How do you feather a softbox?

Some people make feathering a softbox sound complicated. It isn’t, and I hope that this tutorial will explain just how simple it is… As always with my tutorials, the photos are straight from camera, i.e. no retouching, no post processing.

Feathered light + fill

Feathered light + fill

Basically, feathering a softbox means using just the edge of the softbox to light the subject. Typically, when people start out in the studio they tend to aim the softbox straight at their subject, and there’s nothing wrong with that – but feathering it can produce more creative shots and create more interesting shadows.

The softbox can be positioned behind the subject, which is where it was placed for these shots, or it can be positioned in front, or it can be positioned at the side, to create a rimlight effect, so the technique can be very useful. Come to that, if the softbox is either square or rectangular then it can also be used to create a graduated light on the background, typically this would involve placing the softbox high on a boom arm, pointing down at the background.

Some people believe that the cheap softboxes that don’t have a recessed front panel actually do a better job of feathering the light than the better ones that do have a recessed front panel, because they believe that the sharper edge to the light, created by the recess, makes life more difficult. That may be a valid point if the softbox is lighting from the front, but a recess actually helps if the light is behind or at the side, and both designs of softbox work for this. The  softbox used for these shots is our smallest and cheapest, the 60 x 60cm

Let’s make a start.
Place your softbox as you normally would, say at an angle of about 45 degrees to your subject.

Now, without moving the lighting stand, swivel the head towards the background until no light from the softbox is reaching your subject – your subject is now in the umbra, or shadow area of your light source and the light is doing little or nothing.

Swing the softbox back a bit towards the subject and stop when you see some light striking the subject’s face. The subject is now in the light’s penumbra, that area of transition where some light is reaching the sitter but the side of the softbox is stopping a lot of the light from reaching the subject. In effect, the subject is receiving light from just a narrow section of the modifier. Take a shot, and then experiment with the angle, taking another shot with each change,  until you’re happy with the result.

In the photo above, I added a fill light too. It’s an on-axis fill, which means that the fill flash is where the camera is, so that it reaches all parts of the subject as seen by my lens. My fill technique involves taking test shots with no fill and then with a very low level of fill, and then gently increasing the level of fill as necessary. Here are some more shots, also with fill light

More shots with fill flash

More shots with fill flash

Of course, you don’t have to add fill, and where the feathered softbox is in a frontal position you may not want to – but when placed more or less behind the subject, as in these shots, you may feel that the shadows are a bit too deep without fill


Feathered softbox only, with no fill light

You’ll notice that the unlit white background is lighter in the shots with fill, this is because some of the fill light is reaching the background.

Does it have to be a softbox?
No, you can feather the light with pretty much any light modifier that has a fairly well defined transition from light to dark. So, a standard reflector, a beauty dish and a barn door set work pretty well. In fact, the only modifier that isn’t really effective with this technique is an umbrella.