How to Use a Softbox: A Visual Guide for the Photographer New to Lighting

Give lots of photographers a softbox and they’ll know nothing about using one; but it makes lighting so easy

Over the years, I’ve used many different lighting modifiers, but one of the mainstays has always been a variation of the traditional photography softbox. Along with the umbrella, it’s arguably the most popular option on the market. Photographers of all types use them, but they’re perhaps most commonly employed with studio portraiture and headshots. Softboxes take the fundamental values of light and find a way to shape and mold it. To understand this a bit better, think about how fairy lights, a desk lamp, and ceiling lights all affect a room differently. They’re all different shapes, sizes, and are placed in different ways. This idea will help you get through this article and ultimately guide you on how to use one. But in the end, you’ll need to figure out whether or not you actually need one.

How Lighting Works

Softbox is on the right

Before we get into this, we’re going to talk about how lighting actually works. The best and most understandable way to consider this is by looking at the sun – not literally of course! For this entire explanation think of things as being relative to the entire sky when we look at it. On a bright, cloudless, sunny day the sun shines down with all its glory. It’s far from the earth (therefore it is small in the sky overall) and so it tends to cast shadows on the ground. But the moment that a cloud steps in front of it, that small light source in the sky suddenly becomes bigger due to something that is closer and larger (relative to what we see in the sky) than the sun stepping in front of it. When a cloud moves in front of the sun, it softens and sometimes completely eliminates the shadows. The lack of shadows is called soft lighting and the deeper shadows cast by the sun on a cloudless day is called hard lighting.

Flat light, lower and less shadows. This is soft lighting.
Model: Erica Lourde

Hard Lighting

TL;DR

  • Soft lighting is when the light source is closer and larger than the subject in relation. It means lighter shadows.
  • Hard lighting is when the light source is smaller and further than the subject in relation. It means deeper shadows.

As we were talking about the clouds and the sun, it occurred to me that lighting on a cloudy day is often called the softbox effect in professional portraiture marketing terms in the same way that sunset and sunrise are called Magic Hour and Golden Hour.

What is a Softbox

A softbox is pretty much a box that goes at the front of a light source or around it. The light source, as explained with the previous example (the sun), is usually small. A softbox makes it appear bigger and softer in relation to the subject. Softboxes consist of two sides of material: the exterior is usually black while the interior is a variation of silver or white. Then there are two pieces of fabric or plastic that act as the cloud to the sun. One of those pieces goes inside the softbox and is called the interior baffle. The other is outside and is sometimes referred to as a diffusion sock.

The doodle above will show you how it actually works. But there are a number of other factors at play here too.

Sizes

The size of the softbox determines a whole lot and for this example we’re going to specifically focus on portraiture. Let’s say that we’re doing headshots and our subject wants something with lighting that is super soft. Now let’s think about that:

  • A headshot requires a pretty close up portrait. It isn’t full body. It’s either usually just their head, head and shoulders, or sometimes in the case of business their upper half.
  • Each of those areas that I just mentioned went from smaller to larger.

In the case of photographing just a person’s head, we know it is a small object. So we need a light source that is larger than the subject’s head. With that said, the softbox needs to be larger than the person’s head.

Pro Tip: For this image we placed Grace’s back towards the sun so that it would give us a natural hair light. The softbox was then placed camera left as you see it in the image above this one.

Photographing the head and shoulders? You’ll need a softbox larger than their head and shoulders (and obviously more power from your flash).

Photographing their upper half? You’ll need an ever larger softbox (and even more flash power).

Interiors

This Lastolite Ezybox has a silver interior and a white exterior baffle diffuser that will really soften light that is otherwise made very punchy.

Softboxes tend to have two different colored interiors: white or silver. White is great because it softens the light and often makes skin look really pleasant. Silver adds more punch and gives you light that casts a major twinkle in your subject’s eyes and lets you see every single pore in their skin. These interiors are variations of one another. Silver with some white in it is called soft silver at times.

Here’s a shot from a white interior softbox. Notice how soft and beautiful the lighting is.

This shot used a silver interior softbox, and therefore the light is much more punchy.

Here’s an example of soft silver; again this is a combination of white and silver.

Shapes

Softboxes have a wide variety of shapes. The most traditional shape is a four sided box that is rectangular in shape. Softboxes with two sides being very short are often called strips. Softboxes with eight sides are called octabanks. The shape determines how the light is shaped on a subject.

Cube shaped lighting that is as large as her torso. Notice how much brighter it is up top. Pose: One foot in front of the other, higher shoulder back, one hand on the hip, the other doing something below the neck line. Bringing one foot forward shifts the weight in the body.

Example photo shot with an octabank softbox.

Model: Bec Fordyce. Example shot with a very large octabank.

How to Use One

Using a softbox is typically the easiest thing to do and that’s why so many photographers really enjoy them. Essentially all you need to do is point them at your subject. But the beauty of a softbox comes with the angle and the direction you’re pointing from. With that in mind, you should experiment and look at how light falls on people and things.

For starters: set the softbox at a 45 degree angle from your subject’s face. Raise the softbox up so that the middle is just above their eyes and point is downward on them. Like that look? Then work with it. Don’t like it, observe what’s wrong and adjust.