Very early on in the journey of a photographer’s transition to flash, particularly studio strobes, the first question we find ourselves asking is “what modifiers should I use?” Actually, the first question is probably “what’s a modifier?” which is then followed by the other one. You start to do a little Googling and searching around retailers, and you discover softboxes. There are so many different shapes and sizes out there, though. Which is the right one?
Well, the fact is that there is no objectively right or wrong softbox. They all exist because they’re all useful. They’re just all useful in different ways and each present a different appearance of light only our subject, depending on how you use them. In this video, David Bergman (and Dean Edwards) take an almost 20-minute tour around every size and shape of softbox you can imagine illustrating what they do.
Another thing you might come across in your exploration of light modifiers is umbrellas. Although David doesn’t demonstrate any umbrellas in this video, he does explain the differences in how they work. Umbrellas are often the first modifier we choose to use before we go for a softbox purely because they’re so inexpensive. But umbrellas have their drawbacks, especially in a studio environment, as they’re a lot more difficult to control in terms of where they throw light out.
David covers a lot of different softboxes throughout the video, which he attaches to his Westcott FJ400 studio strobe. He begins by explaining exactly what a softbox is and how they work. Essentially, they work by turning your small, hard point light source (the bulb on your strobe) into a large, soft light source. Your bulb emits light, it hits the front surface of your softbox (possibly through one or several layers of diffusion), and then the front surface of the box becomes your new, larger light source. This creates a soft light.
Seeing the differences between the different sizes and shapes of softboxes in this video can be quite eye-opening if you’ve not seen such a comparison before. What’s very interesting, though, is just how subtle some of the differences can be, too, between two softboxes that look like they should put out a completely different type of light and a completely different look on your subject.
Don’t worry about getting things perfect the first time you buy a softbox, though. None of them are “wrong”. They just might be better suited to one look over another. Get used to it, experiment with it, use it fully and then buy another. The more you shoot with flash, the more you decide you like it, and the more you pursue it, the more softboxes and other modifiers you’ll end up owning anyway. You’ll probably amass quite the collection!
I own about 15 differently sized and shaped softboxes, but there are only two I use regularly. My go-to modifiers are a small 24-28″ 16-sided softbox (similar to an octabox, but with a rounder front) or a larger 48-60″ octabox, depending on my needs at the time and the look I’m going for.
What’s your favourite softbox? Or do you prefer a completely different modifier?