Placing a Softbox

Today's post comes from the book Off-Camera Flash: Techniques for Digital Photographers by Neil van Niekerk. It is available from and other fine retailers.

A softbox is generally placed at about a 45 to 60 degree angle to the camera’s left or right. The light is typically about 30 degrees above the subject’s head. This puts enough light in the eyes of the subject and directs it at an angle that makes visual sense (with the light coming from higher than the subject’s view). Essentially, you want to make sure that the cone of light coming from the softbox hits your subject’s head and shoulders.

Fortunately, a softbox is a forgiving light source. You have a fair amount of play when it comes to the height and angle. In fact, the larger your light source is, the more forgiving it is in terms of placement. In comparison, if you use direct off-camera flashguns without diffusion you will need to be more precise in your placement of the flash.

The lighting here was a flashgun in a softbox, held aloft on a monopod. (1/250 second at f/8 and 200 iso; ttl flash at –0.3 eV)

A pull-back shot showing the setup for first image.

Let’s look at an example. During a photo session with Christina and David (above), I needed to match the bright sunlight, so I worked at the maximum fash sync speed to get the most power from my flash. The light was so bright that it was getting to the edge of what the flashgun was capable of when diffused with a softbox. I used wireless TTL fash, with the master flashgun on my camera and aimed at the slave fashgun mounted on the softbox. In the second image, you can see the placement of the softbox, held aloft on a monopod by an assistant. To shoot the final image, I was standing right next to the bicycle. (Note: The final image had some editing done to remove distracting background elements such as the motorbike.)

When combining a single off-camera light source (such as the softbox and flashgun combination used in the images below) with ambient lighting, it also becomes necessary to position the model (here, Camille) in such a way that the light from the fash strikes the subject from a sensible angle. Generally, what I look for is that the light opens her features that are in shade. I also want some light on the model’s eyes, without a heavy shadow under the brow.

LEFT, with ambient light only, shows the direction of the existing light (from camera left). RIGHT, a softbox was added to camera left to blend with the natural light while opening up the shadows.

The setup for the final image.

Feathering the Light
In the previous example, I positioned the light with the central “sweet spot” from the softbox pointed at my subject’s features. Sometimes, though, we need to control the position of our softbox more precisely—and control the spread of light from the softbox. The following image sequences show situations where I feathered the light from my softbox.

In the next images, I wanted to prevent a hot-spot of glare from appearing on the metallic door in the background. Positioning the softbox as I normally would resulted in the light from the softbox being directly reflected toward the camera.

Glare from the flash is evident on the metallic wall.

By angling the softbox away to a fair extent (images above), I made sure that most of the light reaching the model was from the light from the edge of the softbox’s spill—and that the glare-causing light did not strike the door. (Note: A minor problem now is that we do see the shadow of the softbox being cast.)

Feathering the flash eliminated the glare. (1/200 second at f/4 and 400 iso; ttl flash at +0.7 eV)

In the second example (below), I feathered the light from my softbox to avoid too much light spilling on the top part of the wooden structure. The idea was to accentuate the model, Stacy, by having the light more concentrated on her. This technique should be apparent from the photos. I simply rotated the softbox away from the wall, making sure I still got enough light on our model.

LEFT, here is the scene with the flash disabled. RIGHT, directing the flash at the model as I normally would spilled too much light onto the building above her

A pull-back shot showing the placement of the softbox for the final image.

Feathering the light kept the emphasis on the model and created a pleasing lighting pattern on her face. (1/125 second at f/5.6 and 200 iso; ttl fash at –0.7 eV)


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