Softbox light – what’s a softbox and which one’s best for portraits?

For such a simple looking tool, when considering what is a softbox in photography, there’s a lot to cover, because there are so many softbox variations to use in different circumstances for diffusing artificial light. But that’s one of the great things about softbox light – softboxes are extremely versatile light modifiers for portrait photography!

Softboxes change hard direct light to soft indirect light by diffusing the light.

Before we begin, let’s bust a softbox lighting myth

If you’ve heard that you have to use a round softbox (also called an octabox, because it has 8 sides) for portraits, you’ve been told half a story.

I agree with the logic of using a round softbox outside for portraits to mimic the shape of the sun for round catchlights in the eyes. It doesn’t mean that I always use a round light source, but I do see why some photographers prefer it.

Octobox and stripbox style softbox light

However, from a purely catchlights point of view, when photographing indoors, it doesn’t really matter what type of softbox you use.

If you use natural light only indoors, the catchlights would be the reflections of the windows…. which are not round. The vast majority of the time anyway.

So when photographing portraits with a softbox indoors, you really should be choosing your softbox based on the light effect that you want. Not just catchlights, which are a minuscule part of a portrait.

female headshot using softbox light

Headshot taken indoors with an octagonal softbox, which you can see if you look at the catchlights in her eyes

Softbox facts we’ll cover:

  • Best softbox shapes and sizes for portrait photography
  • Softbox light vs ring light vs umbrella lighting

But before we get into the details of how to use softbox light for portraits, we should cover the basics:

  • What is a softbox?
  • What is a softbox light used for?

Oh and at the end I’ve included a few useful warnings about using softboxes, as well as a great DIY option for experimenting with softbox shapes, without having to buy every shape available.

What is a softbox?

Softboxes are lightweight light modifiers that come in different shapes and sizes and attach to strobes and speedlights to create soft diffused light. They’re a great way to increase the size of your light for soft light and softer shadows on your subject.

Speaking of soft light, which is what softboxes excel at, you can fit two layers of diffusion to softboxes to soften the light even further. There’s a:

  • Inner diffusion panel
  • Front diffusion panel

Interior of a stripbox style softbox showing inner diffusion panel

Photo taken from the back of the softbox with the outer material peeled back so that you can see the inner diffusion panel. You’ll also notice that the interior of this particular softbox is silver.

Also, photography softboxes are made with two different interiors:

  • White interior for the ultimate soft light
  • Silver interior (most common) for more reflective, crisper light that’s still soft

Although all softboxes are lightweight, some are designed to be more portable than others. These are the types you’d want for photographing outdoors. Not only are they super light, but they’re designed to fold up quickly and easily for efficiency and portability.

Studio soft boxes are also very portable, but take a little more time to set up and pack away again as they’re designed for daily studio photography use. You wouldn’t expect to pack them up after each use.

Softbox shapes

Softboxes come in three basic shapes:

  • Rectangle
  • Square
  • Octagon (round)

Stripboxes (narrow rectangular softboxes) and octaboxes (octagonal softboxes) are also softboxes and their names simply refer to their shape.

And there are several sizes in each shape for different uses. The bigger the subject and the softer you want the light, the larger your softbox, or any light modifier, should be. Also, get it close to your subject for really soft light.

We’ll get to this in a moment.

photography softbox designed for speedlights

You can even get softboxes for speedlights, like my octagonal softbox above (rear and side views)

What is a softbox light used for?

When studio photographers want to create natural looking light, a softbox is most often the tool they reach for, because you can easily create the same effect as window light in photos.

Softboxes are used in all types of photography to create soft light, which is why every professional studio has a selection of softboxes to use for different subjects.

And just to drive the point home, that includes:

  • Car photography
  • Portrait photography
  • Jewellery photography
  • Fashion photography
  • Etc etc etc

Softbox light is used extensively by professional photographers, because they’re great light modifiers for creating diffused light and controlling light, such as:

Softbox vs ring light vs umbrella lighting

But, I hear you say, umbrellas and ring lights are also good. So what’s better?

As always, the answer is – it depends. And what it depends on is the look you’re going for, the space you have to shoot in and your budget.

Let’s take a closer look at these light modifiers…

What’s better softbox light or ring light?

As with any style choice in photography, ultimately it comes down to personal preference, but softboxes and umbrellas are the industry standard in portrait and commercial photography studios.

A ring light creates an easily identifiable catchlight in the eye, so is very easy to see when used in portrait photography. This is a ring of light around the pupil of the eye.

A ring light photo is also characterized by minimal shadow on the subject’s face, which is why it’s so popular with beauty vloggers and bloggers. It also takes up significantly less space than a softbox lighting kit and is often cheaper. Plus, to be of any use you must attach a softbox to a studio strobe or speedlight.

Softbox lighting is endlessly versatile, because you can get softboxes in different shapes and sizes. They create the most amazing soft light for portraits and are also perfect for product photography, especially for products with reflective surfaces.

Depending on the shape of the softbox, catchlights from soft boxes can look like the sun (round) or like windows (rectangular), so they’re perfect for both indoor and outdoor photoshoots.

BTS of studio shoot with two stripboxes

Behind the scenes shot of a 4 light setup – you can see that the subject is lit with two stripboxes either side and behind. There’s also a large octabox to camera right in front (he’s looking at it). Plus, I used a large umbrella on the strobe behind me for fill light.

What’s the difference between softbox light and umbrella lighting?

Because octaboxes (round softboxes) create lovely round catchlights that mimic the shape of the sun, they’re very popular for outdoor photoshoots. Well, so are umbrellas.

Like softboxes, umbrellas are also great for creating soft light.

Why choose a round softbox over an umbrella?

Four reasons:

  1. Spectral highlights (aka hotspots) – because you can double diffuse a softbox and, because the light bounces around inside before leaving the softbox, you have more control over spectral highlights on your subject. Shoot through umbrellas don’t have as much diffusion, and the light doesn’t bounce around as much inside, so they’re more prone to creating hotspots on your subject’s skin. Especially if their skin is already even slightly shiny.
  2. Catchlights – even if a reflective umbrella (as opposed to a shoot through umbrella) is diffused with a diffusion panel attached to the front, you’ll still be able to see the rods of the umbrella, your flash and the lightstand in the catchlights. Softboxes reflect simply as a round light.
  3. Spread of light – umbrellas spread the light everywhere so aren’t an efficient use of light. Also, if you don’t want too much light spilling onto the background, an umbrella isn’t a good choice.
  4. Wind – when photographing outdoors umbrellas are like sails in the wind, and even if your lightstand is secured with sandbags or a helpful assistant holding onto it, an umbrella can easily be pulled out and blow away in a strong wind.

That doesn’t mean that softboxes are better than umbrellas. Each light modifier has a purpose and you decide which to use based on the look you want to create, the shoot environment and conditions.

I very often use a large umbrella indoors and occasionally even outdoors (when there’s absolutely no wind and I have an assistant to prevent it from tilting over).

Need more help deciding between softboxes and umbrellas? Read my article on softbox lighting vs umbrella lighting.

newborn portrait lit with large softbox to look like window light

I used a large rectangular softbox to camera right to create soft light that looks like natural light coming in through a window

Best soft boxes for portrait photography

The size of the soft box you use is determined by the size of your subject (for example baby vs adult) and how much of them you want in frame. Aim for your softbox to be the same size as the part of your subject in frame.

  • Head and shoulders – about 24 inches
  • Three quarter length – 36 – 48 inches
  • Full length – 48 inches and above

You can of course use any size softbox you wish, but to take advantage of the soft light that you can get from a softbox, size and proximity to subject are important. For truly soft light that wraps around your subject, the bigger and closer your softbox the better.

That said, for newborn photography I favored a large softbox near the baby so that I could create the softest light possible that looked like natural light coming through a large window.

Examples of the light cast by two different types of soft boxes

On the left I aimed a stripbox at the wall and on the right I aimed an octabox at the wall to demonstrate how different light modifiers create different shapes of the light

Shapes of softboxes for portrait photography

  • Octaboxes – ideal for outdoor photoshoots. The size will dictate how much of the subject can be in shot as you’ll see the light fall off if the octabox is too small for the shot.
  • Stripboxes – great for use as a rim light, hair light, background light, graduated background light and perfect for fitness shoots where you want shadows to accentuate muscle definition. Any time you want shadows to feature heavily on your subject, use a stripbox as your key light.
  • Square – perfect for headshots
  • Rectangle – ideal for all types of portrait photography, from headshots to full length shots, depending on the size of the softbox

It’s not just the size and shape of the front of a softbox that matters. The depth of a softbox also has a big impact on how the light falls on your subject.

The deeper the softbox, the more the light will wrap around your subject, creating a beautiful transition from light to shadow.

Further reading: 5 portrait lighting patterns you need to know

Octabox and stripbox softboxes

Photography softbox material tips

Softboxes are made of polyester and nylon.

Creases on diffusion panel

I mentioned that softboxes come with a front diffusion panel, which arrives folded up. So when you first unbox it, it’ll be creased.

Don’t worry about trying to get rid of the creases. They won’t affect anything and over time they’ll smooth out anyway.

Material strength

I learned this the hard way so, hopefully my experience will help you…

On an outdoor portrait shoot we moved from one part of a location to another for a change of scenery. I pack light for shoots, so it’s easy to just pick up and move.

What I didn’t realise was that as I was walking and talking to my client, her partner lit a cigarette and was chatting and walking with my assistant, who was also carrying gear, behind us. She wasn’t particularly close to the softbox, but when she flicked the ash off the end of her cigarette an ember caught in the wind, blew into the softbox in my assistant’s hand and burned a hole in the front diffusion panel (made of nylon).

The hole is so small that it doesn’t make a difference to anything, fortunately. But I learned a good lesson not to allow any smoking near lighting equipment.

Lastly a DIY photography softbox trick

When I set up my first studio I didn’t have stripboxes, but I love shadows in photos, so really wanted to use a narrow strip of light to reduce the amount of light on my subjects and also for creating rim light. So I used to clip strips of black card to the front (and bent around the side to avoid light spill) of my larger softboxes to make them into DIY stripboxes.

Obviously, a stripbox is better, but it actually worked really well, until I had the budget to buy stripboxes.

If you have rectangular softboxes and you want to experiment with the effect of a stripbox, give my DIY solution a try.

That was a really long time ago and I notice that now some brands actually sell strips that you can velcro to the front of softboxes to make them into stripboxes. I don’t know how great they are, but they’re probably better than my bits of black card.

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If you have any questions about softbox light, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my softbox photography tips have helped you, share that too.

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