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Softbox for outdoor / indoor portrait !!

Maurice Orozco , Dec 03, 2010; 08:10 a.m.

Hi guys, I do have a Nikon D300 and the SB-800. I am planning to buy a Lastolite EZYBOX softbox (24 x 24 ) to shoot outdoor / indoor portraits of one person ( sometimes perhaps 2 ) so I will use the SB-800 into the softbox and trigger it from my built-in-flash. I have read that it is better to have a bigger softbox to diffuse the light and cover the entire frame. So, base in your own experience, what will be the right size of a softbox to shoot outdoor portraits ? I am also planning to buy a second flash, probably will be the SB-900, so when I get it, my intention is to use both flashes as slaves so I will definitely will need two softboxes, one as a main ( fill ) light and the other for the background, or any other combination. Base on this scenario, what size / type of softboxes I should buy ? Any other suggestion is very welcome. Was planning to buy an umbrella ( 8 in one ) but for outdoor portraits, is kind of a pain to deal with the wind, so for now, I would like to concentrate on softboxes.
So far I have been shooting outdoor portraits using my on-board flash with the micro apollo diffuser with good result with my tele 70-300 but I would like to use my flash off the camera as I explained above so I need your help. I am kind of new to lightning, please help !
Best regards


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Matt Laur , Dec 03, 2010; 09:33 a.m.

While an umbrella is indeed an adventure when there's a breeze (let alone wind) outside, this is also true of a softbox. Either way, you've got to have a sturdy stand and sandbags (or, better yet, an assistant!).

A 24x24" softbox isn't going to do much for you outdoors except to eat up the power of the strobe. By the time you move a 2-foot softbox back far enough to fill shadows in a daylight portrait (I assume we're not talking about just head and shoulders shots here, right?), the size of the light source isn't big enough to meaningfully impact the apparent quality of the light ... but you are going to impact the effective power of the flash unit, and you're going to make it a bit harder to trigger the slave using the D300's pop-up as a controller. That's hard enough if you're at any distance in daylight, and harder still if the flash is buried behind something. You can rotate the flash's lower body so that the IR sensor is more favorably facing the camera, but that still doesn't always solve the problem.

If you're looking for a large light source, an umbrella may actually be an easier solution in the field, but they are fragile, no question. Luckily they're cheap! That Lastolite softbox is very well made (I own one, and we were talking about it once on this thread, where I posted a bunch of explanatory images, if you're curious), but spendy.

If you're going to be shooting outside and need your flash as a key light (rather than as fill), then the larger the source the better. Similarly, the closer the source, the better, if it's not as large. In the case of a 2-foot softbox used as key portrait lighting, you might find yourself needing to place it only a couple of feet away from your subject's face. At that distance, the light fall-off over distance means that a two-person shot would have one of the two people at least a stop brighter than the other if the box is off-axis from the camera. It's tricky, ain't it?

Just because I have it handy, below are two out-takes from a shot involving a couple walking down a path in the woods. On the left, you'll see the assistant, with an SB-800 shooting through an umbrella, with the whole rig on a monopod being use as a boom. You can tell that when the couple turns around to walk towards the camera, they're going to be in shadows, and backlit by the sunny hill in the background. Because the umbrella is going to be a fair distance from them, the light from it hits them both more or less evenly. Here, it's just providing some fill, to help deal with the shadows in the woods. The base of the SB-800 is rotated so that the camera's pop-up can act as a trigger, which it did just fine at this distance (around 30 feet).

A walk in the woods.

Maurice Orozco , Dec 03, 2010; 10:47 a.m.

Thank Matt for your quick response. So, if I get the 36x36 softbox instead the 24x24, would I still place it about 2 feet away from my subject or not ? I am thinking here that the 36 x 36 will spread the light wider than the other, right ? Now, you are saying that probably the umbrella would be a better invest for shooting outdoor, can you explain why Matt ? Do you think that for indoor ( half body / shoulder + head ), the softbox would be better than the umbrella and for outdoor, the opposite ? Also, I am thinking here if it is better to invest on buying a couple ( or a kit ) of Lumen8 flash kit F400 ( lastolite ) rather than invest on a new speedlight and use that kit for indoor and my SB-800 ( alone ) with an umbrella for outdoors portraits ? What do you think Matt ? I want to be able to shoot indoor and outdoor, but be very light and mobile outdoor, so carrying a softbox / umbrella for outdoor should be much better than carry the entire lumen8 kit and a battery power, etc, etc. so I instead would like to keep it for indoor only.

Maurice Orozco , Dec 03, 2010; 11:08 a.m.

Matt, I did read the thread and it is very detailed and thank you so much for your help. At this point, I am convinced that the softbox would be much better as start point for outdoors shooting. The only thing I need to decide is if to buy the 24 x 24 or the bigger one and please help on this. Also, regarding the lumen8 flash kit F400, I would appreciate what do you think about it for indoor usage.

John Deerfield , Dec 03, 2010; 12:24 p.m.

The larger the light source in relationship to your subject, the softer the light. Conversely, the smaller the light source in relationship to your subject, the harder the light. We say in relationship to the subject because think of the sun: it's HUGE. But on a cloudless day, it appears very small and produces a very harsh light. The distance from the subject makes the sun a small light source in relationship to our subject. As some cloud cover and now we have a giant natural softbox with the light reflecting off the clouds. Larger light source = softer light. So the question is, how soft do you want the light? Also keep in mind that a softbox for a speedlight means you are using this set up in the shade or some other lower light outdoor situation. A softbox will rob you of at least a stop of light and shoe mount flashes aren't all that powerful. Keep in mind that softness and contrast are two different things. If using an umbrella outdoors, I might suggest shooting into the umbrella (with the black lining) so that all of the light is thrown forward requiring less output from the flash. Shooting through an umbrella means 50% of the light goes forward and 50% goes backwards. Shooting though an umbrella can an effective way to increase the size of a light source because it will allow you to get closer to your subject (read those first few lines again!). For use when the length of the umbrella shaft has an impact.

Tim Ludwig , Dec 03, 2010; 02:15 p.m.


In this day and age of so much advocacy of on camera flash, there doesn't seem to be much teaching of the beauty of the best soft box of all which is the open sky. Most of the fill flash work I've seen over a forty plus year career is very poorly done and quite obvious. There are a few images I've seen that are well done and I do appreciate those, but for the most part...not so good to lousy.

Using the open sky and learning to see that light and pose for it, plus a combination of shades and reflectors will produce a vastly more beautiful and smoother effect in the lighting and one that is tremendously more flattering to the face.

Besides the beauty factor, the mechanical factor of trying to anchor and aim a big soft box in windy conditions or fast changing subject position can be challenging to the extreme.

Clearly, I am an advocate of natural light and modifying that to achieve the best results. If you do decide to stick with the fill flash idea, be sure to carefully measure the available light exposure and then just barely enough power in the fill flash to raise the shadow values, and not so much as to show a clearly defined, shadow producing, light source on the face.

Alex Elias , Dec 03, 2010; 02:48 p.m.

I have a 2x2 box and it is great (for what is intended) as mentioned for full body shots it might be smaller than what you need. On the other hand a larger box might be too big for one SB800 I've seen people using 2 small flashes on a bigger box. The key is that you need enough power to make a big box do its job otherwise (I believe) you are going to go backwards.
Good luck
PS: Don't underestimate the value of a big 5 in 1 reflectors for outdoor/indoor work.

Mark L , Dec 03, 2010; 03:13 p.m.

There is nothing wrong with a 24" softbox at all, saying it isn't going to do much outdoors is flat out wrong, I and others use sotboxes this size as a go to modifier. They are really great for 1-2 people but will not cover full length.

If you want some examples of what a softbox this size will do search the strobist group of flickr for westcott 28", I'm pretty sure you will like the results. Also have a read here (link)

Matt Laur , Dec 03, 2010; 04:03 p.m.

saying it isn't going to do much outdoors is flat out wrong

Which is why I qualified that by saying that I presumed we're not talking about only head-and-shoulders work. A small softbox (which a 24" unit certainly is) positioned in a way to evenly something as large as a human being is not going to provide a "soft" feeling light because of the distance from which you must use it. And at that point, using the flash naked makes more sense, because at least you preserve its power. All of this thinking changes when you're talking about torsos and head shots, obviously. But since the OP mentioned sometimes shooting two people, I thought I'd mention the problem of fall-off that happens when you position a small softbox close enough to make it look soft. These are real issues to take into account, not just hair-splitting gear-head concerns.

Maurice Orozco , Dec 03, 2010; 04:05 p.m.

Using the open sky and learning to see that light and pose for it, plus a combination of shades and reflectors will produce a vastly more beautiful and smoother effect in the lighting and one that is tremendously more flattering to the face
PS: Don't underestimate the value of a big 5 in 1 reflectors for outdoor/indoor work.
Absolutely not. I do have 2 reflectors, a 5 in 1 and a lastolite ( smaller ) 2 in 1 and I have been using them constantly but some times, when the subject is covered by trees and shades, it is kind of difficult to light up the model's face, so I started to use my on-board SB-800 with a micro apollo diffuser and my pictures looks much better, so instead doing this, and in order to play with the light and have a better picture, I think I must use the softbox so I can shoot from the distance with my tele and still be able to soft the light over my subject.
I already ordered the Lastolite EZYBOX 24x24 and I will get it in a couple of weeks at the most. My intention is to start using my speedlight off the camera and closer to my subject while I will be shooting from the distance ( 10 - 13 meters away max ) depending of what I want so I will be able to isolate my subject and still get the light on the model that I need.
As I continue developing myself in the use of the softbox, I will move to umbrellas but mostly, I would like to buy a lumen8 kit Flash F400 to shoot indoor portraits and the softbox with my speedlight when shooting outdoor portraits. By the way, what will be the best studio light kit ( 2 lights, stands, cables, one umbrella and softbox ) that you should recommend ? Can you advise guys ?

This picture was taken with the reflector 8 in one - gold side

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