Any discussion of soft lighting tools begins with two classic modifiers: the softbox and the umbrella. From each of these devices has sprung a world of variations—so many that it can be difficult to know why to choose one modifier over another. Soft is a relative term, after all, and the little differences between modifiers produce subtle, but important, changes in the quality of light.
The softbox might be the most popular studio light modifier, and for good reason. Photographers tend to think of it as portable on-demand window light. The most important effect a softbox has on a light source is to diffuse it, but it’s the softbox’s ability to contain extraneous light that sets it apart. Whereas the open design of an umbrella creates a lot of scatter—light moving in all sorts of directions, bouncing around the room and inevitably creeping into all elements of a scene—softboxes are opaque on all sides but one, delivering every ounce of light in one particular direction. Many softboxes also can be fitted with fabric grids to further limit scatter, effectively focusing the light’s output without compromising the diffused quality.
Softboxes also differ from umbrellas because they have multiple layers of diffusion; an internal baffle softens the light before it reaches the front silk. This helps eliminate hot spots and makes for more even output. Of course, photographers who like to experiment with their softboxes can remove one or both baffles, amplifying the specular qualities of the light, creating deliberate hot spots and, ultimately, making contrastier and more specular output. If the softbox has a silver interior, this "punchy" quality is already amplified, whether or not the diffusers are removed. Silver interiors boost contrast, great for a glamour look.
In softboxes, as in life, size really does matter. A small softbox (under 24 inches or so) is okay for small subjects and headshots, but the soft light just can’t spread far enough to evenly cover waist-up portraits or other subjects of size. Conversely, the bigger the softbox, the more the light is able to spread, and the more it also becomes capable of wrapping around edges, creating softer transitions between shadow and highlight. This look is great for high-key portraiture of children and families, and even fashion and beauty images.
Another benefit of a big box is that it remains large in proportion to the subject, even as it’s moved away. Since a bigger source maintains its softness over longer distances, a big box is ideal for large scenes like industrial images or group photos.
The oft-cited reason photographers choose octagonal softboxes (otherwise known as octabanks, octodomes or octas) is that these modifiers create more appealing round catchlights in the eyes of subjects. But when you’re talking about the biggest octas, you also get the benefit of a huge source that wraps around edges for a supersoft transition into shadow. That broad source also makes for less dense shadows and slightly less contrasty output. One could interpret that look as too flat, so if what you’re hoping for is more punch, look for an octa with a shiny interior, or one that aims the strobe head outward to the front silk rather than aimed in reverse at the back of the box.
(My Photoflex Octodome includes a removable silver lining to add kick to this otherwise supersoft source.) The large diameter of a seven-foot octa not only provides enough spread for large-scale subjects, but it also can be positioned close for more dramatic falloff while still providing head-to-toe coverage for a full-length portrait. The large octa also works well as on-axis fill because it can be positioned behind the camera and, via sheer size, still illuminate the subject.
A "strip softbox" is simply a softbox with a more linear shape. It’s a narrower rectangle that delivers a narrower spread of light. It’s still soft, of course, but it simply doesn’t spread light as broadly as a traditional softbox. Experienced portrait shooters love to put a stripbox on a boom over the subject as a hair light, and fashion and editorial portrait photographers who use lots of lights can turn to striplights for the perfect edge light that maintains its diffuse quality without spilling onto other areas. The shape of the striplight also makes it ideal for product photographers who may want to create a specific specular highlight on the surface of a shiny subject such as a wine bottle. (To mimic that striplight shape with a traditional softbox, consider masking it down to size with flags, black foamcore or foil.)
Most manufacturers produce several softbox, octobox and stripbox configurations in a variety of dimensions for both studio strobes and on-camera flashes, like the SilverDome NXT line of models from Photoflex or the Westcott Rapid Box Strip or Octa softbox models, which fold like an umbrella for fast setup and breakdown.
Ask any photographer about why they choose umbrellas over softboxes and more often than not you’ll hear about portability. For a photographer lugging what feels like a literal ton of lighting equipment on location, the portability and ease of setup make umbrellas a popular choice. That said, umbrellas are a lot more than just a simplified softbox. In fact, when it comes to what’s important—the quality of light—umbrellas bring their own benefits. First, there’s the wealth of options. There are white umbrellas (used either to reflect the light or as a translucent shoot-through—the latter providing a cleaner catchlight in the eyes and generally softer illumination) and silver umbrellas that add some kick—a bit of shimmer via brighter highlights and greater perceived contrast. There’s also the Photek Softlighter style of umbrella (often called a brolly box), which incorporates a frontal silk to add a second layer of diffusion. When used indoors, umbrellas are less contrasty than softboxes because all that spill tends to bounce around the room, eventually winding up at the subject as fill. This can be a problem or a plus, depending on your perspective.
Umbrellas are a popular tool from many manufacturers like Broncolor, Elinchrom, Lastolite, Photek, Ph
otoflex, Profoto, Speedotron and most others. Dynalite makes several solutions, including a 44" White model with Black Backing, the 48" Quad Square umbrella in Silver with Black Backing or the 36" White model with Black Backing. The Interfit Strobies Umbrella kit is another nice choice because it’s a full-sized umbrella system that can be used with portable flashes.
The original parabolic reflector is the Broncolor Para. At nearly 95 inches across when fully open, what makes this huge parabolic so unique is its ability to change focus—from the equivalent of a very large, soft spotlight to a much less intense broad light. The silver interior in a large umbrella is key for the parabolic look; it’s this combination of large source and semi-focused silver interior that makes for those punchy highlights. This type of source is contrastier and more directional than the typical softbox or umbrella, providing brighter highlights and more falloff at the edges, great for definition in fashion and editorial portraiture. Other manufacturers offer their own takes on the silver parabolic, capitalizing on the prohibitively high price of the de facto king, the Broncolor Para 330. Purists insist, though, that the quality of light from the original Para may be emulated, but never truly be duplicated.
The beauty dish isn’t especially soft, but it’s certainly much softer than a bare bulb. As the name connotes, the beauty dish is ideal for beauty, fashion and portraiture. I tend to think of it as my old-school Hollywood glamour light, producing a focused hot spot in the center of an even softer circle of light—one that tapers quickly at the edges to fall into shadow. The harder-edged shadows from a beauty dish add strong contrast that’s very appealing when portraits need to pop off the page. When positioned close to the subject, not only is the center spot more defined, but the broader nature of the source becomes clearer thanks to its relatively larger size in close proximity.
Beauty dishes are available from many manufacturers like Bowens, which offers a 21" Beauty Dish reflector and an optional 3/8" honeycomb grid for channeling any light spill forward. They also offer a fabric diffuser in a shower cap design that will fit over the 21" Beauty Dish to soften light further. Chimera’s Octa 2 and Octa 30 beauty dishes are good choices because they’re collapsible and lightweight.
Silk Diffusion Panel
In my own continuing quest for an ideal window light replacement, I’ve finally found something that definitely looks different from both a softbox and an umbrella. It’s the use of a simple sheet of diffusion silk on a 4×4 frame, with a specular source positioned far away. The amount of softening depends on how opaque that diffusion material is, but the distance from source to subject changes the dynamic enough to make the light unique. It’s an overall soft light that lends itself to high-key shooting because of its relatively low contrast. I know food photographers who use this window substitute both in studio and on location.
Similar to silks, but with more tensile strength, freestanding diffusion panels are also available from companies like Sunbounce, which offers the SUN-SWATTER and SUN-SCRIM lines, as well as a variety of Sunbouncer reflective panels.
William Sawalich is a professional photographer, and he teaches studio photography at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. A frequent contributor to DPP, you can see more of his softly lit photography at www.sawalich.com.