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The Hard Truth About Softboxes: Which Modifiers To Use In Each Role During Photoshoots And Why

6/14/2020 ISO 1200 Magazine 1 Comments

The hard truth about softboxes: Which modifiers to use in each role during photoshoots and why

Softboxes increase the surface area of your lights and the larger the light source relative to your subject, the softer the light. As light bounces around inside of them it becomes more even corner to corner. As it then passes through 1-3 layers of diffusion fabric, it spreads more evenly, warmer and softer with each layer.

In addition, if you have a three foot and a matching five foot softbox three feet and five feet from your subject respectively, the light will be equally as soft, because from the perspective of the subject, the softboxes will appear to be the same size in their field-of-view. However, the three foot softbox will need to be more focused on the upper body of your subject.

Generally speaking, softboxes are a higher quality modifier than umbrellas. There are some softboxes however, that aren’t very soft and there are some umbrellas that are better than some softboxes.
There are four different types of softboxes — strip softboxes, rectangular softboxes, octaboxes and deep parabolic softboxes. You can use these modifiers for a main light, a kicker / edge light, a hair light or even a background. Which one you chose for which role is up to you. However, the following will describe how I typically employ my 14 softboxes.

The following strip softboxes are great for creating edge lights (sometimes called a kicker) and hair lights. Both will come from behind your subject and will create separation between them and the background. A hair light can also preserve detail in your subject’s hair.

This narrow faced modifier is used to edge subjects’ bodies, provide a hair light for groups, for fill and in rare cases a main light. With this particular softbox, the flash points away from the subject and into a silver lined modifier. If you remove the outer white fabric, you can create a large light with a hard edge.

I own three of these and they are perfect for creating edge lights for half body or tighter, under camera fill, a hair light or as a key for headshots. I also have a hooded diffuser for one of them that restricts the light so it is more directional, which I use for my hair light 95% of the time.

Rectangular softboxes were probably the original softbox shape. I have four of them, two small and two large, but they are not the best quality. I typically use the following two types only for the following applications:

I have two of these that I use when lighting videos, because they can be easily adapted to my Bowens mount LED lights. I also wanted a matching pair so I could properly light a two person interview. I have a grid for one of them, so it is my go to when I need to evenly light a background from the side or cast soft directional light in a small space. The fabric around the octabox ring on my Elinchrom modifiers is fairly tight, so its harder to adapt them to Bowens mount.

I have used these large modifiers for backgrounds and I have used two of them in tandem to create a 6×9′ main light. I have also used one of them for fill, but they don’t have multiple layers of diffusion, so I don’t regard them to be of top quality.

Octaboxes are the most popular modifier used for main lights. They are probably the highest quality softboxes because they are so even from edge to edge as they mirror the shape of circular flash tubes. If you think about rectangular softboxes, the distance from the tube to the corners is a lot different than the distance from the middle of the long sides to the flash tube. I actually own four octaboxes which I use for different jobs, mostly because of their size.

The parabolic shaped deep modifier produces deep shadows and contrast, while maintaining the softness of an octabox and it’s extremely even edge to edge. This has been my go-to octa on location when I need light similar to the light I get from a beauty dish, which is to say directional focused light, that is great for headshots.

This one is similar to the 70cm version, but bigger. If I could only own one softbox, this would be the one, based on the quality of the light and its versatility, since it’s good for everything from headshots to 3/4 length portraits.

This large octabox is perfect in almost every way — super even and soft. It is the closet thing I have found to a modifier that replicates light from a large window. The flash head points away from the subject too, so you can remove the outer fabric produce harder light.

It produces light that is nice, but not as good as the 74” Elinchrom octa. It does however fold up smaller and won’t catch as much wind outside, so I use it on location outdoors and indoors when space is at a premium.

Deep Parabolic modifiers are fairly new on the scene and are usually characterized by having multiple sides, and a deep shape, which creates soft and directional lighting.

This is the deep parabolic that I use. It produces light that is like a 74” Elinchrom octabox, but it is extremely directional. Turning the modifier even a few degrees can be the difference between lighting your subject, or lighting your subject and the background. Because it has 16 ribs, it’s more time consuming to set-up, and given the mounting bracket’s size, it takes up just as much room in your traveling case as the 74-inch when disassembled. I normally leave this one set-up in my studio.

If you are new to lighting and only use an umbrella that’s fine. Just keep in mind that it has taken me 20 years to collect all of these modifiers. So don’t think for a second, that you need all of this gear to get started. Just get out there and use what you have and add gear as your need and budget grows!

About John Gress:

For over 20 years Chicago photographer & director John Gress has created stunning photography and videos for some of America’s largest companies and international media outlets.  His work has included national lifestyle advertising, portraits and videos for the beauty industry and action photography of professional athletes. Professional Photographer Magazine called Gress “one of the nation’s foremost experts on lighting.” Let's Get Connected: www.johngress.comTwitter | Facebook | Instagram

Text, image and video via John Gress | This article, links, and images were originally published on

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Greta article John! I too love the 100 deep octane from Elinchrom its one of my go too's!