Even Better Softbox Part One – The Build Process

Softbox Article Part One - The Build ProcessAnybody who’s read this blog for a while knows that I am a big fan of Nick Wheeler. Not only he creates great imagery and photographs, but he also shares his setups, and creative process. If you did not visit his stream so far, you are in for a treat.

Last time Nick guest posted on DIYP, he showed how with a little time, two good hands and ingenuity you can create a professional grade softbox. But Nick was not happy and promised to return with a better design. And Nick is the kind of guy that keeps his word. Read on to see how Nick created an even better softbox (who would have thought this is possible) with interchanging lining and a truly genius flash holder.

The purpose of this project is twofold. First it allows for the testing of a new idea for mounting a DIY softbox to a light stand and secondly it lets me answer a question in the comments on my previous Large DIY Softbox about the best type of lining material to use when ‘doing it yourself’.

The idea of building a prototype testbed is that it allows ideas to be tried out on a smaller scale and in a simpler fashion than if you went ahead and just built the final version straight off. From this prototype I now have a set of plans to build a large, lightweight, collapsible softbox that should be easy to mount on a light stand. It should also be quick, easy and secure to attach and remove a small flash.

The ‘mount’ for the flash and the connection to the light stand is going to be handled by a rectangular drain fitting picked up from Bunnings Warehouse (Australian equivalent of B&Q in the UK and Home Depot in the US). The fitting I chose was a 100mm x 50mm down pipe connector with six pre drilled holes in it. It cost about $3.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

The flash will be held in place with a half inch nut and bolt and the fitting will connect to the light stand with a half inch threaded rod, washers and nuts.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

Of course, the first thing to check is that your flash will fit in the down pipe connector. Here I have pushed one of my SB-28’s in. Even with the Velcro round the flash head, it fits like a glove.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

The first job was to mark the position of the holes for the bolts. To do this, I drew pencil lines across the diagonals on both ends of the fitting and then traced the outline of the end of the bolt.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

Next I drilled a pilot hole in both ends.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

Finally, I enlarged the pilot hole until the 1/2 inch bolt fitted.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

Here, you can see roughly how everything is going to fit together.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

The next job is to glue a nut to the top of the fitting. The bolt that threads into this will be used to adjust the tension on the flash to hold it in place. I used a two part epoxy resin for this.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

I found the easiest way to glue the nut in place was to do it in two stages. First I applied a very small amount of glue to the underside (being careful not to get any on the threads) and stuck it in place. When this had dried, I then applied a lot more glue around the base of the nut and piled it up the sides. You need to get a good bond on this nut as it will be holding your flash in place.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

With the glue in place, I propped the fitting up and left it to dry for a couple of hours. The glue I was using set in five minutes but took sixteen hours to reach maximum strength. Be careful not to put too much strain on the joint until the glue is fully cured.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

Here is the fitting with the two bolts in place.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

This is how the fitting will connect to a light stand. At this point, I realized that the bottom half inch bolt was not long enough to reach into the light stand mounting hole.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

I tried to find a longer bolt, but anything longer than the one I had did not have a tread all the way up to the top of the bolt head. I did however discover some half inch threaded rod. This length was about $3 and as you can see is a tad too long.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

To get the rod to the right length, I needed to cut it with a fine toothed hacksaw. Unfortunately the hacksaw I had was not just fine toothed, but almost no toothed! :( To measure the right length of rod, I fastened one end into the light stand and then held the fitting in the position I eventually wanted it and marked the rod with a marker pen.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

I clamped the rod down to the table wrapped in cardboard (to prevent damage to the threads) and proceeded to (attempt) to saw my way through it. With a sharp saw this would take a couple of seconds. With my saw, it would have been quicker to chew through it with my teeth! Note to self – buy new hacksaw blades when shop opens in the morning.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

With the rod cut to length, it will be fixed in place with a couple of washers and nuts.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

Here you can see the fixture attached to a light stand with the rod bolted in place.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

The next job is to make a couple of face plates for the ends of the bolts. These are what will squeeze against the flash to hold it in place, hopefully without scratching it. For this I used a small sheet of very thin aluminium. If you can not find this, thin, stiff plastic will also do the trick.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

I measured out a piece of the aluminium the same size as the width and depth of the inside of the fitting and cut it out using a large pair of scissors.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

To prevent the metal scratching the flash and to add an extra level of grip, I covered the aluminium in a layer of soft rubbery plastic. I used a kitchen draw lining material from Ikea which came in a big roll for just a few dollars.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

I cut out a piece of the rubbery plastic to match the aluminium.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

Here you can see how it will fit together.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

I used two part epoxy for the glue to hold it all together. I glued the plastic to the aluminium first and then glued the aluminium to the bottom bolt head.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

I clamped everything in place while the glue set.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

Here you can see the final assembly with the face plate glued into place.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

Next, I needed to make the top face plate. As this one will twist down onto the flash, I made it round. I traced the shape of a half inch washer to get the outline on the aluminium.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

I cut it out with scissors and also cut a matching disk of the rubbery plastic.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

Again, I glued this in place with a two part epoxy. To glue the disc to the top bolt, I first added a small amount of glue to the end of the bolt and got the disc stuck in place. I then added a lot more glue to the threads and onto the back of the disc. Doing it this way (rather than trying to add a lot of glue in one go) makes it much easier as everything is not sliding about.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

Here you can see how the final assembly holds the flash in place. Simply open the top bolt, slide the flash into the fitting and then finger tighten the top bolt down. It provides a secure grip on the flash, is very stable in the light stand and best of all, the assembly is taking all the weight. I have looked at a lot of DIY projects using drain pipe fittings, but they nearly all attach the flash to the light stand and the pipe fitting to the flash head so that the flash’s hotshoe is carrying all the weight.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

Here you can see a side view of the final assembly.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

Finally, here you can see that there is a secure grip on the flash, even when it is hanging by its whole weight.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

With the flash holder complete, I now needed to make a connector plate to mount the softbox to. For this I used the plastic from an old storage container lid, first tracing the shape of the fitting out with a marker pen.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

I cut this piece of plastic out with a box cutter (craft knife). A handy tip here is to drill small holes at each corner of the cut. This prevents the plastic from cracking as you cut it.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

Next I drilled holes in the plastic to match the holes in the fitting. These will take a set of bolts to fasten the softbox to the flash holder.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

Here you can see how the connector plate will fasten to the flash holder.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

To make a hole in the connector plate for the flash to poke through, I mounted the flash and traced round the flash head with a marker pen.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

After removing the connector plate, I drilled small holes in the four corners of the marked section and then cut it out using a box cutter.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

Finally, I covered the connector plate with aluminium tape.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

With the connector plate complete, the next job was to build the actual softbox. For this, I went with simple cardboard walls using four large sheets of white construction card. For each of the four sides, I drew matching outlines as shown in the picture above.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

I cut out the panels with a box cutter and lightly scored the flap at the end before bending it over.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

With the left and right panels, I lined them up with the connector plate and removed the excess card on the flap where the flash will go.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

With the flaps trimmed up, I cut two small strips of aluminium tape.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

Starting from the underside, I wrapped the tape through the hole in the connector plate and then stuck it down to the top side of the panel on both walls.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

I repeated this process for the top and bottom panels.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

With all four walls fixed to the connector plate, I used small strips of duct tape to join them together. This is just a temporary join to hold everything in place.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

I now ran long strips of duct tape down the four walls and across the join at the connector plate. As this is only a test bed, it does not need to be overly strong so I didn’t bother running any tape up the inside of the joins.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

I punched through the duct tape to the holes in the connector plate below.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

I then pushed the bolts through the connector plate holes from the inside of the softbox.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

I could now bolt the softbox onto the flash holder.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

Here it is mounted on a light stand.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

After adding a flash, I gave it a quick test fire. So far, so good.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

Here you can see close up detail of the flash head showing through the connector plate from the inside of the softbox.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

In order to test the effects of different lining materials in the softbox, I made a number of removable paper liners which I could coat in the various materials. To build these, I cut templates of the four side walls of the softbox. On the top and bottom sides I added an extra flap down the length of each side so that I could join the pieces together. I made three sets of linings in all.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

I joined the pieces together with plastic tape.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

This is one of the completed linings.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

This is the lining fastened into the softbox with four small fold back clips.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

Here are all three linings lined up. I ran out of white paper and made the last one out of brown paper.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

The first lining I sprayed with matte black paint. In the real world, this wouldn’t be massively useful, but it will make a good control for the comparison and it will be interesting to see how much of a difference the lining really makes.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

Here you can see the black lining fixed into the softbox.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

The next lining is good old aluminium foil. This is what I have been using up to now on all my softbox designs. I glued the foil to the lining paper with spray glue and then smoothed it down with a cloth.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

Here you can see the aluminium foil covered lining mounted in the softbox.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

The last lining is a new one for me. It is Mylar, in this case taken from an emergency blanket which cost $5.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

This is the unfolded blanket which is 185cm x 130cm. You get quite a big piece of Mylar for your money although it is incredibly thin. It is also not easy getting the creases out of it. One other note of caution, it is highly flammable so keep it away from flames and hot surfaces (flashes with modelling lights are probably not a great idea.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

To cover the lining I laid the paper liner over the unfolded Mylar and cut out a piece with a couple of inches to spare all round.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

I glued the Mylar to the lining with spray glue in the same way I had for the aluminium foil. I then folded the excess over and taped it to the back of the lining paper. I finished it off by smoothing it down with a cloth.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

Here you can see the Mylar covered lining mounted in the softbox.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

The last interior will be matte white, but seeing as the cardboard of the softbox is already matte white, there is no need for a lining.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

With all the linings complete, the last job is to make the diffuser panel for the front of the softbox. For this I used a piece of thin, white cotton fabric.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

I laid the fabric flat on the table and then traced around the outline of the softbox, leaving a couple of inches spare all the way round.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

I cut around the outline with scissors.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

After placing the softbox back on top of the fabric, I cut away each of the corners to make four flaps along each side of the diffuser.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

Next I cut twelve one inch Velcro tabs to fasten the material to the softbox.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

I fastened three tabs to each flap. I put the soft side of the Velcro on the diffuser and added a couple of staples to keep each one in place

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

To get the hard side of the Velcro in the correct position on the softbox, I peeled the backing off and gently laid it on the soft tab.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

I folded the flap back until it touched the softbox so that the hard Velcro tabs stuck in place.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

I also numbered each flap and wrote the corresponding number on the side of the softbox. This will ensure the diffuser goes back on the right way round when I take it off.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

The weight of the diffuser did cause one problem when I put the softbox back on the light stand. It caused the top panel to sag slightly.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

This was easily fixed by duct taping a strip of folded card along the top edge.

DIY Photography Lighting - Softbox

Finally, I did a quick test fire to make sure everything worked as it should.

That’s it, one prototype testbed softbox. If you would like to see the results of the comparison of lining materials, stay tuned for the next article by Nick – Comparison of DIY Softbox Lining Materials.

More Nick:
- The Best Softbox Ever
- The Square Ring Flash
- The DIY Strip Light
- A Floor Lit Table Top Studio Project

  • photlogic

    I really like the use of the square drain and bolt for supporting and mounting the box. I think that’s one of the top solutions for mounting a DIY softbox that I’ve seen yet. My only suggestion would be to make enough space to push the flash head further so to attach a diffusion dome. Softboxes rely on internal light scattering to maximize the softness and spread of light. If the flash is fired bare mounted as shown in one of the photos, most of the light will just shoot right out of the box, resulting in a very concentrated pattern of light vs the scatter caused by a diffusion dome. Common studio strobes use some kind of curved or or flat frosted glass that scatters light which then bounces around the interior of the spread the glow as evenly as possible. I’m going to use this mounting technique in a strip box I’m planning out. Thanks!

  • Photlogic

    I know the above comment is from 5 years ago… but I disagree with that statement. The cost of a tripod is irrelevant because that’s standard equipment you should own either way. Also these parts cost each cost a dollar and change or less even at most hardware stores. I’ve made my own softboxes from cardboard boxes that have desirable outputs very similar to boxes that cost 10-20x as much. If you understand the physics of light and put in the research for materials, you can make lasting light modifiers that rival the big brands for almost nothing. Point of my comment: don’t be discouraged, a good DIY effort pays off many times over.