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.
As further examples, with two photo shoots where I used a small softbox – the Lastolite 8.75″ speedlight softbox (affiliate) – 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.
- off-camera flash: broad lighting & short lighting (model: Anelisa)
- off-camera flash photography: positioning the softbox (Christina & David)
- feathering the light – off-camera flash and softbox
- review: Lastolite Ezybox (model: Jess B.)
19 Comments, Add Your Own
1Philippe Dame says
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?
1.1Manikumar Srinivasan says
Hi Neil, Your articles are very helpful, and I have a question
To get the correct exposed picture
How many clicks you are spending
Now and when you started as a beginner ?
1.1.1Neil vN says
How many test shots did I do when using flash when I started out, compared to now?
When I started out, I shot on slide film, so there was the expense and the delay to contend with before you saw results. Therefore my methodology was quite precise with careful metering. Not many test shots.
Now that I have more experience, it still doesn’t take as many test shots … because of experience. I understand the concept of “PAID” that controls flash exposure. I work accordingly. Even when using TTL, because I stay within working range of what the flash is capable of.
2Neil vN says
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.
Really an interesting post Neil.
Thanks for sharing !
4SEAN SHIMMEL says
You’re always the elder statesman of… common sense wisdom.
Keep up the divergent approach.
5Neil vN says
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. ; )
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 …
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.
8Naieem Kaiz says
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. :)
9Neil vN says
Naieem .. see that part where I mentioned, “and make sure you get photographs that are interesting”? Well, I failed to do that.
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
11ron lemish says
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 ?
12Neil vN says
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.
13Tom K. says
Your gorgeous compelling and magnetically beautiful work speaks for itself.
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.
15Neil vN says
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.
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?
17Neil vN says
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.