Soft Boxes

by William Lulow

Many photographers are aware of what a “soft box” is, but few really know how to use them. As the term implies, the light from a soft box should be soft! However, if used incorrectly, results can often be no different than a normal light source.

The way a soft box works is that light from a bulb, be it a strobe or a hot light, is bounced around inside the box so that the effect of the light actually coming from the opening is more indirect than it would be from a normal reflector. Also, the front panel of the soft box is made of a translucent material that serves to further diffuse the light.

What many photographers don’t understand is that the thing that makes the light appear “soft” is really the SIZE of the light in comparison to the subject not a box or umbrella from which the light emanates. A good way to explain this is the following: say you want to photograph a small cell phone and you want the light to be soft, if you photograph it with a small, portable strobe, the effect of the light will be harsh, not soft. If, on the other hand, you use a light at least six or seven times LARGER than the cell phone, the effect of the light will be much softer with much less shadow.

The other point about keeping light soft is that the closer the light to the subject, the softer the effect of the light will be. So, even if you have a “soft box,” if it is placed too far from the subject, the effect of the light will not be soft. It will act as more of a point light source.

So, the lesson is: get a light box much bigger than the subject you intend to photograph and keep it as close to the subject as you can. Then, you will have a truly “soft” lighting effect.