What is a Softbox and how is it used in photography?

You might recognize softboxes as the large balloon hoods professional photographers use to blow out the light coming out of each strobe. But you don’t need to have a professional studio to light things up with a softbox. Read on to learn more about how softboxes make every moment feel high fashion.

What is a light box?

A softbox is nothing more than a housing unit used to control and enhance a light source. They come in all shapes, sizes, and brands, and they’re great in almost any scenario where you’re using any kind of artificial light source, like a strobe, or even something like a Mole kit.

Softbox light is great both on its own and as an addition to something practical on screen – the bright light of a computer screen in a dark room, for example, or for a moment of reflection near a large curtained window. They’re versatile, that’s for sure, but, more importantly, they’re also almost universally flattering.

Any face, any object, any body part, anything looks fabulous under softbox light. There’s not much to these simple and effective lifebuoys, and that’s part of their charm. Yet despite their simplicity, they leave plenty of room for experimentation, in part because you really can’t go wrong with one.


We know, it looks like we’re overselling these things. Are softboxes worth it? What makes them so great, anyway?

Distance between light and scattering

A small softbox studio.

Ask any beginner who’s ever tried shooting with uncast lighting with a piece of diffusion slapped, right on the head. We’re completely to blame for that – it’s a terrible, lazy look, and it rarely makes for a convincing photo. What’s the best way to upgrade a light source, even just a lamp without a shade?

The closer a piece of diffusion is to the light source, the more the “shape” of the light will resemble the original “light cloud” of the unadorned source. Think of a single, very powerful light bulb with nothing covering it, light shooting out of the filament from all angles.

Wrapping it in wax paper so that the diffusion is close enough to touch the bulb will diffuse the light, but what it won’t do is change the direction of the light fall from the corner that directly hits the topic. You’ll end up with the same omnidirectional point of light, just much dimmer and much less punchy.

Now imagine taking the same diffusion, flattening it with a frame, and bringing it back from the light source on-axis to the subject. Light passing through the frame will be collimated to some degree.

You may notice two minor issues with this thought experiment. First, the fact that the spray from a single bulb probably wouldn’t be strong enough to penetrate a frame five feet or more away. This first problem will be solved by using a stronger unit, which will lead us directly to our second puzzle.

The brighter the light, the higher the ambient light levels in the room will increase, diluting the composition of the photo by distracting from the subject we are trying to selectively illuminate. Luckily, that’s where the rest of the softbox comes in: the casing, which keeps the light from spilling where you don’t want it.

Spill containment

Some strobes with softboxes.

We deliberately light photos and videos in order to create a composition where previously there was only ordinary space or even total darkness. The key to any softbox is less in its ability to spread the light attractively than in its ability to contain it and force it forward – more firepower, without wasting anything through the back door.

This not only allows you to use smaller lights without losing an ounce of excitement, but it also beautifies larger lights making them look much larger than it would otherwise. Some softboxes include a metallic foil liner on the inside for even more impact. We won’t go into the mechanics of thermodynamic absorption too much, but even a white inner liner helps you maximize your results by pushing every lumen forward.

There’s no question whether or not you should invest in a softbox – the only decision you need to worry about is which one to choose.

What is the best type of Softbox for beginner photographers?

A woman photographed with a softbox light.

With the above in mind, we have a few different axes against which we can compare and contrast just about any type of softbox. Smaller softboxes can, in some cases, be capable of longer range, but not always – the smaller the source power, the less firepower you have to work with, which acts almost like a kind of limiting factor.

We’re getting into the weeds here, but if you’re considering buying a softbox, these are all different factors you’ll want to weigh in on your final decision. Larger softboxes may be able to deliver ambiently to a much larger space, for example, but they will take more time and labor to erect and more space to store after all is said and done.

Softboxes are much more than simple photography accessories. Be on the lookout for all of the following when considering your purchase:

  • Shape: The shape and size of the softbox dictate a lot about how it will work; a huge, wide, flat softbox could be used as an overhead canopy, illuminating a large amount of space, while a smaller, longer softbox would be much more suited to portrait photography and to things of this nature.
  • Equipment: The vast majority of softboxes in all price brackets are fabric, usually covered with a few metal arms; There are rigid softboxes and other quirks like these, but they’re generally heavier and a bit of a pain to carry around and account for in the field.
  • Accessories: Some softboxes only come with one diffusion panel; others bring plenty of options to the table, including things like nets and even softbox grilles, which allow you to tame the light even further.
  • Lights included: Let’s be honest: the best softboxes assume you already have a fixture to work with. Our advice is to invest in the light and softbox separately, but if you’re on a budget or in a pinch, a softbox kit with an included light may also be an option worth considering.
  • Additional equipment: In many cases your new softbox will be mounted on something called a speed ring, which is attached to the fixture itself; on top of that, you’ll also usually need a stand if you don’t already have one – extras like flags, sandbags and other gear can dramatically improve your game.

Of course, the more ambitious among us are already devising a way to build our own DIY lightbox. Fortunately, we also have a tutorial for this. No matter which way you turn it, you won’t be disappointed. When shooting with a softbox, your results are guaranteed.

Every Photographer Needs a Softbox

We admit it: our own softbox is cheap as hell, and it still does the job right, every time.

Don’t believe us? Grab one the next time B&H or Samy’s have a blast – softboxes really are the gift that keeps on giving. We promise the good will never let you down.

Basic studio lighting usually involves the use of one or more strobe lights.

How to use a strobe light to take better photos

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