Softboxes create a soft, flattering light that makes (almost) anything look good. They can be used for both portrait and still-life photograph in a studio or out on location.
The softbox will "soften" the light output of a given light. Imagine placing a white T-shirt in front of a bright flashlight. The light becomes more diffuse and "softer." This quality of light is desired by many types of photographers for all kinds of subjects.
Most important to the character of the light created by a softbox is the shape. The shape of a softbox determines the directionality of light falling on and off of its subject. Shape also determines how your light will appear in reflections or catchlights in the eyes of portrait sitters. Let's take a look at the various options:
Key Takeaway: If you are just getting started, we recommend sticking with one of the above shapes. For those with more specific needs, we will dive into the specialized options further down the page.
There are two main considerations for softbox size: light spread and portability.
A larger softbox creates more diffuse light and covers a greater area with light.
The smaller the softbox, the less coverage you get from the light shining through it. A small softbox might have enough coverage for a close-up facial portrait, but it will be insufficient for photographing a full-body portrait, or something as large as a car.
An important thing to understand is: Larger Softbox + Closer to The Subject = Softer Light.
Larger softboxes are heavier and can be more challenging to handle. They also take up more space. You'll need heavier light stands and maybe sandbags or other counterweights to keep them stable and safe. Not all lights can support the weight of large softboxes. Think of the size of your studio as well. Large softboxes can fill a space and can take up a lot of storage space when not being used.
The standard studio still photography light is the monolight/strobe. These lights have the widest compatibility for softboxes, though they often require a speed ring. A speed ring is simply an adapter for the softbox to mount to the front of a particular light. You will need a speed ring that is compatible with your light and the softbox you are choosing.
The best way to mount a small speedlight to a softbox is through the use of a dedicated speed ring bracket. These brackets have a built-in speed ring (check compatibility with your softboxes), a shoe mount or clamp for the speedlight(s), and a standard mount that fits on your everyday light stand.
Note that speedlights are highly directional light sources and are better suited to small-to-medium softboxes. When you do use them make sure the zoom is set to the widest setting and it can be useful to attach a dome diffuser to the front if you have one. Also, speedlights are usually not as powerful as larger monolights and strobes, so you might notice a dramatic drop in output when mounted in a softbox.
If you want to mount a softbox to an LED panel, you'll need to do some research and be warned that it may not always be possible. You will need to find softboxes designed for LED lights, which are often described the size of the LEDs they are compatible with. They have an open back with straps to attach directly to the LED panel. It's very simple if you find a compatible softbox.
Being similar in design to monolights, point-source LED lights use a similar mounting method to strobes that requires a speed ring. Your light likely has a mount specified in its documentation, such as Bowens-type. What you will want to do is find a softbox and a compatible speed ring that will allow you to mount that softbox to your light.
Tungsten lights work just fine with softboxes. Many tungsten lights require speed rings for adapting a softbox to the light's front face. You'll want to find a softbox that works with a speed ring compatible with your light.
A very important note has to do with heat. Tungsten lights get hot. Some get dangerously hot. Please make sure you are choosing softboxes and mounts that are made of heat resistant materials to prevent damage or fires.
Available in silver, gold, or white, the color and reflectivity of the softbox's interior will influence the character of your light.
Key Takeaway: When in doubt, pick a standard silver interior for your softbox.
If you are using cool-running LEDs, you usually need not worry about heat and your softboxes, but if you are using monolights, tungsten lights, or are unsure about the heat generated by your light please read this section.
Many softboxes are labeled as heat resistant or are rated to a specific wattage, such as 250W or 500W. Lights create heat, and with improperly rated materials, the heat from a light can ignite a fire. Tungsten, HMI, and some monolights and strobe heads have modeling lights which generate large amounts of heat.
Your hot lights will have a wattage specification. With that information, you should be able to find a heat-resistant softbox that is safe to use on your light. When in doubt, check the manual for your light source.
Sometimes you'll want your softbox to do something a bit different than what it does out of the box. Plenty of accessories can help modify the light to optimize it for your shoot. This can include grids to help direct the light and minimize spill, extra diffusion to create a softer quality of light, or even just some replacement rods.
Ball & Lantern
An often-seen fixture on film sets, the ball or lantern, commonly referred to as a "China ball" on some productions, is a popular option. Lanterns create a very soft omnidirectional light that closely mimics natural, ambient lighting indoors. They are hard to control, but this extra light spill can bounce off walls and surfaces to fill in a subject naturally. Designed for hanging overhead, they can also illuminate a group of subjects, such as those seated at a table.
Lanterns are ideal for mimicking ambient lighting, interior/real estate, architecture, fill, portraits, overhead lighting.
Beauty dish-style softboxes provide a more portable option than their metal brethren. Popular with portrait and fashion photographers, beauty dishes create a focused light that wraps around faces, chisels cheekbones, and produces a donut-shaped catchlight. Aside from being easier to store and transport, this iteration of the beauty dish adds an extra layer of diffusion as a softbox.
They are ideal for beauty, fashion, and portrait photography.
Parabolic softboxes adopt a deeper design than conventional softboxes, producing a more focused light that wraps around subjects. Common sights on fashion and commercial sets, parabolic modifiers can have quite a large footprint, requiring space to work with.
The modified light here is ideal for portraits, fashion, commercial photography.
Light banks are used to illuminate very large subjects or environments that require even lighting. Because of their large size, they often require multiple lights and much more complex rigging than conventional softboxes.
Light banks are ideal for large products, subjects, and spaces.
We hope that this buying guide has allowed you to find your way to the purchase of the perfect softbox for your lighting needs. If you have more questions, please engage us by using our web chat function, call, or email us at B&H Photo.