The soft box is your definitive source of lighting a model or an object in order to photograph it. Why? Because, a softbox is essentially a way to produce a softer more wrap-around type of lighting than any other source of light. You would argue that the sun is a large exceptionally bright source of light and that it should also qualify as a soft light. Actually, it does not. It is so far away that it becomes a small and therefore a contrasty lighting source.


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The closest source of natural light that you can get equivalent to using softboxes is an overcast day. Light on an overcast day is diffused and that makes it very soft. No wonder they are referred to as nature’s softboxes. But a softbox has a much bigger role to play than just work as source of soft light. They are extremely versatile as we shall soon see. So, regardless of the fact whether you are shooting indoors or outdoors, a softbox is often required by photographers pretty much to create both soft lighting as well as hard lighting setups.

On the flip side there are situations where you don’t need a softbox. This would be when you need contrasty lighting. Contrasty lighting is when there are more highlights and black tones in your photo. Softer light produces images that are more skewed towards the middle and the middle-right of the histogram. Just to clarify, the right side of the histogram denotes lighter tones (with extreme right being clipped highlights with no discernible details) and the left side of the histogram denotes darker tones (with extreme left being clipped shadows similarly with no discernible details).

Coming back to the topic of softboxes, they are the undisputed champions when it comes to lighting your scene / subject. Not only do softboxes come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, they can be used with a large number of accessories. You can use grids, which are extremely useful for shaping the light, take down or set-up the diffuser panels for a slightly contrasty look or a softer look as per requirement or play around with reflectors or pair another softbox for a high key effect.

Ash Portrait by Jason

Ash Portrait by Jason

How do you set-up a softbox?

Setting up a softbox or several of them is basically dependent on what you want to shoot and how you want to shoot it. Let’s start with something very simple – portraitures. A single light portrait can be easily set-up using one softbox and one reflector. Start with what is termed as broad lighting. Broad lighting is basically lighting the side of the face that’s turned towards the camera. As you can realize the model’s face is turned away to one side.

The angle between the source of light and that of the camera is very sharp. You are shooting the model with his / her face turned towards the camera that means the other side is going to be in darkness. You could choose to fill in some light using a reflector held at an angle of 75 ˚ to the source of the light. You could alternatively choose to use a small strobe fired at ¼ power, just to create some silhouette. Careful not to fire the light straight on to the camera.

There are literally a thousand different arrangements that you can do with one, two or more lights. One light is the bare minimum you need to get started. If you know what you are doing you can do a lot, really, with even a single light. I have used and loved the top lighting set-up. It is not ideal for flattering portraits though, but nevertheless can create interesting results. It is frequently associated with those sinister, gangster looks used in Hollywood blockbusters. For example a lighting arrangement where you can barely see the eyes of the protagonist (The Godfather look). This lighting, however, works in a number of other instances.

You could use this setup for fashion or product photos. The source of the light, in which case, should be much larger than the one that created the Godfather look. I would also go the distance to use a grid to ensure that the light does not spill to all corners of the studio. I might use a background light, in case I need to produce some separation. The background light, however, would do with a gel. A blue gel for example, on a background light would render a white background blue and can create a nice separation going. You can always experiment with the colors though.

Two lights really help you to add some spice to the image and create something exceptionally good. Two lights are ideal for creating background separation as we just saw above. But apart from that two lights are the bare necessity when you need to produce a high key effect.

Product photography by Robert Sheie

Product photography by Robert Sheie

But there are other uses of a two light setup. I regularly use two lights when I need a highlighted outline effect on the model’s torso and shoulders. The first light, usually the higher powered one is placed behind the subject. This is the key light. It produces a nice highlighted edge (rim light) around the subject’s head and torso. The other light, the fill light would be an under-powered one. Just the amount of light that would fill in the shadows a bit.

Softbox as a source of backlight

A slight twist to the set-up that I detailed under setting up. A large 6 x 4 softbox can be used as a source of backlight. Backlight can be an easy way to create a unique look. To create this look you will need larger reflectors. Your camera should be positioned between the reflectors. The light coming in from the softbox behind the subject will be reflected off of the reflectors on to your model. With the model getting no direct light at all. A variation of this lighting arrangement would be where you use a large softbox as a backlight and a smaller softbox as the keylight. This would produce a completely white background and effectively what is a high-key lighting setup.

Clamshell lighting

One large softbox and one smaller one can be paired together to create what is essentially known as clamshell lighting. The larger softbox will be fired from an angle of 45 ˚ from above the model’s head. The second softbox will be fired from the floor up, directly lighting the face and the area under the chin from below. You camera should be positioned just between those two lights.

Feathering with a softbox

A softbox is a wonderful way to ensure that you light up only the portion of the scene that you want to see in the final shot. Traditional ways of illuminating a scene never gives you the same effect. The light has a larger coverage than you expect it to and it shows up elements in the scene which you don’t want to. Instead of lighting your subject in this way you can feather the light.

Feathering denotes moving the light and aiming it in a way that you use only the fringe parts of the coverage. Look closely at the light coming from a softbox. You will notice a harder central area and a softer fringe area. This light at the fringe of the beam coming out of the softbox is what I am referring to. This light is very soft and it does not spill on to everywhere.

You can redirect the softbox so that only the light coming out of the fringe of the softbox is what lands on the areas that you want to be illuminated.

Softbox as a source of hard light

I started this discussion with the statement that a softbox is essentially a way to produce a softer more wrap-around type of lighting. But essentially, a softbox is an amiable tool. There is a lot that you can do with softboxes apart from creating a soft light. Let’s say that you need a slightly hard lighting and you have only a softbox. Take off the diffusing cover of the softbox and any side panel. The light will immediately become hard. If you want even more hard lighting, push the softbox further away from the subject of your photo.

Using a grid

A grid is a sort of light modifying tool that works by restricting the light beam coming out of a softbox making it even narrower. A smaller grid, say a 10 ˚ one will give a light coverage of about 3 feet. A 20 ˚ grid gives a larger coverage of about 6 feet. You can manipulate the light by setting the light box at a closer or farther distance.

Use the inverse square law to your advantage

The inverse square law is an important law in physics and it is probably one of the most relevant ones in photography. Why? Because it directly relates with light. Light being the most essential tool for any type of photography, something that relates directly with it cannot be left to chance. The inverse square law suggests that the intensity of the light will change in a proportion which is square of the distance between the subject and the light. Let’s take an example to understand this.

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Let’s assume that the distance between a source of light (softbox) and a model is 5’. Let’s also assume that the correct exposure in this scenario is 1/200 of a second at f/5.6 and ISO 100. Let’s say that you now move the source of light at a distance of 10’. The new exposure will tentatively be 1/50 at f/5.6 and ISO 100. Thus, doubling the distance between the subject and the source of light, increases the shutter speed by roughly two stops (in effect quadrupling the exposure).

Why did I change the shutter speed rather than the aperture value? Because when I am shooting I would prefer to keep the composition unchanged. That includes the depth of field. When shooting indoors this might not have much of a bearing but when shooting outdoors, it definitely is a good habit to carry with you. We will discuss the inverse square law in greater detail in another article, but for now know this – with each doubling of the distance you will have to increase the exposure by two stops.

Another thing to note is that with increase in the distance between the light and the model the area of coverage of the light source will also increase. If you want to illuminate a small area of the scene or only a limited area of the model’s body place the light very close to the model. If you need to illuminate a larger area of the scene or model’s body place the light further away. Sure you will have to bump up the exposure, but the coverage will be larger.

Using a softbox and a light that is stripped down to only the reflector

This again depends on the type of light that you need. Hard light or soft light. Let’s say that you have a larger something in the background that you need to be illuminated and a smaller subject in the foreground, also to be illuminated properly. You can use the just learned theory of inverse square law and combine that with what is essentially a hard light to get a larger area of coverage.

Ben Novoselsky

Ben Novoselsky

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Ben Novoselsky

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