SLC-OE-03: How to Choose a Softbox for your Speedlights



Umbrellas are a great first light mod: cheap, easy to use, easy to transport. But softboxes can give you more control, both in the beam's edge and with reduced light leakage. The photo above was shot with a single speedlight and a small softbox.

Today we'll look at how to choose a softbox that will marry well with your speedlight, and do so without spending a lot of money.

Above is photographer Ray Alvareztorres, as shot by Brent Christensen. Both were students in a small-class lighting workshop I taught this past June in Washington, DC.

In these classes, we start out in the morning learning the basics. By the afternoon you start to see stuff like this popping up. Which is one reason I love teaching these classes.

Brent used the edge of the beam to beautifully sculpt Ray's face. This is a head shot, elevated to something more than a headshot. And the "game of inches" that we talked about at length previously here is usually where the magic happens when working with a softbox.

(Or you can always just stick it indiscriminately high and off to the side and have your pictures look just like everyone else's.)

A softbox is worth the study and practice time it takes to get to where you can consistently make photos like this in front of a plain old white background, as did Brent.

But there are a lot of different kinds of softboxes. And technically they are not even designed to marry to a speedlight. So how do you know which to choose, and how to get the best quality out of it?


Use a Bowens S-Type Bracket



A Bowens S-Type bracket is cheap (less than $20), pretty well-designed and does a great job of marrying your speedlight to a softbox.

Bowens is not the best modifier mount in the world, but it is the most ubiquitous. So going with this standard will give you far and away the most choices in the world of inexpensive 3rd-party softboxes.



Better yet, the speedlight S-Type bracket actually will work with an umbrella as well—and will give you better light quality than will a standard umbrella swivel. That's because it will more closely align the front of your speedlight with the shaft of the umbrella.

Note: Those of you who use LumoPro LP180 speedlights already get this advantage, thanks to the included 1/4x20 mount on the flash itself.

Why wouldn't you use this as your standard umbrella swivel? Simple: bulk. It's significantly bigger in the bag of a space-conscious lighting photographer.

There are actually ways to hack/improve the S-Type brackets to make them even better. We'll talk about those in a future post.


Why Speedlights Aren't Meant for Softboxes

To understand why a speedlight isn't ideal for a softbox, it helps to know how a softbox is internally designed to distribute light.

What the softbox expects is a bare-bulb type light source. On a big strobe this is usually about the size of a golf ball, and spherical in shape. When the flash tube fires, it sends out light in all directions inside the box.

Some of the light bounces off of the internal walls of the soft box. Some of it is diffused by the internal diffuser baffle. Then it all hopefully lands evenly on the back surface of the front diffuser so the front surface can present evenly diffused light.

On a speedlight, all of the light is coming out of a grain-of-rice sized flash tube, then focused by a polished reflector and beam-shaped by a front fresnel lens. So the light is all coming evenly out of the front, in a beam width that you chose when you set the zoom feature on the speedlight.

To help counteract that design mismatch when using a speedlight in a softbox, you want to set your beam width as wide as possible. If you have a foldover ultrawide diffuser, you should use that, too. The idea is to evenly fill up that internal baffle diffuser with light as much as possible, to get the most appropriate light you can in a system that was really not designed for a directional light input.

Now, a speedlight is not very powerful. And a softbox will knock off a couple of stops of effective power through the diffusing process. But if power is not an issue, (i.e., if you are working indoors and up close) you can get better speedlight/softbox light quality by sticking a dome diffuser on your speedlight before you put it into the softbox.

This will cost you another stop or two of light. But it will give you more even coverage on the front diffuser if you have the power to spare.

Now that we know how to marry our flashes to a softbox, and how to get the best possible light through them, which kind of softbox should you choose?


Pop-Up Softboxes



Of the three main different softbox designs, smallest/cheapest/quickest are generally the pop-up boxes. These open near instantly just like a twist-open reflector, and close the same way.

They are also shockingly cheap. And they take up very little space in your lighting case.

What's not to like?

My main gripe is that they are square. And a square box, much like a beauty dish, is equally soft vertically and horizontally. And because of that, you give up versatility in the ways you can use it.

Rectagular (non-square) boxes are bigger in one direction than the other, which effectively gives you two different boxes that will give you different kinds of light (i.e., for different shapes of faces) when using it.

Strip boxes further exacerbate this ratio, and can be manipulated to give a wide variety of lighting looks if you know what you are doing. We'll be talking more about this soon.

Also, these square boxes are generally limited by their pop-up design—and the fact that they mount to the S-bracket via friction—to be pretty small. So they are only useful for faces when lighting up close.

But you can get a 24x24" pop-up softbox, and the S-Type bracket, shipped, for $32.99. Like I said, shockingly cheap.


Ring-and-Rod Softboxes



Moving up the cost ladder are what I call ring-and-rod softboxes. You can get a 24x36" version, seen above, with an S-Type bracket, for $39.99 shipped. This is still very cheap.

And this softbox is, in my opinion, much more useful.

It has a 2:3 size ratio, which means it is both more useful (it rotates) and better suited (bigger size equals more range, while still mremaining soft) for lighting people.

The downside is you have to spend a little time to assemble it every time you use it. Especially at first, it'll take you a few minutes. But once you get the hang of it, it's pretty quick.

But the upside of this required assembly process is that the pieces disassemble into a very small package. In fact, I can put a compact light stand, an S-Type bracket, and softbox ring and the 24x36" softbox assembly into the chess-bag-turned lighting case featured earlier in the Lighting Cookbook. It's a tight fit, but it fits.

I think that is awesome. That, along with a camera, lens, remote and a flash in a small bag, allows you to do some really nice work out of a super portable package.

When I teach, I use the $39.99 softbox/S-bracket shown above. In fact, this is the exact combo Brent used to photograph Ray in the photo at top.


Convenience at a Price



Finally, there are umbrella-style, quick-opening soft boxes. These are very quick to assemble, and are more robust in internal construction. They are also more expensive, clocking in at about $65 for a 28x39" box. (And this does not include the S-type bracket.)

For the extra money, you get the ability to set up the box very quickly. Which is cool. But the fast-assembly ability also means that it does not tear down nearly as far. Which means that it takes up way more space in your bag.

Another reason I do not prefer the quick-open softbxes for speedlights is that the umbrella-type mechanism is actually pretty big, and opaque. And it sits right in front of your speedlight head, effectively blocking a lot of your light.

So the setup convenience is there. But they cost twice as much, don't pack down well and eat more of your precious (i.e., typically underpowered) light from the speedlight.


Don't Get This Kind



Lastly, one type of softbox to straight-up avoid. It's the type of softbox that has an embedded umbrella shaft, and allows the light stand to travel through a zippered slit in the bottom of the box.

They are cheap, quick and easy to use. And you'll love it, until you have to point the softbox downward for a shot. Which you'll have to do a lot. Because of the design flaw of sticking the light stand through the side of the box, these softboxes cannot point downward.

It's a thoughtless design, with no redeeming value, by cost-conscious engineers who are not photographers. But the cost is not even a draw, now that the ring-and-rod boxes are just about the same price.

To be clear, there are umbrella shaft type boxes that are fine, and do point down. (A Photek Softlighter II is a good example.) But these have the light stand outside of the softbox, which is what allows the downward orientation.

But again, avoid anything that has the stand traveling inside of the box before it gets to the flash. They are useless.
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So this should help you to make a solid choice for your speedlight-ready softbox. We'll be talking about more ways to use them as we continue the Lighting Cookbook.


FROM: Strobist Lighting Cookbook, Odds and Ends



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