentation to feel comfortable with your new skill set.

I always recommend stepping out of your own comfort zone and experimenting with different softbox placements, angles, and modifiers to achieve different lighting effects.

And if you’re on a paid client shoot, take the time to set up and take test shots to fine-tune your setup before your subject arrives. This tip has allowed me to always remain comfortable during my client sessions.

We often fear the unknown and practice and test shots helps ease this feeling.

Why Should Photographers Use Softboxes?

Imagine you’re painting a portrait, but you only have coarse, rough brushes at your disposal.

It would be challenging, wouldn’t it, to blend colors seamlessly and create soft, delicate patterns? Well, photography isn’t so different.

When lighting is your paintbrush, a softbox is like a fine-tipped brush that smooths out hard lines and blurs boundaries for a softer and more pleasing outcome.

Softboxes are the favored accessory of photographers for a multitude of reasons.

They provide a soft, diffused light that minimizes harsh shadows. Think of it like a cloudy day versus a sunny one.

On a sunny day, the shadows are harsh with sharp edges, right? But a cloud cover acts as a natural diffuser, creating gentle transitions between light and shadow.

A softbox works much the same way.

It’s like bringing your personal slice of cloud cover wherever you go, ensuring flattering lighting for your subjects, be it portraiture, product, or even real estate photography.

Moreover, by adjusting both the size and placement of your softbox, you are able to wield greater control over the nature of your light.

The larger the softbox and the closer it is to the subject, the softer the light gets.

It’s like having a chameleon lamp at your disposal that changes its characteristics according to your needs. How cool is that?

Unlike LED panels that require a separate light modifier, softboxes already encompass built-in diffusion.

This means you won’t have to lug around any extra gear or spend time on additional setup.

Plus, due to their varying shapes and sizes, they invite bigger scope for creative experimentation.

Furthermore, softboxes are way more forgiving when it comes to reflective surfaces.

If you’re shooting a product with a shiny finish or perhaps a model wearing glasses, an unshielded light can create overly bright hotspots.

What softboxes do is similar to what a makeup artist does with a powder puff – they even out these bright highlights for a smoother, cleaner look.

When shooting in a colored room, softboxes help you maintain the true colors in your shot. Ever noticed how different colors can refract the light in different ways, often altering the overall color palette of your image?

Just like a loyal friend, a softbox remains unaffected by these color inversions, giving you the precise game of light and shadow you desire.

In conclusion, why should you use softboxes? Simply because they elevate your photography, providing a softer light and better control over the directionality of the lighting, while saving you from the hassle of extra tools and setup.

Who Uses Softboxes?

Who uses softboxes?

You might be surprised at the variety of professionals and enthusiasts alike who employ these useful light modifiers in their work.

1. Portrait Photographers

Portrait photographers, for instance, often turn to softboxes.

Much like how a well-tailored suit smooths out a person’s silhouette, a softbox smooths the lighting on a subject’s face.

It gently illuminates the subject, reducing harsh contrast and adding a pleasing softness to their complexion.

From a high school senior taking their graduation photos to a CEO needing a professional headshot, a softbox light can make each subject look their best.

softboxes and portrait photography
softboxes and portrait photography

2. Product Photographers

Product photographers are another group who frequently use softboxes.

If you’re shooting product images, think of a softbox as your personal cloud on a sunny day.

As clouds diffuse harsh sunlight into softer, dispersed light, a softbox transforms glaring studio bulbs into mellow and even lighting.

This helps to reveal the fine details of a new pair of sneakers or a crystal clear flute of champagne, making the product more appealing to potential consumers.

softboxes and product photography
softboxes and product photography

3. Still Life and Commercial Photographers

Still life and commercial photographers also favor softboxes.

They are the ideal choice for capturing everything from a carefully arranged breakfast setting for a food magazine to high-end jewelry for a luxury brand’s catalog.

The softboxes make it easier to control and shape the light, which is crucial for highlighting the elegant details of these subjects.

softboxes and still life photography
softboxes and still life photography

4. Videographers

In videography, a softbox is your best friend when filming interviews or online classes.

Imagine you’re in a dim coffee shop interviewing an author about their latest novel. A softbox will provide steady, diffused lighting that adds depth and nuance to the scene, making the author and surroundings visually appealing to viewers.

To use a relatable analogy, think of the soft, warm glow of a table lamp versus the stark overhead light in an office.

Softboxes are like that inviting table lamp, creating a wraparound lighting effect that’s versatile and pleasing to the eye.

Whether you’re a portrait or product photographer, or even a videographer, the softbox is your go-to tool in shaping and controlling light for a professional finish.

When Are Softboxes Used In Photography?

Much like how a painter skillfully picks their brushes, a photographer will use a softbox based on the type of light they need for their masterpiece shot.

Think of it this way.

Just like how you might put on different outfits that suit the occasion, whether it’s a cozy sweater for a chilly day or a nice dress for an elegant party, a softbox can be chosen for different lighting scenarios.

They can be used as key lights or fill lights, shedding the perfect illuminating touch on your photographic canvas.

Where To Buy Softboxes For Photography?

You can purchase your softboxes from globally recognized online platforms or specialized photography equipment stores.

1. Amazon

Let’s take Amazon, the familiar online ‘shopping mall’, for instance.

It is a perfect place to start, as it’s home to a wide variety of brands and sizes of softboxes, from small portable ones you can carry to outdoor shoots, akin to a foldable raincoat, to larger, stationary softboxes that are like towering coat racks in your studio.

They offer the benefit of customer reviews and ratings to help you make an informed choice – like asking a crowd in the store which coat suits you best.

2. eBay

You may also want to consider eBay if you don’t mind purchasing second-hand equipment.

That’s akin to thrift shopping for that vintage coat with character. It’s possible to find competitive prices for high-quality, lightly used softboxes.

3. B&H or Adorama

For those of you who prefer a more specialized one-stop-shop ’boutique’, retailers like B&H Photo and Video, or Adorama offer a curated selection of softboxes tailored specifically for photography.

They boast knowledgeable staff who can guide you through your purchase, much like a personal stylist helping you choose the perfect coat.

4. Local Stores

Don’t forget to explore local stores too, the ‘mom and pop’ shops in your city.

They often supply equipment from trusted brands, also adding a personal touch to customer service, like your friendly neighborhood tailor guiding you to the perfect fit.

What is the difference between a light box and a softbox?

A light box is typically used to illuminate small products from all sides for even lighting, while a softbox is used in portrait and studio photography to create soft, diffused light with gentle shadows.

What are the benefits of a softbox for photography?

A softbox in photography provides the benefit of creating soft, flattering light that minimizes harsh shadows and highlights, making it ideal for portrait, product, and studio photography.