The Phoblographer’s Guide on How to Use a Softbox for Newbies

Think about a softbox. And then think about a hose and the water spraying out. If the hose doesn’t have much of a nozzle on it, then the water is just going to spray. But consider one of those nozzles with lots of different shapes. Twist it one way, and the water will come out very tight and concentrated. Twist it another way and the water will come out almost like a showerhead. Twist it again, the water may come out more wide–perfect for getting lots of your friends wet during the summer. Think about all this when we explain how a softbox works.

A Handy Cheat Sheet on How to Use a Softbox

A while back, we put together a cheat sheet to help photographers. We always recommend using a larger softbox than the subject you’re photographing is. Just shooting a subject’s face? Then you need something larger than their face! Photographing their upper third? Well, then you need something larger than that. Here’s a quote from that article:

“Got a small softbox? Then maybe you shouldn’t try to light an entire person with it. If your softbox is around 14 inches, then it’s large enough to photograph really just a person’s face while delivering soft light. If you’re looking for a hard light look, then you can use it to shoot the entire person. If your softbox is seven feet wide, then we’re sure that it’s going to be delivering and spreading the light across enough space to give off a soft look.”

Like we say in the infographic, size matters. The larger the light source is in relation to your subject, the softer the light will be. Softer light means lighter shadows.

How Does a Softbox Work?

To understand how to use a softbox, you first need to understand how they work. This diagram we made a few years ago will explain. Basically your light (LED or flash) is on the left side. The light then bounces its output all around the inside of the softbox. Your subject is on the right side of the diagram. And the light is shaped to hit them a certain way. While the light output travels around the interior of the box, it becomes weaker. So you sometimes need to crank the power up.

We’ve got a lot more in this blog post.

Softboxes Give a Lot of Directional Control

Softboxes help photographers mostly focus the light on their subject. If the light from a bare light isn’t controlled, then it spills out everywhere. Honestly, that can be a beautiful thing. But it will often have a lot more pop and effect on the scene if you use the flash with a softbox. Combine this with things like high-speed sync, and just controlling the environment. I love shooting indoors, but I also will shoot with a softbox outside with controlled shadows.

Here’s a bit more of an explanation.

When you’re working with a softbox, consider the interior. The two big ones are silver and white. If you can, search for the unicorn soft-silver. This is basically a combination of the silver and white interior. All three are good, but subjective. White interiors are like Greek Yogurt: pretty plain and good overall until you throw in some extras to make it really good. Silver is more like a steak that just came off the grill. By that, I mean it can sometimes be a bit hotter. All that light is being enhanced by the silver interior. But a combination of silver and white is just what baby bear wants. It’s bound to make Goldilocks look wonderful when she’s in front of your camera.

Wondering what to use? We generally recommend Westcott and Phottix softboxes.

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.