10 Reasons to Ditch Your Softbox for a Light Panel

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10 Reasons to Ditch Your Softbox for a Light Panel

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So you want to create soft, beautiful light? One of the first light modifiers that comes to your mind is probably the tried and tested softbox. But, when it comes to versatility, are softboxes really worth the money? In this article, we are going to look at a viable contender to the age-old softbox – the light panel.

Now, the goal of this article is not to bash softboxes, I personally have nothing against them. I own several and use them whenever I feel that they are the right tool for the job. However, my go-to light modifier for the majority of my photography is the light panel. Why? I am glad you asked. Here are 10 reasons why you should consider using a light panel instead of a softbox for your next shoot.

Wide shot of two light panels

Wide shot of two self-standing PVC light panels fitted with diffusion and black fabric. The diffusion fabric is used like a large softbox, while the black fabric is used to flag or block light.

#1. They are inexpensive

For under $50 you can create a self-standing light panel that is larger than softboxes costing more than $300!

#2. They are easy to make

You can make a basic panel frame and legs with nothing more than a hacksaw. However, a pair of PVC shears is a great investment and will make your job a lot easier.

#3. Quickly change the size/quality of the light

Moving the light closer or further from a panel fitted with diffusion fabric can quickly create a different size softbox effect (closer to the panel = smaller light/harder quality versus further from the panel = larger light/softer quality). Since the panel and light are separated, the panel becomes the source of illumination and can remain in the same stationary position, in relation to the subject, throughout the entirety of the shoot.

#4. Easily change the shape of the light

By clamping pieces of black fabric over a panel fitted with diffusion material, you can create light sources of different shapes. This is a great technique if you want to create a tall, thin stripbox effect, or if you only need to use a portion of the panel.

#5. Different fabrics = different light modifiers

While softboxes can be sort of a one-trick pony, light panels can easily be turned into flags (to block light) or reflectors, just by changing out the fabric. I love to add black material to my panels and use them as flags to shape the light. I also like to use opaque white fabric to reflect and bounce light. It makes a beautiful fill for both indoors and out.

One of the coolest things you can do with light panels is harness the stray light from your strobe, to create multiple sources from one light. I oftentimes shoot through a diffused panel, then reflect some of the stray light back into the shadow side of the subject, using a second panel fitted with a white reflective material (as seen in the figures below).

portrait of bride lit with light panels

A bridal portrait primarily lit using two light panels

diagram showing how to bounce stray light with light panels

Using two panels to create a large soft key and fill from one light source. The white reflective panel was placed where stray, un-filtered, light was able to strike the front edge, which opened up the shadows more than if it were only allowed to bounce the light coming from the diffusion panel. A black panel was added to keep the light from spilling onto the background. It could have been removed, lighting the background and essentially filling the job of three lights (background, key and fill lights).

#6. No speed rings required

Speed rings can be such a hassle. After shelling out serious cash for a new softbox, the last thing you want to do is buy an adapter so you can actually use it. It can be a one-time cost, but if you ever change brands of lights you are most likely going to need a whole new set. Want to add a softbox to your speedlights? Well, you are going to need another type of speed ring adapter for that, too. With light panels, no matter the type of light source, all you have to do is place your light behind the panel and start shooting. Which brings me to #7 on our list.

#7. Home Depot light friendly

If you are just starting out and you want to try your hand at lighting with inexpensive Home Depot shop lights, then light panels are the best way to soften them. Stick multiple lights behind a panel fitted with diffusion fabric, or bounce them off a piece of white fabric to create a soft, bright, single source that can be used for photography or video. Now, all you will need is a good air conditioner to manage the heat!

#8. Gelling made easy

Have you ever tried to gel a softbox? It can be a tremendous waste of gel. Especially if your softbox is large. By shooting through a diffusion panel, you are able to attach a small square of gel to your strobes reflector, allowing you to purchase your gel in small sheets instead of giant rolls. For instance, at the time of this writing a 20×24” sheet of Rosco CTO gel cost roughly $7.50, as opposed to a 20”x25’ roll, which cost around $94.

#9. Better reflections for your product photography

Softboxes are made to distribute the light evenly over the face of the outer diffusion panel. Even with the inner baffle removed, the reflective interior creates a fairly even spread of light. When lighting reflective objects, this evenness can sometimes be a bad thing. Notice the gradated reflections in the two images below. This is the kind of reflection you will typically get when placing a light behind a light panel. Take note on how it adds contrast, depth and interest to the scene.  If these same images were lit using a softbox, the reflection would be an even tone, with no gradation or falloff.

jewelry product shot using overhead light panel

Light placed behind light panel creates gradated reflection in black reflective paper.

jewelry product shot using a gelled strobe and light panel

Another example of the pleasing gradation light panels reveal in reflective surfaces. The same reflective black paper from the first example is used, but the light has been gelled blue.

#10. Portable walls

Have you ever been out on a remote location where you have needed a changing area for your model? You can easily create a makeshift changing room by attaching three or four panels together using connector clips, then covering them with black fabric. If it is windy, throw some sandbags on the bottom of each panel to weigh them down, for good measure.

I hope this article has given you a little more insight on how versatile and economic light panels can be.

Many companies make and sell light panels. They are usually made from light-weight aluminum and are relatively inexpensive, compared to softboxes. However, you can save a lot of money by making your own frames out of PVC.

In a future article I will:

  1. Show you how to create your own self-standing PVC light panel frames and accessories
  2. Offer helpful tips on making them stronger and easier to assemble
  3. Share some cheap fabric alternatives to use with your new frames

Until then, go out, have fun, experiment and create something awesome!

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Joel Dryer is a professional commercial photographer and cinematographer, living in Texas.

  • David Thompson

    Thank you for some great ideas for large, diffuse light sources! I’m really looking forward to the article with some construction notes. Please don’t wait too long. 🙂

  • YRaj

    fantastic post…cannot wait to finish my studio to play. I particularly like the note on reflections of softboxes and the use of the black panel. Would this also be suitable to shooting people with glasses on? All about angle right?
    Thanks.

  • Thanks David! So glad you liked it, and I will try not to keep you in suspense too long. Have an awesome day!

  • Hey YRaj. Glad you liked the article. You can shoot glasses with the panels, but getting rid of the reflections will be tricky, especially if the panel is really close to the subject. Saying that, really large sources reflect a lot different than small sources. The reflections are not as harsh and bright. Here is a closeup example of what a panel reflection looks like on a pair of glasses. Hope that helps. Good luck and happy shooting!

  • Ken

    Thanks, Joel. Good ideas. What did you use for diffusion materials?

  • graeme

    Hi Joel, How thick should the fabric be, say compared to a white sheet? Graeme

  • Carey Lee

    Go to a fabric store and pick up some nylon sheeting.

  • Mike

    What about all the light you lose with no back, and not being able to control
    the surrounding area with all the spill? Do you find that it does not make that
    big of a difference?

  • Mike

    Very useful. I’d be especially interested in a further article with an emphasis on small subjects such as the jewellery. What would you recommend for panel sizes/construction for work like this?
    Many thanks

  • Trevor Barre

    Thanks, some great ideas to try once I make one

    Trevor Barre

    http://www.liveeachadventure.com/

  • I use a snow ski bag to carry what I need to construct 2 4 x 8 foot panels. I have gold and diffused white panels.

  • Clark Hovland

    Great article. I’ve already thought of some ways I can incorporate this in my shooting.
    I made something similar that I use for my backdrops. I’m glad to see someone else who has fun creating with PVC!!

  • David Vaught

    I’ve been using this technique for many years as I’m a student of Dean Collins. See Three Dimensional Contrast.

  • Jason JBaby Mills

    What kind of light do you use?

  • Anubis

    I would have liked to see images taken with these new lights of yours, and the same images using standard softboxes.

  • You can put a dome on the light to control spill or even barn doors.

  • yes you want a fairly sheer, translucent material like rip-stop nylon (similar to what parachutes are made of)

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  • Hey Mike! Having the light spill from the back can be a good or bad thing depending on the situation. Good in the fact that you can harness the excess spill and reflect it, turning one light into multiple lights. For instance, I have taken a light, shot it through a panel, then used a small acrylic mirror attached to a light stand to reflect light into the subject from a kicker light position. Now, if the panel is in close and you want to control the spill you can simply place another panel fitted with black material to block the light, or add barn doors like Darlene suggested. QUICK TIP* I personally do not use barn doors. Instead I buy these handy clamps from B&H. (http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/546362-REG/Manfrotto_375_375_Multiclip.html) They clip onto pretty much any size reflector – -even beauty dishes – and you can add pieces of stiff black board to create your own set of barn doors. They are also great for attaching gels. Instead of buying a set of barn doors get you a set of these. You will be glad you did. Take care!

  • Hey Graeme! Thickness depends on how diffused you want the light to be. (Also remember the thicker you go, the more light you will lose.) A cheap white bead sheet will give you a nice diffusion, but I personally use nylon material from my local fabric store, as Darlene and Carey noted. A big roll of white butcher or tracing paper can be used too. Rosco makes a whole bunch of different kinds of diffusion you can buy, but it will be a bit more costly. I like one called Tough Frost.They also make a light diffusion material called Opal that slightly takes the edge off of a hard light source. Experiment with different fabrics, papers and materials to find what you like best.

    SIDE NOTE:*** Oh, and if you are looking for a good bounce fabric, I use white blackout fabric, that you can also buy at your local fabric store. It is basically the white lining that is sewn onto the backs of curtains at hotels. I have found it to be an excellent bounce because it does not allow any light to get through. The surface is pretty matte too. Just be sure you find one that is really white. (The store I went to had some off-white ones, which you would not want to buy.) Hope this gives you some good ideas. Have fun experimenting and take care!

  • Hey Mike! A lot of my panel sections are not glued together, so I can make smaller frames from the pieces, if needed. (Kind of like Westcott’s modular Scrim Jim system) You can attach smaller pieces of tracing paper of diffusion material to these smaller panels. The jewelry pictures that I have in my article were shot with a panel roughly 4’x7′. Personally, I would rather have my panel too big, than too small. If I need a smaller area, I can always mask parts of the panel with black fabric. Also remember, you can control the size of the light source by how far the light is from the panel fitted with diffusion fabric. Having it closer will create a smaller more specular reflection, while moving it farther away will essentially fill the entire panel, making the reflection larger and softer. You are in control of what kind of reflection you want. On a final note, have you ever seen how they shoot cars in studio? Usually, the light source is a LOT bigger than the car, itself. Reason being that the car’s mirrored paint job reflects areas in the studio that are way beyond the field of view of the camera. Jewelry does the same thing, especially round stones like pearls. What they reflect appears almost like a wide angle fish-eye lens, so the bigger the light sources the more of that light source will be reflected in them. Hope that makes sense and helps. Take care and have a great day!

  • Dean Collins is my hero, and the pioneer and master of the light panel! Would have loved to meet him. He is greatly missed.

  • Hey Jason! I personally use Calumet Travelites and Adorama Flashpoints. A mixed bag, as of now, but I am looking to switch over to all Einsteins in the future. Take care!

  • Hey Clark! Glad you liked the article. I love PVC! Using it for a backdrop is also a great idea. In fact, I made a cheap green screen from some PVC and lime green fleece fabric, that I purchased at my local fabric store. It worked surprisingly well and can be seen in action here: site http://www.digitalberet.com/studio-lighting-how-to-use-flags-to-shape-and-control-light/.

    Speaking of backdrops…. QUICK TIP* Fleece material makes an awesome wrinkle-free backdrop fabric. It can be stretched taught around your frames or light stands, using spring clamps, which creates a drum-tight, smooth appearance. Oh, and it is also washable!

    Thanks again for your comments! Take care and have an awesome day!

  • Hey Anubis! Thanks for the input. Great idea for the future. Take care and have an awesome day!

  • Hey Clark! Great idea, using a snow ski bag! I carry mine in a large canvas dufflle bag that I found at Academy sports. Take care and have an awesome day!

  • Anubis

    You too Joel.

  • Clark Hovland

    Hey Joel,
    Yep I actually got rid of my 10x20ft back drops and replaced em with fleece cal king blankets! Its awesome!
    As for PVC, I created a pretty awesome rain maker using PVC and a sump pump believe it or not. Used some 2x10x10ft boards to make a large frame to lay on the ground under my carport and put contractor grad plastic in the bottom so I could fill it up making reflection pool. I am deployed right now so don’t have a lot of my photos out here and since it was my last shoot before deploying I don’t have any with the rain maker in operation…but here is one I took just for the reflection pool. All together the pool cost me only about $50 and all I have to do to save space again is unscrew the boards and lay them down against the wall and fold up the plastic again! Next I am thinking about getting some of the white plastic and use white backdrop and try it high key. Might work….might not but will be fun trying anyways:)

  • Hey Clark. Love the reflection pool, and the rain maker sounds like a LOT of fun. I am dubbing you the king of DIY! Thanks so much for sharing, and thank you for your service. Take care, and many blessings!

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  • Carlton Bennett

    Can you use the fleece for a background without having light behind it? I’m shooting my sons YouTube videos and looking for a better/easier material to use.

  • Gabriel Arguello

    There are a lot of things that you can make with PVC, it’s such a versatil material, to say nothing about it’s facility

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