off-camera flash photography: positioning the softbox
I’ve had a number of people ask for more pull-back shots during photo sessions where I use off-camera flash with a softbox. During this recent photo session in New York, with Christina and David, I did step back for a photo to include the softbox …
- The placement of a softbox is generally around 45 to 60 degrees from the camera;
- at a height where the light is about 30 degrees above your subject’s head;
- and keeping in mind the ‘cone of light’ coming from the softbox, and that you have it hit your subject’s head & shoulders. In other words, you need to aim the softbox at their upper body and head .. and specifically with that ‘sweet spot’ of the light coming from the softbox, having to point at their heads.
This way you get enough light in their eyes, at an angle that makes sense with the light coming from higher than their view.
The specific softbox was once again the Lastolite Ezybox softbox.
A softbox is a forgiving lightsource, so you have a fair amount of play in the angle, and it will still work. The larger your light-source the more forgiving it is in how you place it. However, if you use direct off-camera speedlights without some diffusion, then you have to be more precise in your placement of the flash.
Here is the pull-back shot. I was standing right next to the bicycle.
The image at the top had some editing done to it. There was another photo session taking place in the background. Damned photographers; you just can’t avoid them. And then there was the motorbike in the background to camera right. With the wide-angle perspective distortion, it looks like David is kicking a tiny motorbike around. It looked too surreal, so I had to remove it with some use of the Clone tool and Healing tool in Photoshop.
Back to the final image:
In order to match the bright sunlight, I worked at maximum sync speed, and not high-speed sync. Max flash sync speed is a sweet spot when we need to match bright sunlight, or even overpower the sun.
I shot with wireless TTL flash, with the Master flashgun (SB-900) on my camera, aimed at the Slave flashgun mounted on the softbox. The light was not too bright so that I wouldn’t be able to use the flash in a softbox, but was getting to the edge of what the speedlight is capable of when diffused with a softbox.
camera settings & photo gear (or equivalents) used in this photo session
- 1/250 @ f8 @ 200 ISO .. TTL flash at -0.3 EV
- Nikon D3
- Nikon 24-70mm f2.8G AF-S / Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II
- Nikon SB-910 Speedlight / Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite
- Lastolite EZYBOX 24×24″ softbox
- off-camera flash for that extra bit of drama (model: Olena)
- off-camera flash: distance between softbox and subject
- off-camera flash: broad lighting & short lighting (model: Anelisa)
- review: Lastolite Ezybox (model: Jess B.)
26 Comments, Add Your Own
1Jesse Kaufman says
great article … those pullback shots are really helpful … especially as i’m trying to learn how to look at a picture and dissect the lighting setup … it’s like back in school when you could flip to the back of the book to check if your answers are correct :)
Neil, Great article as usual. I just purchased the 24″ Ezybox and used it for the first time at last weekend’s wedding. I’m loving it, plus I’m gaining more confidence in using CLS. If you ever have problems with the Ezybox hotshoe mount, you can buy just the mount that comes with the Alzo 15″ softbox. It’s all metal construction and allows you to use one of the Stroboframe cold shoes. The added bonus is you don’t need to pay $73 for the Qflash adapter. This mount fits perfectly into the Ezybox as they are the same diameter.
Nice, but I question the high usage of Clone tool to fix issues, both from purity/journalistic POV and PP time POV. Surely you can’t do this for your 1000 wedding pics/day?
4Neil vN says
Hi there Val … I’d definitely agree; it would be insane to edit 1000 images to this extent.
With editing a wedding, I really really try not to open Photoshop at all, and do all my edits and corrections in RAW, without even touching Photoshop. Otherwise it just slows the post-production time down.
That said, I don’t deliver 1000 images to the client.
Now, about this ‘purity’ thing, and the ‘journalistic’ thing. I’ll be the first to say outright that I’m not a purist; neither am I particularly hardcore photo-journalistic in my approach. As a wedding photographer, I want to keep my clients happy. Usually that means a mixture of posed / directed shots, and photo-journalistic captures.
If anything, my style as a wedding photographer is more along the lines of get-the-job-done-alism. No ideology.
Regardless of all that, this isn’t a wedding shoot. This is an on-location photo session with the couple. Very different.
Now that we’ve covered that, let’s come back to this photo shoot, and then this specific image.
This was a portrait session. That already implies a measure of artifice. There’s no “photo-journalism” here. As much as I want spontaneity and expression, it is still directed. Even with the couple seemingly camera-unaware in some photos, I am still there, and I direct the setups to a certain extent at least.
Now, about this specific shot. It was David’s idea, (the guy in the photo). He clambered on the pole and reached for her. She responded. I realized we needed to play around more with the idea, and this is what we got after several shots, and bringing the softbox in.
As that, the background isn’t entirely in my control. He jumped up and did this. I could re-arrange them elsewhere, spending time looking for a more ideal background, but then much of the momentum would’ve been lost. There’s a certain energy during the photo session that is best that we maintain it. So if either of the two come up with an idea, even if goofy, we roll with it. We play around with it and see where it takes us.
If there is a motorbike in the background .. c’est la vie. I’m not going to kill the idea. I can’t just nix the spontaneity because there is something in the background. While I can often finesse the photos during the actual time I take the photograph, by moving my own position and changing the composition, it wasn’t possible for this shot. There would be clutter in the background in any direction.
For overly cluttered backgrounds, or missed opportunities, or didn’t-quite-work-out setups .. they don’t make the final edit. However, I liked this image. Not more than most in the session, but it is one where I had a pullback shot. And that is why it is shown here.
I spent a few minutes to edit the image to show here, and was honest enough to show the ‘before’ photo. My decision either way; whether to show the original, or edit the final.
5Dan Green says
Neil, do you normally have the VAB get as close to the subjects as your composition would allow, or do you just stay within a range? Maybe it was just because you wanted a pull back shot for us and didn’t care about this, I don’t know. I typically try to keep my VAB just outside the frame when I use TTL, does this matter? I guess my thought process would be, softer light, less power and increased battery life. I can’t say I always do this because lots of stuff goes on during a two hundred shot outdoor photo session. I only ask this because it seemed as though your assistant could have been about 6 feet closer than she was. And for the purist post above, yeah, we’ll all just drive around town until we find that perfect composition so we can feel true to our craft….NOT!
6Neil vN says
Dan .. bringing the softbox closer would make the light softer. That old maxim of, ‘ the larger the light source in relation to your subject’ the softer the light. You’re also correct on the flash working less hard and the batteries lasting longer.
But for practical purposes on a shoot, my assistant had to step back a bit. I tend to move around a lot. Especially with couples or a model that isn’t always static. Another example would be this recent rainy-day shoot. Then it’s just easier if the softbox is a little further away, so my shot isn’t blocked if I step in or zoom wider.
7Duncan Stott says
Great posting once again. I love looking through them and hopefully learning all the while.
On the topic of this one though, and going off the settings you had on your camera. How would you deal with trying to throw the background out a little more?
When youre already at max sync speed (1/250) and shooting f8 at 200iso, all that seems to be left is dropping the iso to 100 to allow f5.6.
i guess this then messes your ambient/flash mix though.
But without going to high speed sync, how can you open the aperture even further?
8Neil vN says
I needed some depth of field here since I wasn’t shooting a single subject.
However, if I needed shallower DoF, I would have to either;
– go to high speed sync (HSS);
– use a neutral density filter or polarizer to cut down the amount of light.
Your flash would work harder in HSS than if you had used a filter. However a ND filter might affect your. camera’s ability to focus.
Dropping your ISO wouldn’t affect your ambient / flash ratio, since ISO affects both the ambient and flash equally. Shutter speed is the independent control for flash / ambient ratio.
9MP Singh says
Most of the readers would know , to further make post processing easier for use Adobe has introduced a new tool in PS CS5 “Content Aware fill”. It works most of the time and may need some use of healing brush after, but makes cloning out big areas very easy. Here is the link to the pre-release demo –
BTW – Thanks Neil for yet another useful article.
10Nestor Sanchez says
Hi Neil, thank you for continuing with such great articles. I noticed this last batch of posts have all dealt with the Lastolite EZBox, is there a reason you’re not using the Photoflex softbox and Qflash t5dr in TTL (which provides more power, better TTL and longer battery life?) Thanks….
11Neil vN says
The Ezybox is faster to set up than the regular soft boxes. It is lighter and more compact to carry around.
The Q-flash, with a single diffuser disc over isn’t much more powerful than a speedlight. But it is more durable and can work for longer without overheating. The Speedlight with a proprietary battery pack is smaller, and hence easier to carry around on a photo session like this.
In the end it’s a matter of choice. Either of the setups work.
In this particular shoot, the background does not appear to be blown out. Is it safe to say that your flash was used as fill only where you exposed for the subject, and then flash for the shadows ??
The light looks very even in this shoot, but for a different look, what would the overall frame look like if you had decided to expose for the background, and then flash as main.
Would like to see in upcoming tangents a comparison of these two methods where practically possible, or if not just a small note to confirm flash as fill or main. By seeing the FEC @ -0.3 I would believe flash is fill.
Again, great tangents and advice.
13Neil vN says
I wouldn’t say the flash was merely fill light here. It substantially lifted the shadow areas to be the same as the background. Also, -0.3EV isn’t fill-flash. That is flash at about the same level as the ambient light … which is exactly the way it appears in the photo. Near equal amounts of ambient light and light from the flashgun.
In this example, the flash didn’t do anything to the background. The distance is too great.
i’m considering the ezybox.
just curious, when use this ezbox with sb900, do you use the diffuser?
if not, is the light coming out from the bare speedlight thru the softbox is well spread?
Follower from Indonesia
15Neil vN says
No diffuser cup. With a double baffle inside the soft box, I don’t think a diffuser cup is necessary. It would also cut down too much of the light.
Once again thanks for such detailed information, and this is especially useful showing placement of the light. Am I right in thinking the soft box is used only to fill the shadows on the subjects, and not making enough of a lighting contribution to be concerned about lighting patterns on the subject’s face, making light placement more critical?
17Neil vN says
In general, or in this particular example?
Further to your reply to my question. I suppose I should have just asked, was the flash used as a predominant source where you exposed for the background and then used flash for the subject. OR Did you expose for the subject via the histogram method etc and then flash to lift the shadows. Hope this is a little clearer.
19Neil vN says
Angelo .. I replied in part to that in comment #13. The flash and ambient light are about equal.
I exposed for the background by checking my camera’s meter and taking test shots. No histogram method used this time.
Hi Neil and thanks for the reply.
I mean in general terms more so than this specific example. I know the flash contribution to the lighting on the subject is always going to be relevant to each specific exposure relating to the background. I’m having one of those ‘I’ve kind of got it’ moments you mention, where any lighting pattern on the subject’s face will depend on flash being the main light, making the ambient fill.
The 2 areas I struggle are, firstly sourcing my optimum location in terms of should I start with a base exposure where the background and subject are in relative exposure to each other, so as not to be more than a 50% flashed contribution. Secondly, the theory is fine, but it becomes a camera fumble exercise at some point to put it all into practice!
21Neil vN says
Nigel .. I think part of the problem here in grasping this .. where we need to move from the ‘kinda got it’ to the real ‘now I get it!’ moment .. is in the actual doing.
You just need to get out there and shoot. Work with a patient model, and try different settings. Even slight changes in shooting direction, and changes in the direction of the light, can make a distinct difference in what you’re going to need to do. And this can only be seen and understood during actual shooting.
Another thing that might frustrate an academic understanding of all this, is that most often there isn’t one single best way of balancing flash and ambient. It really depends on the scenario you find yourself in, and also your own personal taste as to what looks best.
So while you may want to distill the essence of all of this in terms of 50% of this, and 50% of that … it won’t get you closer to truly understanding light to the point where you can just be there, and look around you and go … hmm, *this* is what I want to achieve right now. Or even a, “let me try something, and see how it works.” Understanding the techniques in photography isn’t an endeavor you can complete from the armchair. It needs the camera in your hand.
This understanding and visualization kicked in for me, a number of years back when I was still shooting weddings for a studio. I was racking up 80 weddings a year for them. WIth that high volume of shooting, and constant shooting, much of the decision about aperture / ISO / shutter speed became instinctive. Looking at the direction of light became near instinctive. Walking into any place or setting meant a quick assessment of the light quality, direction and level of the light, and of the size and shape of the room.
So it does come with practice and with time.
22Debra Wallace says
Just wanted to say thanks for this post and all your responses. You rock.
When you shoot TTL off-camera trigged from on-camera master, do you have has problems with miss-firing, etc? Reading forums would lead me to believe that the wireless TTL built into canon and nikon speedlites is practically useless anywhere other than very controlled situations. Does the system’s limitations affect how you have to place the softbox (always in front of the camera, etc)? Seeings as you use it out in the wild quite often, I was wondering about your success rate.
I currently have a cybersync setup which only allows for manual off-camera flash, which can be a huge pain in the ass. I tend to change poses and backgrounds quite a bit during a shoot, so rebalancing everything distracts me from engaging with the subject entirely too often.
I have been considering picking up another speedlite as a master or getting the ST-E2 so I can shoot TTL. Would this make my life easier, or would it just be a slight improvement while still giving me headaches while shooting?
Thanks for all your help. I owe most of my best photos to techniques you taught me, and I really appreciate that.
24Neil vN says
Steve .. I do get misfires if my Master flash isn’t pointing directly at the Slave flash. And in super-bright light, there are more misfires. I do carry ‘old school’ pocketwizards with me anyway, so on the occasion that I get misfires, I will just go with the Pocket Wizard Plus II units.
I don’t use the Canon ST-E2 or Nikon SU-800 outdoors though. For that I specifically use another speedlight so I can twist it to point at the Slave.
My setups like I use during these portrait sessions, are quite simple, so I get away with it for the most part, despite the limitations of using wireless TTL flash like this.
I’m an amateur (mainly) outdoor photographer, and former ‘flash scared’. Now that I’ve understood its possibilities, I’m studying its technique, and your site is simply amazing for flash photography.
I’ve a question regarding the positioning of a softbox outdoor. In one page you say that it should be positioned about 50 cm above the subject’s head, and here that it should be tilted about 30 deg. So this gives me automatically also the distance, am I right in joining the two info? Furthermore, are these advice good only all kinds of portraits (I see full-bodies in this page) or things are to be changed if I do a head and shoulder or a three-quarter?
26Neil vN says
I’d keep the softbox positioned the same way, since it is easier then to get consistency between full-length and portrait images as you, the photographer, moves around or zooms in closer.