February 1, 2011

off-camera flash photography: distance between softbox and subject

There are all kinds of formulas for how to figure out the optimal distance between the softbox and the subject. One of the most common suggestions is to use the diagonal of the softbox. While I believe this might something you can play around with in the studio, I do think it is an overly technical way to approach it when shooting on-location.

Working on-location am usually concerned with:
– getting my composition,
direction of the light from the softbox (in relation to my subject’s positioning),
– my shooting distance from my subject ,
– and making sure that I can get the shot without the softbox getting in shot.

My take on this is that by adding the light from the softbox, I am dramatically improving the lighting on my subject, regardless of the finer differences in distances according to the calculations. Instead of spending time finessing the distance between the softbox and subject, I’d rather concentrate on my composition and directing my subject. The quality of light will be fine, even if it might not be at the theoretical optimum.

I’d also rather keep the rhythm of the shoot, than get bogged down with fidgety calculations of the distance between the softbox and subject. I also want to be able to move to my left or to my right, and not have to ‘bump’ the position of the softbox continually further to the side.


video tutorial to help you with flash photography

If you like learning by seeing best, then this video tutorial will help you with understanding flash photography techniques and concepts. While not quite hands-on, this is as close as we can get to personal instruction. Check it out, as well as other video tutorials and online photography workshops.



As further examples, with two photo shoots where I used a small softbox – the Lastolite 8.75″ speedlight softbox (vendor) – the softbox was certainly not held a mere 13″ away from my subject’s face. That would just be impractical. Yet, by using that softbox, even if relatively small, I am already creating much softer light than if I had used a bare speedlight.
a New York photo session with Kate,
an intimate photo session with Carly-Erin,

So my advice, which I think is elegantly practical:
– get the softbox as close as you can,
– but not so close that you can’t comfortably change position and angle,
– and make sure you get photographs that are interesting, instead of fritter time on the techie details.

In the end, while we might not be working at the theoretical ideal distance, using a softbox will give you softer light than if you hadn’t … even if you move it further back.


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suggestions for off-camera flash gear


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{ 17 comments. } Add a Comment

1 Philippe Dame February 1, 2011 at 9:09 am

Hi Neil, I love your work and I’m a fan of your helpful blog. I’m currently reading your book on on-camera flash. I’ve been enjoying doing off-camera work with my speedlites and I’ve been considering an Ezybox to get something easy to use outdoors but I’ve been debating what size to get. I want to maximize portability and quality of light. I see that you use the 8.6″ and 24″ versions of the softbox. I can only guess that you’ve used the 15″ version as well. Any comments on the size you find most practical/useful overall?


2 Neil vN February 1, 2011 at 10:13 am

Philippe … I only have the 8.6″ ‘and 24″ softboxes. Since I have to buy all my equipment, I have to commit to a decision at some point and hopefully pick the best options that are available. So with the 8.6″ and 24″ softboxes, I have the two which are quite different.

In that way, perhaps the 15″ softbox would be a good compromise if you had to work indoors and only needed to light one person.


3 Pega February 1, 2011 at 11:45 am

Really an interesting post Neil.
Thanks for sharing !


4 SEAN SHIMMEL February 1, 2011 at 12:00 pm


You’re always the elder statesman of… common sense wisdom.

Keep up the divergent approach.




5 Neil vN February 1, 2011 at 12:08 pm

Sean … that’s a very gracious compliment. I’ll take it, thanks!
Yet, my friends who know me well would barely suppress their laughter at that. ; )


6 ButchM February 1, 2011 at 4:14 pm

Agreed … especially working outdoors, the use of a softbox is much more about the control of where the light will fall than if you are achieving the maximum effectiveness that the use a softbox was designed for … you have to strike a happy medium between convenience and the desired ends … which you address quite effectively … great post …


7 Stephen February 1, 2011 at 10:14 pm

Neil continues to drive home the point that at some point, you can’t keep sticking to the numbers. Rigidly adhering to the technical details will impede your photography.

I sometimes forget that. :-)

Experience from shooting a lot develops your photographic intuition.


8 Naieem Kaiz February 2, 2011 at 2:13 am

Hi Neil, thanks a lot for this excellent article. By the way can you please post the final image? I know it would be great but just curious to find out how it looks. :)

Naieem Kaiz


9 Neil vN February 2, 2011 at 2:18 am

Naieem .. see that part where I mentioned, “and make sure you get photographs that are interesting”? Well, I failed to do that.


10 gt February 2, 2011 at 2:22 am

this article is truth.

The “where should I place my softbox?” question is just another variation of the “what are the magic settings?” question.
You can’t fuss over this stuff


11 ron lemish February 2, 2011 at 2:32 am

Neil you must be reading my mind !! After viewing the 8.6″ Ezybox on your blog I purchased it and was wondering at what distance I should use it. It’s early in the morning, not being able to sleep I open Planet Neil and wow your topic of distance between Ezybox and subject is discussed. Uncanny ! and thanks for reading my mind

I now own the 8.6 and the next larger 18″ (single baffled) softboxs. Can I use them both for portrature ( studio or in an outdoor location )?? I assume the larger one for the main and the smaller one for fill. Any possibility of showing us a portrait using these two in the future ?


12 Neil vN February 2, 2011 at 3:30 am

Ron, the way you intend using them there as two lights for a portrait should work very well. No better way than to actually do it.


13 Tom K. February 2, 2011 at 4:33 am

Your gorgeous compelling and magnetically beautiful work speaks for itself.


14 Alan February 2, 2011 at 6:45 pm

Long-time fan, first-time caller.

When you shoot with softboxes, do you usually use just one layer? Both of them? Or do you mix things up fairly regularly depending on the circumstances and conditions? Just curious. Thanks, Neil.



15 Neil vN February 3, 2011 at 12:34 pm

Alan, the two baffles diffuse the light beautifully, but they do cut down the flash’s output a lot. So when I work in bright light, I often remove one baffle, as this linked example explains.


16 Bogdan February 3, 2011 at 6:45 pm

Do you use TTL a lot outside? I find it a bit iffy at times and even if I would love leaving TTL do all the heavy lifting, I find myself switching to manual for consistency’s sake.
I like and use TTL when I use bounce outside (in 90% of the cases there SOMETHING to bounce off)…
What’s your experience?

Just curious.

Best regards,



17 Neil vN February 4, 2011 at 4:24 pm

Bogdan .. I happily shoot with TTL flash if my model or subject isn’t static. I find TTL is faster to work with when I’m shooting on the move.

But when my subject is static, then manual flash will give me that consistency in exposure.


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