In portrait photography lighting, the shape of the light source—a soft box, umbrella, or anything else—can create different kinds of effects. Let's compare several popular soft box shapes.
Read Part I: Softbox vs. Umbrella: Which One Should You Use?
A light bank or soft box for flash emulate the soft, directional lighting produced by window light. A soft box is usually rectangular, but it can be any shape; in fact, the shape of your light bank/soft box (same thing, really) can make a big difference in shaping the quality of your portrait photography lighting. Long, thin lightbanks that emulate stage footlights are called striplights, and produce dramatic portrait lighting. Lightbanks can also be octagonal and produce a direct yet wraparound light source with an even light spread. Like traditional softboxes, striplights and octagonal lightbanks are available from many sources including Photek, Westcott, Elinchrom, and Flashpoint.
An affordable alternative to the octagonal lightbank is to use a white umbrella in “shoot-through” mode by firing the flash directly though the fabric. Because the flash is not enclosed, some output is lost as light spills out the sides. Umbrellas usually have 16-ribs, so light quality is not quite the same as an octagonal softbox. In a future installment, I’ll do a shoot-off between and an umbrella in shoot-through mode and an octagonally-shaped lightbank, so you can make up your own mind. In the meantime, let’s see what these different kinds of softboxes can do.
To show the differences, I shot a test using three different shaped Flashpoint PZ Soft Boxes. These lightbanks are available in various sizes and come with baffles, recessed fronts to control directionality, and a carrying case. To attach these softboxes to your monolight/head you’ll need a speed ring that costs from around $20 (Flashpoint) to ($39.95 (Profoto.) In my tests, a Flashpoint 620M monolight was placed in the same place for each shot. Output was set between one-quarter and one-half power and the lightbank’s shape produced differences not only in how the light fell on the subject but on the gray seamless background as well.
For this unretouched photograph, a single 36 x 48-inch Flashpoint PZ Softbox ($119.95) was placed at camera right. Exposure with a Canon EOS 5D and 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM lens was 1/125 sec at f/10 and ISO 100. In each of the examples, the background becomes darker or lighter depending on the shape of the light from the softbox. © Joe Farace
Here I used a 12 x 36-inch Flashpoint PZ Softbox ($79.95) aka striplight, although the Adorama web site (as I write this) does not call it that. The light is at camera right and the exposure with Canon EOS 5D and Canon EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM was 1/125 sec at f/8 and ISO 100. © Joe Farace
This is the set-up that was used for each example. In this case the 12 x 36-inch Flashpoint PZ Softbox is shown in place. Special thanks to model Amber Nicholson for recreating her pose under each set-up. Although I had three lightbanks, I only had one speed ring and had to dismount, disassemble, and assemble a new light modifier before making each portrait! © 2012 Joe Farace
If any lightbank could be called the Goldilocks light source it would be the Octabox. It provides a wraparound soft light and seems to be the perfect light source. Exposure with Canon EOS 5D and Canon EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM lens was 1/125 sec at f/10 and ISO 100. © Joe Farace
Different kinds of soft boxes create differently shaped catchlights in a subject’s eyes. Catchlights are specular highlights from a light source and draw attention to the subject's eyes. A catchlight is not the same thing as red-eye, which is an undesirable effect, created by the reflection of light from the retina inside the back of the eyeball. Catchlights are aesthetically pleasing and the type of light source and placement affects their size. It’s a little thing, but paying attention to lots of little things can make a portrait more than just a snapshot.
Here are catchlights from the three different lightbanks used in this test. L to R: The catchlight from the 36 x 48-inch Flashpoint PZ Softbox looks like it was created by a window, so the effect appears natural. The catchlight from the 12 x 36-inch Flashpoint PZ Softbox is long and thin, mimicking the shape of the lightbank, but windows can have that shape too. The third catchlight is from the 36 x 36-inch PZ Octabox looks almost as if it was created by an umbrella but without the shadows produced by a bumbershoot’s ribs. © 2012 Joe Farace
The purpose of this test is not to pick a winner, but to show the effect of changing the shape of a lightbank when lighting a subject. The Octabox may be a Goldilocks light source but if you want to add drama, a striplight might be the right choice for a specific subject. And if you want a window light look, you can’t beat a big rectangular softbox. The takeaway is that you need to match the light source to the kind of portrait you’re trying to create and not all portraits should look alike because not all people look alike.
Joe Farace is the author of the new book “Studio Lighting Anywhere,” which is available from Adoram.