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10 Reasons to Ditch Your Softbox for a Light Panel

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!

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Joel Dryer
Joel Dryer

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