Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Toys for the Big Kids: Speedlight Softbox



In this post, we will have a look at a softbox for speedlights.  This post is part of a series that will cover equipment reviews for committed enthusiasts.  Read more about Toys for the Big Kids here.



WHY USE A SOFTBOX?
Softboxes are bulkier and more costly than umbrellas.  It is hard to use a softbox without a light stand or an assistant.  On the other hand, umbrellas are cheap, fairly portable, and can be employed relatively quickly, even by a solo photographer.  Why bother with a softbox?

One issue with umbrellas is that they offer less control.  A shoot-through umbrella spreads light everywhere.  If photography is drawing with light, then a shoot-through umbrella is like splashing your canvas with a bucket of paint.

A reflective umbrella offers more control than a shoot-through umbrella and is a closer match to a softbox.  However, a reflective umbrella (especially a silver one) is more specular and has a greater tendency to have a hotspot (the light is less even across the umbrella).  With a softbox, the light is bounced around the reflective insides of the softbox and then sent through one or two diffusion panels.  By the time the light goes through the panels, it is much more even than that of a reflective umbrella.

There are now umbrella-softbox hybrids that combine some of the best qualities of an umbrella with those of a softbox.  These umbrellaboxes look like reflective umbrellas, except that they have a diffusion panel (where you insert the flash).  See this post.  The result: it has a much more even lighting across the face, just like a softbox, yet it is as portable (and almost as inexpensive) as an umbrella.

Umbrellabox aka softbrella, umbrellasoft, brollybox
[Note: there are also umbrellas that look like shoot-through umbrellas with a panel at the back.  Those do not function like softboxes and produce a light pattern more similar to those of shoot-through umbrellas.]

However, a softbox has a couple of advantages over an umbrellabox.  First, an umbrellabox has a pole sticking out the middle.  That means there is a limit to how close you can bring it to your subject.  Some umbrellas, such as the Photek Softlighter have a partially removable pole that addresses this concern to some extent.

Second, if you want the tight control offered by a grid, a softbox is your only option for now.  I have yet to see a grid made for an umbrellabox.

SPEEDLIGHT SOFTBOX
Softboxes have traditionally been used with strobes, and were originally designed for use in a studio.  The speedlight softbox is a little different from a studio softbox because it's designed to be portable, is quick and easy to setup, and includes a bracket made for speedlights.

Lastolite probably deserves credit for making speedlight softboxes popular with their collapsible Ezybox design.  Look for an upcoming review of the Ezybox by my co-author mshafik.

Meanwhile, similar designs have since appeared from third parties.  Mine is by CowboyStudio and I got it from Amazon for $55.  The CowboyStudio softbox that I got includes:

  • a 24" collapsible softbox
  • bracket for speedlights
  • removable inner baffle
  • removable front diffuser
  • 50-degree grid
  • round mask
  • small round bag for the softbox
  • and a bag for the kit.


Softbox
The softbox is described as being 24 inches.  In reality, when unfolded, each side is only about 21 inches.

I like this softbox design because of the setup speed.  Typical studio softboxes are assembled with rods connected to a speedring.  The rods are in turn inserted into the corners of the softbox.  Check out this video of a typical studio softbox:
As you can see it can take a few minutes to put it together.

The softbox here is entirely different and instead comes as a triangle that simply and instantly pops up (like some car shades) into the shape of a softbox.  The optional inner baffle has metal hooks that can then be connected to loops inside the softbox.  The front diffuser is then attached via velcro to the lip of the softbox.  The optional round mask or grid can also be attached via velcro.

Folding the softbox back into a triangle for storage is just as easy.  The triangle can be further folded into a smaller circle for maximum portability.

Besides ease of setting up the softbox, another feature I like is that the front is recessed, which helps improve control and reduce spill.

Bracket


This kit comes with an adjustable bracket that can accommodate speedlights of various sizes as well as some larger flashes.
Assembled bracket
Bracket components
A flash can be attached via the included hotshoe or the 1/4-20 thumbscrew.  However, if you use the thumbscrew, you may need a spacer.  For example, the thumbscrew was a bit too long for the 1/4-20 insert of my Nikon AS-E900 adapter (for a Radiopopper JrX).
Bracket shown with Yongnuo YN-560 (same size as Canon 580EX) and a Quantum X2 battery-powered strobe
Although the bracket is adjustable, the extent to which a flash head can be moved inside the ring (and into the softbox) is limited.  In the case of a Quantum X2, much of the flashtube will sit outside the softbox.

The bracket can be mounted on a light stand's 5/8" stud.  Alternatively, the bracket can accommodate a spigot with female 1/4-20 insert (not included) so that the bracket can be mounted on a tripod.

EVENNESS OF LIGHT
Given that softboxes were originally intended for strobes with bare bulbs instead of speedlights that send most of their light forward, I was concerned about how evenly the softbox would be lit.  In the worst case scenario, if the speedlight would light only a small portion of the softbox, it would act as a smaller modifier.

I took some test shots to see the evenness of the light on the face of the softbox.  I first took test shots with only the front diffuser (without the internal baffle).  Even with an SB-800's built-in diffuser in place and the flash zoomed to 14mm, the light was not very even:


I then tried using a dome diffuser attachment (similar to the Sto-fen omnibounce).  There was almost no improvement:

I finally attached the internal baffle.  The speedlight was zoomed to 24mm without the built-in diffuser or the dome diffuser.  It was a significant improvement.

Note that I did not adjust the power level on the flash. Judging from the luminosity map, there was also not much power lost.

SAMPLE SHOTS
Earlier, my wife had volunteered for photos because she was going to get her hair done.  Afterward though, she didn't like how her hair turned out (looked fine to me).  So I had to resort to a self-portrait.

In this first shot, my key light was the 24" softbox (powered by a Nikon SB-800, triggered by a Radiopopper JrX).  To show the effect of the softbox, I didn't use any fill.  Behind me was a seamless gray paper supported by a Linco background support.  I also attached an SB-80DX and an SB-26 behind and to both sides on 1/64 power, using a super clamp to attach them to the background stands and triggering them optically with their built-in slaves.  The shot is almost straight out of the camera with minimal adjustments to give you a better idea of what the softbox light would really look like.


In the next shot, I kept the same setup but added on-axis fill light with an ABR800 ringflash and increased the power of the kickers to 1/16.  I also moved myself farther from the background.

Finally, I kept the same setup as the shot above, except that I attached the grid.  Note that the light on the background has been reduced.


SUMMARY
Strengths

  • Setup is much quicker than studio softboxes.
  • Inner baffle is effective at making the light more even.
  • Bracket can accommodate larger flashes.
  • Kit includes grid and round mask.
  • Much lower price compared to Lastolite Ezybox or the virtually identical CheetahStand Q-Box.

Weaknesses

  • Bracket does not allow some flash heads to be inserted completely in the softbox.
  • Smaller than advertised.
  • Ring on bracket is secured with only one screw.  The ring can be twisted to the left or right, and is not very sturdy.
  • Shape of softbox is not parabolic.  Light is not parallel.  

OTHER RESOURCES
Comparison between the Cheetah Q-box (substantially similar to this softbox) and the Lastolite Ezybox.

COMING UP ON TOYS FOR THE BIG KIDS:

  • a bracket that can replace the bracket included with the speedlight softbox, and can expand the number of modifiers available to your speedlight or battery-powered strobe.
  • bare bulb advantages.
  • introduction to Quantum flashes.
  • review of the Paul C. Buff ABR800 ring flash.
  • other cool modifiers such as an octagon softbox and a beauty dish.