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Understanding Softboxes

Profoto Softboxes

Off-camera strobes and other forms of lighting have become remarkably approachable over the past few years. The knowledge and information that were once the sole province of pros working with tens of thousands of dollars of equipment in studios or on location is now all over the internet for the taking.

We carry a fair amount of lighting gear, and given that we cater to the novice as well as the pros, we also answer a number of questions about one particular piece of lighting gear: the softbox. Over the phone, via email, and through our social networking outlets, we respond to queries ranging from the number of stops a box’s diffusion fabric will eat, to “What’s a speedring?”

This article is designed to help you understand the various pieces of a softbox and how it is used with a studio light like the Einstein E640 or the Profoto D4 heads we rent.

Let’s start with what a softbox is.

Basically, it’s a light modifier. Its purpose is to diffuse the lighting coming out of a studio head (or a small flash, but we’ll cover that in a later article) so that you can achieve the soft shadows and gentler light quality you see in so many professionally-taken photographs.

Now let’s break down a complete light setup, with softbox.

Figure 1 - A light with softbox set up.

Figure 1 – A light with softbox set up.Figure 1

In the image above, you can see the three basic components of a studio light with a softbox. We have the softbox itself, a speedring (which is only barely visible right now), and a studio light.

You’ll probably have noticed that the softbox is made by Profoto, while the studio light in this case is an Einstein E640 by Paul C. Buff. That’s not a mistake; many softboxes are made so that with the right speedring, you can use one brand of box with a different brand of light.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s look at each item in turn.

Figure 2 - A Profoto 2x3 softbox.

Figure 2 – A Profoto 2×3 softbox.

The above image is of a 2′ X 3′ softbox from Profoto, the one you saw in Figure 1. What you’re looking at here is the softbox itself, and the four steel rods that go with it (also known as ribs). There are slim channels along the seams of the softbox that those ribs slide into.

An Alien Bees Speedring.

An Alien Bees Speedring.

Next up is the speedring, which was only barely visible in Figure 1. This is the interface between the softbox and your studio light of choice.

The important thing to remember is that a speedring is brand-specific to the light you’re using. If you’re using a Profoto head, you’ll need a Profoto speedring. If you’re using a White Lightning or Elinchrom light, you’ll need to use a speedring made for those lights. Figure 4 shows you the kind of speedrings we rent.

Figure 4 - The speedrings we rent.

Figure 4 – The speedrings we rent.

So, regardless of whether you’re using a Bowens, Photoflex, or Profoto softbox, your speedring will be specific to your light, not your softbox.

Let’s take a closer look at the speedring.

Figure 5 - A closer look at the speedring.

Figure 5 – A closer look at the speedring.

As you can see, the speedring has small holes or slots, where the ribs shown in Figure 2 go into. When assembled, the softbox should look like the one in Figure 6.

Figure 6 - An assembled softbox.

Figure 6 – An assembled softbox.

Let’s take a look at the studio light we’re mounting this softbox onto. In Figure 7, we see the small metal mounting brackets, as well as the spring-loaded lever you will pull down temporarily to affix the softbox. For this light, there are two levers on opposite sides of the light, once in a “down” position, the other in “up”. Because they are spring-loaded, they return to their natural position on release.

Figure 7 - A closer look at the studio light.

Figure 7 – A closer look at the studio light.

Figure 8 shows you what the speedring looks like when it’s mounted on the light without the softbox. Note – it serves no purpose this way.

Figure 8 - An empty speedring mounted onto the Einstein strobe.

Figure 8 – An empty speedring mounted onto the Einstein strobe.

Assembled, with the softbox attached, the light looks like it did in Figure 1.

Now, you may have noticed that the speedring has more holes than are required for a rectangular softbox. That’s because sometimes, it has to accommodate up to 8 ribs for modifiers like the 3′ Profoto Octabox (Figure 9).

Figure 9 - An octabox with 8 ribs on a speedring.

Figure 9 – An octabox with 8 ribs on a speedring.

That’s about it for softbox basics. Now, there are a few caveats to keep in mind.

  • Some softboxes, like the Alien Bees folding softbox, or the Elinchrom 74″ Octbank are specific to certain lights. Both these modifiers have speedrings for their own manufacturers’ lights built-in, and unlike the Profoto softboxes (or the Bowens and Photoflex softboxes we also rent), cannot be used with any other lights.
  • You do not need speedrings for softboxes like the Apollo 28″ or the Apollo 50″ softboxes. These use the umbrella mount that’s built into the lights themselves.
  • Other softboxes, such as the Lastolite Ezybox and the Chimera Super Pro Plus are meant for use with small flashes like the Nikon SB-900, and are not intended for studio lights like the Einsteins. We’ll cover these in a special article on small flash modifiers.

We’ll also be coming up with a great online cheat sheet that will help guide you on which softbox will work with which light, and which accessories you’ll need. Watch for that in a couple of weeks.

In the meantime, we hope you find this guide useful. As always, questions and feedback are welcome in the comments below.

Tags: , Last modified: July 7, 2021