The Search for Super-Soft Light for Best Photo

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softbox photography

TURN YOUR STUDIO INTO A SOFTBOX

Softboxes are nice, as are umbrellas. Either will efficiently create large amounts of relatively soft light. But what if the source isn’t large enough? What if the shadows, soft as they are, are not as soft as you’d like them?

Umbrellas and softboxes are limited in size. The largest softbox in my studio is 6×7 feet and my largest umbrella has a 7-foot diameter. Both are wonderful sources but take up a lot of real estate, especially the umbrella. Amazingly, neither produces as soft a light as I sometimes would like.

Super-Soft Light

In order to solve the problem, I first looked at the size of the source. I postulated that the optimum lightto- subject distance for a softbox was the sum of its height and width, 13 feet with the 6×7-foot softbox, 14 feet with the large umbrella. While I’ve loved the light these gadgets produce, I’ve frequently wanted a look that’s even softer. I’ve provided the following tips to help you get the softest light you can out of your studio space—without the trial and error.

USE TWO BACKGROUNDS

This will work best if you have white walls in your studio. Off-white trim around doors or windows won’t be a concern, as you’ll need to do a custom white balance anyway, just to negate anything funky.

If you don’t have a white wall, use a roll of white seamless paper. Set two or, preferably, three strobes on stands aimed at the top, middle, and bottom of the paper, vertically toward the middle of the sweep, from a distance of about 6 feet. Power each one to the same output. If you’re in doubt about that, meter each one individually from the same spot and make adjustments as necessary.

Super-Soft Light Diagram

Super-Soft Light Diagram

Set up the background you’ll be using for your model at least 10 feet from the white seamless (15 feet is better still). What you’re doing is creating a source that’s larger than any softbox or umbrella, and the result will be softer light. For example, if you’re shooting into a wall that’s 12×10 feet, you won’t see any significant contrast unless you set the second background more than 22 feet from the white wall source.

Set the lights “ahead” of the model. In other words, if the model will be 10 feet away from the camera, set the lights at a position at least 8 feet from the camera so the light will wrap around the model a little as it bounces back from the white wall or seamless. Remember, none of the three lights are aimed at the model.

Meter this as you would for a profile, with the dome of the meter placed under the model’s chin and aimed at the light. Be sure all three lights are equally powered.

Your first images will show delightfully soft light across your model’s face, with shadow coming in from the unlit side.

Now, to open up the shadow side, bring in a bookend or other fill card to bounce light back into the shadows. Because the source lights are so far away, the depth of light is such that the strength of the bounce is not too much less than the light from the main light—there is more than enough to provide contour and depth. Open the bookend or use a large reflector to push as much light as possible across the model.

I decided I’d build on the concept of using a room as a light source by creating an even softer source, placing existing lights in new positions and adding more if necessary.

I moved all but the highest light off the white sweep, placing the remaining two lights on stands approximately 8 feet to each side of the camera, aimed at the white ceiling but at an angle that would direct the bounce light to the model. All three lights were metered separately and powered to the same f-stop, then metered again to the cumulative aperture value. I added another light, fitted with a medium softbox, directly above the camera and aimed at the model. This light was powered to –1 stop below the rest of the lights (metered with the other lights turned off, of course) to add fill without overpowering the softness created by the others. The scene was re-metered one last time, with all the lights firing, to get the working aperture for the camera.

Search for Super-Soft Light

Search for Super-Soft Light

The light I’d left shooting into the white background added just a little more contouring to the side of my model’s face and figure, but the overall light was beautifully soft and rich. The light from the softbox filled in any dark shadows under the eyes. The other lights, while not flat, generated light that was still very soft.

In the interest of simplicity, I turned off the light beaming into the white sweep on the left. While the slight contouring from that light was a welcome addition to the overall scenario, I found the results without it to be very satisfactory. The final scenario of one softbox aimed at the model and two lights with reflectors aimed at the ceiling was both simple and soft, exactly what I’d hoped to accomplish.

THE STUDIO AS SOFTBOX

I like to make use of every square inch of my studio space for placing backgrounds and lights (except for the refrigerator area, where the beer is stored).

This next setup used one wall and two corners of the studio to create a very large source using regular parabolic reflectors. My first light was aimed up and into the wall approximately 15 feet to the left of camera and about 5 feet from the wall itself. The second was aimed into the corner of the room behind my left shoulder. That light was also pointed upward so the bounce would travel up the walls and bounce back from the ceiling toward my model. Both of these lights were powered to the same output, measured at the subject.

Super-Soft Light Diagram

Super-Soft Light Diagram

Search for Super-Soft Light

A third light was aimed into the corner of the room behind my right shoulder. This light was powered 1 stop less than the combined power of the other two (metered with the other lights turned off), to provide some very soft contouring on the model’s face. See diagram 9D. Obviously, a custom white balance is essential in situations like this.

For those of you with small studios, turning the walls into sources of light is an easy and very inexpensive way to get “big” light. An added benefit is that the depth of light increases because of the extra distance between the lights, the walls, and the subject.

USING MULTIPLE SOFTBOXES

Should you own two equally sized softboxes, especially large ones, here’s a great way to build a contoured, super-soft light that looks like a million bucks.

Search for Super-Soft Light

I placed my two large softboxes directly in front of the lens and one to each side of it, horizontally, with a slight upward angle at their centers so I’d have a little extra room to move the camera up or down. The model was separated from the boxes by less than 4 feet, so the two sources would be very large and very soft. The soft box at camera right was powered to 1 stop less than the other.

Search for Super-Soft Light

The black background was nothing more than a 4×8- foot sheet of black foamcore. I’d begun the shoot with my model about 6 feet from the background, but the light from the two softboxes did not fall off fast enough and the background was a medium shade of gray. I moved the model, the lights, and the camera 3 feet farther from the background, which meant that the light would lose strength faster over the extra distance, producing a deep, dark, charcoal-gray background. This is a relatively simple two-light shot, without hair or background lights, yet the image has great depth and character. This is perfect light for model or actor headshots, as they do not usually require kickers.

ONE SOFTBOX, ONE SHEET

I’ve written in other books about how small (accessory) flash units can be made to perform like larger, studio units by adding extra diffusion. I’ve also written about how to use small softboxes, beamed into a larger diffusion panel, to create even softer light.

What if that’s not enough? An additional layer of diffusion will benefit any situation where softer light is desired. For this set, I mounted a large softbox and set it far enough behind a queen-sized white bedsheet to allow the light to hit most of the sheet without spilling over. I’d clamped the sheet to a boom arm, but there are a number of other ways to mount such a large piece of cloth, the easiest of which is to simply stretch it between two light stands, ensuring that it is taut enough to eliminate any wrinkles or folds that could create an area of negative density within the image.

This is a very simple trick, and the light looks beautiful. You might want to try any of these tricks when dealing with a more mature model, as the light is substantially softer than that produced by any one softbox and will soften age lines somewhat.

SOFT LIGHT THAT FALLS OFF

Here’s another nifty little trick that will produce very soft light that falls off noticeably as it travels down a subject’s body. A caveat: it will only work with a white or neutral-colored ceiling.

Mount a medium or large softbox on a stand and aim it at the ceiling (I used a medium softbox). Leave just enough of the lower edge in view of the subject so that a little of the light will actually fall on her. Knowing where that light ends, the point at which the edge of the frame blocks the white diffusion front, will tell you where the light will fall off.

medium softbox

Aim the softbox at the ceiling from a distance that allows a full bounce down to the subject and creates nice shadows. Meter as usual, under the chin, reading both the bounced light as well as the little bit of oblique light coming from the angled box. The bounced light below the oblique light will be less strong and will fall off at that point. As with any trick that involves light bounced off a surface, a custom white balance is a necessity. I know this looks odd (it is), but it produces a terrific soft light that’s also quite unusual because of the vignette.

This first image was made with the model about 4 feet from the edge of the softbox and about 10 feet from the background. Notice how soft the light is on her face, due to the large surface area of the ceiling and the slightly more defined light from the edge of the softbox. A hair light, a beauty bowl with a 25 degree grid (a favorite combination), was set on a boom arm directly over the model’s head. It was powered to the same f-stop as the main light, providing just enough kick to give the model extra dimension.

We created a nice variation with this lighting when the model held a translucent umbrella and the hair light was boosted an additional 1/3 stop. The halo from the umbrella, along with the angle of its handle and the model’s arms, combined with the light’s falloff to direct all attention to her beautiful face.

If you like this as a general idea but prefer less falloff, simply increase the distance between the model and the light . The softbox will spread the light more evenly. You’ll also see an increase in the brightness level of the background, as the Inverse Square Law comes into play and the light on the background is closer in value to that of the model.

Light for Best Photo