Look beyond the softbox to spice up your portrait lighting

What type of lighting do you use as a portrait photographer? Softboxes are great and popular, but it also makes them potentially overused and boring. If you want to spice up your portrait lighting, you may want to consider expanding your toolbox beyond the softbox and into other types of lighting.

Why should you use a Softbox

First, let’s take a look at a few reasons why you should choose the trusted softbox for your portrait shot.

A “good” light in no time

Certain light shaping tools are certainly quite easy to use. You really can’t go wrong putting a softbox on your light and pulling it out. Especially now, when many brands such as Profoto or Godox have added TTL to their lighting. Getting good light quickly has become almost easy these days.

The reason I say “good light” and not my personal mantra “no light is good or bad” is because softbox lighting has become synonymous with good. We all love a beautiful, low-light portrait – at least it seems most photographers and photo viewers do.

A man pulling a woman's portrait with giant softboxes

Any beginner who has little or no knowledge of light will be blown away by the difference between a front-end Speedlite and a softbox. I know I was when I first put a softbox on a light. At the time, this seemed like the new breakthrough in my job. Still, doing the usual perfect lighting setup for portraits quickly became boring, and I couldn’t bear to take the same image over and over again.

After all, I’m not trying to be a wonder like a-ha or Los Del Rio. I prefer to be like David Bowie and reinvent my work from album to album.

Softboxes are everywhere

Another reason for using softboxes is much more subtle. It is that they are simply everywhere. For example, if you are renting a studio, you will likely find a softbox on a light. For someone who has just entered the studio and knows next to nothing about light, it will only seem intuitive to use the big light.

Some might even mistakenly believe that the softbox is a part permanently glued to the light (this is a real story I heard from someone). In a way, your mindset may be the product of ubiquitous people using softboxes.

Why you should consider looking beyond the Softbox

Softboxes are great, but I tend to use a variety of light shaping tools for my work, and softboxes actually come out quite rarely. How come?

Make different aesthetics

The key to fashion photography these days is creating an aesthetic rather than executing a setup. Of course, that involves being able to use any light modifier and match the light in it to the brief. Softbox lighting is like creating a lighting setup without thinking too much about it.

A portrait of a woman with her head in the shadows

I have found that photographers are often afraid to step out of their comfort zone and choose something different. This is quite puzzling to me, as there is an endless stream of photos that have been lit in exactly in the same way. In fact, it can be its own kind of job: boring softbox photos.

So, the first reason not to use the softbox lighting is that it is potentially boring.

Stand out

If you want to be successful in the fashion industry, you have to have a way to stand out. Art buyers receive thousands of emails a day from various photographers, and when they do end up choosing someone, they will inevitably choose someone they remember. He’s unlikely to be an artist whose work looks like everyone else’s.

I’m not saying don’t have softbox lighting in your wallet – I urge you not to be afraid to change your light up and make it more unique.

A woman posing for a portrait in front of a large Broncolor Para light

Another reason to stay away from softboxes is for educational purposes. There are over hundreds of light shaping tools that are made specifically for photographers. There are an infinite number of objects that can influence light. You can take a simple shower curtain and create unique looks with it. Another is a water bottle, another is a fancy window, and of course, let’s not forget the prisms and mirrors to name a few.

In the big scheme of things, it’s obvious that softboxes are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to lighting. How much more can you create if you choose to plunder your local rental home and request a Hardbox instead of the Softbox?

A Profoto Hardbox lamp
The Profoto Hardbox light shaping tool creates extremely harsh light that mimics direct sunlight.

A portrait captured with the Profoto Hardbox.

Understanding the raw nature of light

Spicing up your light by making a different choice of softboxes will also help you understand not only how the individual modifiers work, but also how the light works in its raw form. This can be useful when you start working with canvases, flags, and other modifiers that allow you to sculpt the light around the subject.

Sculpture is perhaps the highest form of light shaping, where you carve a statue from raw material. This way, you will be able to choose a light shaping tool that is right for you, and if it is a softbox, you can use it smarter. Maybe you’ll choose to place a grid on your softbox, or maybe you’ll orient it in a weird way you haven’t considered before, or maybe you’ll put a black flag in front of it because it’s is what you need.

This knowledge will only accumulate if you choose to be different from most photographers and not just use softboxes.

A mixture of soft and hard light. Soft light on the face and hard light on the heel.

Farewell thoughts

I want to stress that I don’t think softboxes are bad or that you are stupid or incompetent to use them. On the contrary, they are fantastic tools that have a purpose to serve, and that purpose is to create a soft diffused light. This light is neither good nor bad. This may be appropriate for portraiture or any genre when you make a conscious choice to use such modifiers.

But a softbox isn’t the right modifier for getting other types of light if that’s what you really need. The way to become one with all modifiers is to always keep an open mind and not be afraid to change sets or rent a modifier that you’ve never tried before. Allow yourself to make lighting mistakes, have mishaps, or even choose the “wrong” modifier at times. If you are not aware of what is wrong, how can you know what is?

Image credits: All photographs by Illya Ovchar.

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Freeda S. Scott