Last Updated on 02/10/2023 by Mark Beckenbach
There’s a weird trend going on that deals with photographers thinking a softbox makes skin look softer. But that’s not necessarily true. A softbox is used to make light look softer. By definition, soft light refers to the quality of the shadows. If the shadows are lighter, there’s softer light. If the shadows are darker, then there is darker light overall. Using a softbox to make skin look softer has to do with physics instead. So here are a few short tips on how to use a softbox to accomplish exactly that.
There are a few big things involving physics here. So let’s get them out of the way.
- When you put a light inside of a modifier like a softbox, the softbox essentially becomes the light source. The same happens when the light output is bounced off a wall, a window, or an umbrella.
- Take your face, for example. A light source that’s smaller than your face will render harder light and, therefore, harder shadows.
- A light source that’s larger than your face will render softer light and, therefore, softer shadows.
- Soft light can make skin look a whole lot softer than hard light can.
- The closer the light source is to the subject, the softer the light will be.
- If the softbox is larger than your face at around 17 inches, that’s still not larger than your torso. So the softbox will make your face look soft but won’t make your entire upper body look soft. Why? Because it’s not larger than your upper body. It’s a smaller light source than the subject it’s trying to light.
- If you want to use a softbox to make softer light, big is beautiful.
Be sure to also take a look at this post on how a softbox works.
The Reflectors and Diffusers
One of the other big things that help here is reflectors and diffusers. The interior of a softbox has a very specific reflective surface designed to do different things. Silver interiors bring out more details in the same way that a mirror reflects light. White interiors soften things up. Silver and white together do a combination of both. Combine this with the two baffles (white diffusers) and you’ll soften the light up even more as long as the entire softbox is larger than the subject in the frame.
Imagine this: there’s a tap with running water and the water is flowing freely. But then you put a t-shirt under the flow of running water. That t-shirt is preventing more water from getting through. Then you decide to put yet another t-shirt under that. The second shirt will prevent even more water from getting through. In this situation, the water is like the light: a studio strobe or a flash in this case. Then the shirts are like the baffles or diffusers.
For reference, this doesn’t only apply to softboxes. The same thing applies to umbrellas and beauty dishes. Those two are some of the other most common light modifiers you can reach for.
In addition to figuring out how to light a subject, there’s also something to say about exposure blending. When you’re photographing someone with a softbox, you can use the exposure to make their skin look softer. Universally, this applies to all skin types and colors.
The thing to do here is overexpose with the shutter a bit. When using an off-camera flash with a softbox, the aperture will control depth of field and also correlate to how the flash affects the scene. Don’t tamper with the flash output in this case. Instead, work with the ambient light, which is what the shutter speed controls.
Generally speaking, don’t go below 1/50th of a second, and don’t overexpose by more than one stop of light. With the right blend of overexposure, the details in the skin could be lost, and therefore it could fool the eye into thinking the skin looks softer.