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Flash Photography Tips – Intro to Softboxes

Posted on October 1, 2008 by Bo

Small SoftboxIn a perfect world, photographic umbrellas are all we would need to control our lighting. However, there are some cases when you need more control and directionality from your light source. This is where softboxes come in.

The basic principle of a softbox is the same as an umbrella: it provides a layer of diffusion that increases the effective size of your light source. Where softboxes differ is that their construction only allows light to pass through the diffusion material in the front. The sides and back are blocked, minimizing the spill of light.

Some softboxes contain a smaller inner layer of diffusion material. This helps to cut down on the “hot spot” that may occur in the center of the main layer of diffusion and provides a more even distribution of light.

Like umbrellas, softboxes are available in a wide range of sizes and shapes. Small to medium softboxes are ideal for headshots, small product photography, food photography, etc. Your larger softboxes are typically used if you’re going to shoot full-length portraiture or small groups of people.

Some different shapes that are available:

  • Square Softbox – Most of your smaller softboxes are square in shape.
  • Rectangular Softbox – Most softboxes are rectangular and can have the longer size turned vertically or horizontally, depending on your needs.
  • Strip Light Softbox – Long and thin, these softboxes are typically used as a side light, rim light or hair light.
  • Octabox – An 8-sided softbox that increases the effective size of your light source more so than a typical softbox.

Most softboxes attach to your studio strobes by a speedring. However, Nashville, TN-based company, Alien Bees, offers foldable softboxes which are much easier to transport and assemble than the speedring softboxes I’ve used in the past.

Some softboxes are made for portable flashes:

Another benefit that softboxes give you over umbrellas is the ability to restrict or feather the light. You can attach a grid to a softbox to control the directionality of the light and to further limit the spill of light to the sides.

Angling the softbox slighting away from your subject, a technique known as feathering, will give you even softer light.

The ability to have more control over the light is why many photographers prefer using softboxes over umbrellas. Those benefits do come with a price, however, since softboxes are typically more expensive than umbrellas. Most small softboxes can range from $30-$80 while medium and large softboxes will cost upwards of $100.


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