There are any number of ways to use artificial light on a subject, but the most important thing to know about using any source of artificial light, whether it’s flash on camera, flash with an umbrella or a softbox, is to never point the light directly at your subject.
You read that correctly. Don’t point the light directly at the subject. Every great example of photography, especially when photographing people, depends on some measure of light modification that inhibits the use of light directly on a subject. You can use umbrellas, of course, and they will provide you with a nice even glow of light, whether you bounce the light directly off the inside of the umbrella or shine the light through the umbrella (a technique which will reduce the light in proportion to the material the umbrella is made of). But if you want the very best in modified lighting with the kindest and softest of light on a subject, there is nothing that will enhance light better than a softbox, and the bigger the softbox the better.
A softbox is just that: a box in which you put you light source (usually a flash, but not necessarily). Inside the box, which is lined on the outside with a heavy-duty nylon black finish to prevent “spillage” or loss of light, is a reflective finish, usually matte white or sometimes silver. In addition to the lining, most softboxes are then covered in front, the open side that faces the subject, with what’s known as a “baffle,” a diaphanous screen that softens and diffuses the light passing through it. Some softboxes will come equipped with two baffles to further diffuse the light. This will create a wonderfully soft, even glow of light that can be modified further by the use of filters applied to the baffles to warm up the light. This is useful on the skin tone of your subjects, especially in winter.
The thing you should know right away is the “throw” a softbox will have. Even the smallest of softboxes, due to that internal lining, will not waste any light and will direct a wide arc of light, concentrated and “thrown” out farther than an umbrella. The one great benefit to using a softbox instead of an umbrella, aside from its softening abilities, is that the light will be less scattered and you will need less exposure from the same light source.
When working with a large softbox, especially when working in close quarters or small spaces, to bring your softbox up very close to your subject and then you, as photographer, stand in even closer to your subject so that you are positioned in between the light and your subject. When you try this, it will almost feel as if you’re standing inside the softbox. If the softbox is large enough, it will have the effect of wrapping the light completely around your subject, thereby eliminating any shadows, top and bottom and side to side. What you will do with this technique is create a wonderful glow around your subject. They will become almost ethereal and the catch light in their eyes will be large and will open up their eyes in a way that is incomparable. It’s like having a ring light on your lens without the shadows flattening out the background. In fact, with this method, there will hardly be any background at all. Try it and see. The only detail to keep in mind is to never use a wide-angle lens when you do this. A fixed 50mm or even better, a 70mm or 100mm portrait lens must be used to avoid “bending” your subject’s face, which all the nice soft light in the world is not going to fix.
A softbox is an indispensable tool in a photographer’s bag of tricks. They are easy to set up, simple to use (you’ll never have to worry about it blowing over in a good gust of wind, but weigh it down with a sandbag or two anyway – you don’t want it getting knocked over or falling on your head) and easy to dismantle. They’ll give you years of exceptional use and most of all; your clients will love the results.