Softboxes provide photographers, filmmakers and videographers with a viable solution to the problem of how to make light look more "natural." But you don’t have to be a working professional to take advantage of the flattering window light that softboxes simulate.
Using a softbox to light a subject can effectively lower contrast and provide more control over where and how the light falls. The size of the softbox (and its distance from the subject, which factors into the relative size of the softbox) is the single most important factor in determining how "soft" the light will appear to be.
A large softbox as close as possible to the subject will give you a light that wraps around the subject, providing a smooth falloff from the highlight to the shadow areas. This type of setup makes it easier to elicit detail in both highlights and shadows. Since film and digital sensors tend to be far less forgiving than the human eye for extremes in light intensity, lowering this contrast is a step in the right direction for producing results that are more visually pleasing.
Before softboxes were invented, photographers blasted their lights through white diffusion silk stretched over frames. This softened the light, but created the problem of controlling extraneous light spill, which was controlled by using numerous flags or gobos. This took a long time to set up, and there would still remain the possibility of excessive light spill.
Softboxes mount with adapters, or speed rings, on flash heads, which are secured atop light stands. They provide a sealed physical chamber between the light and the diffusing front face of the box. The light can bounce around inside the softbox before it exits in one direction—forward, through the front face. In this manner, the amount of light spill is significantly decreased. Softboxes provide photographers with other light-modifying tools with which they can further control the direction of the light, such as fabric grids, egg crates and honeycomb grids, barndoors and additional internal baffles.
Are all softboxes the same? No. Some softboxes are made to soften the light from flash only, and are not intended for use with hot lights. The material used inside a box intended for continuous lighting ("hot lights") needs to be extremely heat resistant and is usually more expensive than fabric used for flash only. If you do a lot of work with flash and hot lights, consider buying boxes rated for hot lights, which you can use on your flash heads as well. This is a common practice—but don't try to do the reverse, or you could end up with melted fabric or a fire.
Why is there a huge price difference between softboxes from different manufacturers, even though the dimensions are the same? Even though most equipment carts have four wheels, you still need to pay attention to the manufacturing and the options, as well as their track records. Some softboxes will last longer because they are made of better materials and are created through better manufacturing techniques. Some will give you more choices between levels of diffusion material, modifiers and other accessories. With that in mind, the most important thing to keep in mind about softboxes is choosing the right size, acquiring the right adapter rings for your flash heads and placing it all correctly in your studio setup.
If you have any questions or comments about using softboxes and accessories, please feel free to share them in the Comments section below. We look forward to hearing from you.