How to Use a Softbox
Anyone who pursues photography needs to learn the ins and outs of using a softbox sooner or later. Lighting is often the magic that makes or breaks a photo.
Ever taken a photograph of someone where the shadow beneath their nose extends all the way down their face? Or how about those cellphone shots of LED-flash whitewashed bowls of shoyu ramen?
The secret sauce missing in the above examples is the perfect lighting.
That’s where the softbox comes in. A softbox is a light-diffusing box you install on a studio light to cast a soft yet dense light on a photographic subject. In this blog, we’ll explain how softboxes work, what they’re useful for, and some go-to lighting techniques to get you started using a softbox.
Now, let’s learn how to use a softbox.
How does a softbox work?
The inside of a softbox is lined with reflective foil, which amplifies and projects the light in a more powerful beam. The softbox has a series of diffusers in front of the light that diffuse the light, making it a softer light casting softer shadows. Softboxes can create dynamic areas of light and dark, just as dynamic as with hard lighting, but with a much smoother grading from light to dark.
There are two common types of softboxes — the square box, which projects more of a square, framing light, and the octodome, which casts a more circular light. The octodome casts a more “natural light” and can be put to more uses. The square light is great for face and figure photography, especially photography destined for online publication, where clear square framing of the actual photo fits nicely with the square light.
How do you use a softbox?
A softbox can be used in any number of ways: indoors, outdoors, portraiture, video, whatever. It’s even pretty common for photographers to use a softbox when taking portraiture at sunset because it can emphasize the natural lighting effects of the sunset and make it somehow seem even more real.
For beginners, the best way to get results is to keep it simple.
Let’s say you’re taking photos of someone’s face, portraiture. Use a nice, soft backdrop that will help disperse light and shadow evenly behind your subject. When you set up the lighting, try to find the natural lines and contours of your subject’s face, and then bring out the shadows and highlights in a way that emphasizes the features without exaggerating them. There are a number of very common lighting patterns, as well as videos galore on YouTube to teach beginners. But the main point is this: shadow and highlight should emphasize and not distort your subject. This is how you capture reality with a touch of drama.
What can you do with a softbox?
Softboxes are used all the time in studio shoots. For school portraiture, fashion shoots, product photos of expensive wedding rings, even to get the perfect glamour shot of that fast-food burger.
There are a variety of ways to change the look and feel of your photos using a softbox. When you start using additional lights, fill cards, and post-production software, there’s almost nothing you can’t do.
For example, you can light directly above your subject, and cast them completely into shadow.
Or you can light above and six or seven feet in front of your subject and get the effect of a setting sun. From there, you can offset the light slightly to one side of the face, and then bring it in slowly until one side is fully lit and the other side is almost completely in shadow, save for a nice bright triangular glow on the high point of the cheekbone and an eye just visible in shadow — and presto, you’ve replicated one of the most common lighting motifs in classical portrait paintings.
You can further customize your lighting using other tools. For example, you can add additional soft lights pointing up from below the subject to decrease the depth of shadow beneath the jaw and eyes.
Or you can use a fill card — a card with a reflective surface — to shape and fill in the light however you want. Bring the card in close to the subject and cast them in an almost completely even glow. Pull the card out farther and slowly add intensity back to the shadow.
Tips for getting good photos, and a note on lighting group photos
For photographers just getting started shooting photos with professional lights, it can be really hard getting attractive, evenly-distributed lighting when you’re taking a photo of a group of people.
Ideally, your lighting should be tailored specifically to your subject, to their frame and features, and to the lighting where you’re taking the photos. Which, if you’re wondering, is probably why almost all school photos look less than flattering. The lighting is set up in a one-size-fits-all manner, with no time to change between students.
There are a number of ways to try to distribute light evenly across everyone in a group photograph. But the easiest way by far for new photographers is to take a number of photos with each subject lit individually, and then use your trusted photography software to digitally stitch the photos together into a single shot. If you’re using a plain-colored background, this is a simple process, and the results are striking.
If you want a catchall tip for lighting a photo, it’s this: get the biggest lights you can afford and then keep a variety of diffusers and filters around. It’s easier to soften and dampen powerful light, but you can’t really increase the power of a weak light. Trial and error is very much an important part in every photographer’s process, and a more powerful light gives you more room to experiment.
Now that you know the basics of how to use a softbox, get out there and experiment. Neither education nor practice is enough on its own to make you an expert photographer, but when they’re both employed together, you can be on your way to mastery.
And when you’re a master, you can finally take the perfect photo of your cat— a photo truly worthy of that majestic little creature — and then you will win the Internet for all time.