Softboxes - A Quick Buyer's Guide
What is a Softbox?
A softbox is a photographic lighting device that modifies and diffuses light from an artificial source. A typical softbox is a rectangular box surrounding a light source, reflecting light off the inside walls of the softbox and out towards the subject, emulating the shape and ‘softer light’ of a window.
Why Use a Softbox?
A softbox can be used with either continuous or flash lighting and is typically used to reduce harsh shadows and illuminate subjects with softer light. Photographers can choose from a variety of shapes and sizes to achieve different effects with light.
Which Size do I need?
The larger softboxes give out the softest amount of light and keep the subject’s shadows smooth and undefined. Small softboxes are more portable and beam out ‘harder’ more direct light which provides more defined edges/shadows in the background of the shot.
In general, you wouldn't use a 12 x 16" softbox for a full-length portrait unless you're doing it for effect, and you wouldn't use a 54 x 72" softbox for a small product or head shot. While not a “point light source”, the 12 x 16" softbox is a lot closer to that definition than the larger light bank, but you could match the 12 x 16" look if you pulled the 54 x 72" back far enough.
The softbox type governs the shape of the light you're putting on your subject. Much of a large softbox’s surface area is wasted on a headshot, for instance, but it's ideal for small- to medium-sized groups. This, among other factors, is the reason for different size and shape softboxes.
Which Shapes would suit my needs?
Rectangular – A rectangular softbox casts a longer light which is great for full length portraits, larger groups and vertical shots. This shape of softbox will cast window shaped highlights in eyes and reflective objects.
Square – Great for head and shoulders portraits and for shooting small groups. Its square shape makes it perfect for studios with low ceiling space.
Strip – Great for edge or rim lighting to separate the subject from the background, and also well utilised overhead as a hair light for individuals or groups. Its also great for lighting your backgrounds from top and bottom, if you wanted a gradient effect for example.
Octagonal – Best used for human close up shots. Octagons are popular for creating soft, natural looking shots and are the preferred choice for professional photographers when catching the circular eye reflection in their subjects.
Many softboxes come with a honeycomb grid included with it. When used they control the amount of light that is released and are fantastic for creating a focused yet soft light source. Available in 20, 30, 40 and 60 degree spreads, grids add directional control as well as spill light control, making them valuable for use as edge lights or hair lights on a boom where an umbrella would just get in the way. Used on a main light, the grid nicely isolates the subject from the background for an elegant, painterly look.