Wednesday, July 2, 2008

DIY Studio: The $20 Softbox Part 1

I've been trying to get a better set-up for lighting studio style photographs at home. The biggest problem was getting diffused light. I had tried some DIY lightboxes, but wasn't really happy with them. Plus, they wouldn't have worked for portraits anyway ... can't stuff a person in a small lightbox ... well, you can't legally anyway.

I've been mulling over this for awhile now. I do plan on eventually getting a lightstand or two and a couple of umbrellas, and maybe a studio light setup someday. However, funds are tight right now and I can't really justify those expenses. Most DIY projects that I've seen would have ended up costing me as much, if not more, than a lightstand/bracket/umbrella set would have since I would need to get the tools as well. I'm not a very handy person anyway, so I have been looking around for something that I could adapt easily and cheaply. Today I found it at Target. I call it the $20 Softbox. More after the jump.

So what is this miracle of inexpensive light diffusion? You are probably going to laugh at this, but it is a 36 inch, self assembled Clothes Closet with fabric enclosure. Follow the link to see it on Target's website. It is constructed of tubes and some plastic connectors. I am not sure that I would hang a lot of clothes in it because it isn't particular strong, but that isn't what I bought it for. The beauty in this is the fabric enclosure. It is seamless on the back while the front has a nice, large zippered door. The frame measures 18 inches x 75 inches x 36 inches. So, for $20 you get a 75" x 36", floor sitting softbox. You just have to supply the light.

What light did I use? I used my Nikon SB600 Speedlight. I put it on my Gorillapod SLR Zoom which has a Manfrotto ballhead attached to it. I then sat the Gorillapod/flash on a stool. This puts the flash at about the middle of the fabric enclosure ... er, the softbox. I have the flash set to 24mm zoom with a Sto-fen Omnibounce diffuser on it. The Sto-fen provides some initial diffusion to fill up the softbox. The flash is set to wireless mode and is fired by the remote commander function of my D80.

Here are some shots of it.

Setup Shot #1
What you see here is:
1 - Center: A folding table with a background sweep, gnome supermodel, and a fill card.
2 - Right: Tripod, kinda dark I know. Squint and you'll see it.
3 - Front camera left: Photographer Cooling Unit, i.e. the big, black, round pedestal fan. The room isn't air conditioned.
4 - Rear camera left: The $20 Softbox and flash behind it.

Notice how the entire fabric enclosure is filled with light.

Setup Shot #2
This shot was taken looking toward the front of the softbox while lit with the flash.

Front of the Softbox
Notice that there are no seams on the front of the softbox / rear of the closet.

Rear of the Softbox
Here is a shot of the rear of the softbox with the flash firing into it. The door is opened to allow the light to hit the front of the softbox. I think the zipper would leave a shadow if you left the door closed.

One thing that you can also do is to mount the flash inside by hanging if off of the "closet rack bar". I wrapped my Gorillapod's legs around the top bar for the next couple of shots.

Flash Mounted inside; normal orientation

Flash mounted inside; alternate orientation via ballhead

Light Pattern with flash inside in alternate orientation
The really nifty thing about this last shot is that it was taken with the wireless flash. The camera's signal was able to trigger it through the diffusion material. Pretty cool for us wireless TTL flash users.

So, how does it work? Here are a couple of shots taken of a gnome supermodel that agreed to pose.

Gnome lit with wireless TTL flash camera left, no fill

Gnome lit with wireless TTL flash camera left, fill card camera right

They certainly are not the greatest pieces of art ever photographed, but I like how the softbox is diffusing the light. I will be experimenting with this more in the days to come. I plan on drafting my son for some test portraits as well.

I think this will be a fairly flexible light modifier. The flash can be placed at any particular level relative to the softbox. It is very light and can be moved around very easily. If you want to restrict the zone of light coming out of it, all you would need to do is to flag off the area that you don't want light to come through.

Anyway, it looks like a good deal for $20 from Target and 15-30 minutes of assembly time.

Edit: After sleeping on the idea, I will be playing around with some easy modifications. I plan on lining it with aluminium foil to direct the light escaping from the sides and back. Plus, I plan on rigging up some flags or gobos with some Velcro to control the light spill and pattern.


Dorky Musician said...

That's a great find. I've been looking for something to diffuse light in my basement for studio type work. For another $15, you can go to Lowes and get a not-so CFL. It's a 300 watt equivalent bulb and it's bright. One or two of those inside your closet may be enough to do portraits with. The only problem with them that I've run into is they don't fit inside a standard tin-bowl work lamp.

I think instead of going out and taking pictures tonight, I'll stop by Target and pick one of those up and play with it at home.

Craig Lee said...

Glad you think it could help out.

Anonymous said...

Great idea. Is it portable / foladable?

Can I stick it in my car?


Craig Lee said...

Well, portability isn't this thing's best attribute. That said, the vertical poles do not fit together very tightly, so you should be able to break it down somewhat. It also doesn't take very long to put together if you do take it all the way apart.

The other downside is that it isn't on a lightstand or boom. It would be difficult to put it above someone as a hair light for example. You can control the vertical spread of the light by flagging it off though. I'm thing that you could rig a big bounce card for the top to get some light coming down on the subject. Or you could let it bounce off of the ceiling.

I'm still playing around it. I just did a session with it. Look for a post about that one later today or tomorrow.

Chris Osborne said...

This looks like something I might need to play with.

Craig Lee said...

It does make some nice light, and the price is right if you have the room for it.