Five Looks From a Single Softbox

It’s not every day that my phone starts chirping with a text message from Scott Kelby. When it does, though, I pay attention. Scott contacted me to see if I was up for writing an article about achieving five different looks with a single softbox. Of course I was up for this. “That’s easy,” I said to myself. After making sure that I could use my choice of box, I was set. I first told myself that finding five looks with one box would be a walk in the park. I started thinking about it and came up with three looks right off the top of my head, but then started scratching said head thinking about two more. It would seem as though this would be a challenge that I will turn back on you, the reader, with a question at the end of this article.

After thinking about this challenge for a week, I decided to shoot five looks of one person and use one background. When you’re learning lighting or trying something new, it will do you well to simplify every element you can so that you can just pay attention to the light. It’s even good practice to shoot new lighting scenarios in black and white. I find that this extra step really lets you see what’s going on with the light and the relationships of highlights, midtones, and shadows. Removing all of the color allows you to really see these three distinct regions in the photograph.

It’s even good practice to shoot new lighting scenarios in black and white.

The next thing to simplify is the background or the location. If you want to see the effects of different lighting techniques in a portrait situation, then keep the background simple. I suggest a plain white wall. You not only see what the light is doing with your subject, but with the environment, as well. Does this technique or modifier light the subject and the background? Does it only light the subject and not the background? Knowing what your light is hitting and what it’s not hitting is a very important element in lighting.

The Setup

I have one subject, one light source, one plain white background, one lens, and one camera. The only other element I add to this is a few reflectors for one of the setups. The box I chose is probably my favorite—it’s the 50″ Westcott Apollo JS Softbox. I love this box because it sets up and breaks down like an umbrella and there are no speed rings to deal with. It’s a huge light source and is great for lighting from one to four people. It’s also easy to use with hot shoe flashes and larger strobes—the light I used for this particular demo was an AlienBees unit. You can do the same exact things that I’ll be showing you here with a hot shoe flash and just about any medium- to large-sized softbox. But, don’t try it with a 12″ softbox. I’m not sure why those are even made.

Weestcott SoftboxExposure for these images is dealt with using a combination of aperture and flash power. I set my camera (Canon EOS 5D Mark II) to a shutter speed of 1/125 and adjusted the aperture and flash power as needed. The reason I was using 1/125 is because the flash duration on the AlienBees is akin to the old days of using flash power. That is to say the flash duration is slow. I’ve found that shooting above 1/125 with an AlienBees will result in a slight edge vignette due to the second curtain closing over the sensor in your camera. I shot all of these somewhere around f/4 with a flash power setting of 1/32 to 1/4 power. I’m not going to list these settings for each shot because I don’t want you to geek about that. Remember that aperture controls flash exposure. Flash power also controls flash exposure, so set one and adjust the other. If you want to specifically shoot at X aperture, then set your camera to that aperture, turn on your flash, point it at your subject, and take a picture. If your subject is overexposed, then bring flash power down until the subject is properly exposed. If your subject is underexposed, then increase power. Flash power is nothing more than a dimmer switch on your flash. Full power is full on and everything else just dims down from there in full stops—1/1 (full power), 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32, 1/64, 1/128.

The hardest aspect to discuss in this article is the inverse square law. The inverse square law states that as you double flash-to-subject distance, then the light falling on the subject is reduced 75%. That’s math at a higher level than counting change, so I struggle with it. My public school-educated brain tells me that when I double distance I lose half my light, but that’s not the case. You lose 75% of it. That’s a lot. Think about doubling points in distances: 3″, 6″, 1′, 2′, 4′, 8′, 16′, 32′, etc.

Here’s the short of it: Light falls off at a drastic rate close to your flash and at a gradual rate further from your flash. From 3″ to 6″ to 1′ to 2′ equals drastic changes of light fall off in short distances. Going from 6′ to 12′ to 24′ equals gradual changes in light fall off over longer distances. If you place your subject 12′ from the background and pull your light within 2′ of the subject, then as the light falls off to the background, you may find the difference in exposure between the subject and the background is 3 or 4 stops. If the background is 3 or 4 stops underexposed from your subject, then that background will be darker. If you keep your subject sitting in the same spot and move your light 6 to 8′ away, then the light is now falling off more gradually over distance. The background may only be 1 stop underexposed from your subject. If your background is only 1 stop under your subject’s exposure, then it will be lighter than the exposure when the light was 2′ away.

Lastly, I’ll use this softbox in ways you aren’t supposed to use it or in ways it wasn’t made to be used. There are some rules to using a softbox, but as long as there aren’t any police around, you can break those rules. Just keep a lookout with you in case you try some of these.

Softbox Look #1

Softbox 3' behind model

For the image above, I placed the softbox behind the subject. It was placed about 3′ behind her head pointing back into the lens. You have to test this technique with your different lenses because some lenses don’t perform well at all in this situation. For this shot, I was using a Canon EF 24–70mm f/2.8L lens and it handles shooting into a light source fairly well. When the flash fires, it sends light out the front of the box and it travels in a straight line for the most part. You can then pick up that light with a reflector and reflect it somewhere else. For this shot, I had a large, white piece of foam core to camera right pointing back at the subject. The reflector was about 2′ away from her. I had a second reflector camera right about the same distance away. The pure white background is the face of the softbox and her face is being lit by the light coming off of the reflectors. This technique really works better if you have the softbox behind the subject creating the pure white background and a second light lighting the front of your subject. Those reflectors have to be in really close to make sure that once you properly expose for the subject, the edges of the subject are not getting blown out. Notice I retain detail in her light-colored jacket and blonde hair. The further the reflectors get away from her face, the more I have to open my aperture to properly expose for her face. Once I do that, her hair and shoulders would start to overexpose.

Quote: When the flash fires, it sends light out the front of the box and it travels in a straight line for the most part. You can then pick up that light with a reflector and reflect it somewhere else.

Softbox Look #2

softbox directly overhead

This one is easy. Place your subject a few feet from the background and place the softbox directly over your head. My head was actually slightly in front of the softbox, which was nearly resting on my shoulders. Because this box is so huge, I can get head and shoulders into the face of it and you won’t see my shadow cast on the subject. I use this angle for simple headshots. It fills the face completely without creating hard shadows. Always make sure the light is high enough to put a shadow under the chin. Nobody looks good when you light under the chin.

Softbox Looks #3 and 4

inverse square law with a softbox
Okay, inverse square law alert! I had my subject sitting about 12′ from the background. I can change that background tone from light gray to dark gray with the inverse square law. For image number three, I placed the softbox camera left about 8′ from the subject. The light came out of the box, hit the subject, and then traveled on to the background. The difference between the subject and the background was 1.5 stops of light, meaning the background was 1.5 stops darker than the subject. That isn’t a huge difference, so the background stayed light gray.
inverse square law with a softbox

For image number four, I kept her sitting in the exact same position and moved the softbox to be about 18″ from her. It was right outside of the frame to camera left. The background was now 3.5 stops darker than the subject, thus rendering it in the photo far darker than image number three.

The closer a softbox gets to the subject, the softer it will be on her. The further it gets from the subject, the harder the light becomes.

Something else is happening between these two photos. The closer a softbox gets to the subject, the softer it will be on her. The further it gets from the subject, the harder the light becomes. Look at the shadowed areas of her face between images three and four. When the light was further away, those shadows were darker. It creates more contrast. As it gets closer, it wraps around the face more and the shadows are now more open and not so dark.

Softbox Look #5

Sometimes that 50″ softbox is just far too large. I like really contrasty, dramatic lighting at times and when I get that 50″ box close to someone, it’s just too soft for a very dramatic look. For this image, I A-clamped the two top corners together and the bottom two corners together. This effectively closed the entire front of the box. To open it back up, I cut some strips of cardboard out of a pizza box and used them as spacers to open the front of the box about 12″. I pulled this hacked rig in really close to the subject, so that the light would fall off drastically to the background and make it darker. In addition, the light source was now much smaller than the open box—the smaller the light, the harder the light; the harder the light, the deeper the shadows; and the deeper the shadows, the more dramatic the photo.

A Challenge

Now, this isn’t the best strip box in the world. There are reasons I use a strip instead of A-clamping and pizza-boxing a full on 50″ box. So, here’s the challenge I’m going to put back to you: How can you achieve five different looks from the modifiers you currently own, and do you need to create five different looks from one modifier? Not necessarily. But God knows I’ve had to ask a lot from my modifiers as I started out. I had to learn how to make a 60″ umbrella do all sorts of things when I started again 8 years ago, simply because I didn’t own a modifier beyond that. The goal, though, is for you to slowly build your arsenal of modifiers, so that when you need the look of a strip, you use a strip.

My favorite light out of the 50″ box is Look #4. I love that light and when I want that light, I use that box. If I need the background to be pure white, I light the background with other lights to achieve that, and then use the softbox to light the subject. So, in day-to-day use, I don’t use this box in all of these scenarios, but it’s good to know how to do it. Because the day will come when those extra flashes aren’t working or the strip box falls over in the wind and breaks or you left a modifier behind when packing for your shoot and you have to modify your modifier on location. Not that any of that has ever happened to me.


Editor’s Note: Follow us over to KelbyOne to hear more from Zack on how he makes a living as a photographer as well as his other classes. If you liked this post, I recommend this class on Professional Photography on a Budget.