Why I prefer panels with diffusion on them to soft boxes for portrait lighting.

Martin Burke as Crumpet for Zach Theatre's "Santaland Diaries." 

When I first started in photography the beginners all lit things with white umbrellas but they always coveted and aspired to own soft boxes. Especially Chimera soft boxes which were considered the cream of the crop. All of our photographer idols had studios filled with soft boxes. All sizes, from 12 by 12 inch up to 48 by 72 inches. There was a car shooter I knew in Dallas who had a custom soft box bank that was twelve feet by twenty feet. Amazing. And we would always marvel at the quality of light. Soft, yet directional. The boxes were relatively easy to set up and take down and at one point in my career I really couldn't understand why anyone would use anything else. 

But then I started shooting stills on movie sets and at high end video shoots and I watched as directors of photography lit up their sets using mostly various big frames which, in conjunction with diffusion material, created panels of light. At first I thought they just didn't know about the existence of soft boxes but after some long conversations with grips and gaffers I started to understand that the panels could provide a much more comprehensive amount of control, and along with the control, more "looks" than could be pulled out of soft boxes. 

I started collecting various frame sizes and cloths and using them in my work almost all the time. Once I learned just how much customization of light I could accomplish
there was no turning back.

Now, at this point I need to praise Dean Collins for bringing light panels (or LitePanels) to a much wider audience of still photographers. Made from PVC pipes Dean Collin's panels and his video programs about how to squeeze the most out of them is classic and deep photographic instruction. I still marvel at his command of light and his use of unexpected techniques. I own a set of DVDs that contain his lighting instruction and, even though I am decades into photography as a professional and have written five books on the subject, I still pull the DVDs off the shelf at least once a year and refresh my understanding of his way of working. Dean Collins passed away a few years back of cancer but we are lucky that he left behind so much good teaching. 

Panels are simple. They are just frames that have either diffusion materials, reflecting materials or light subtracting materials stretched across them. Translucent sheets, opaque white, silver or gold sheets, or black, light absorption materials. In the simplest form one can use a panel of a given size to replicate the effect of a softbox. To get a softbox look you need only aim a light from far enough back so that it hits the diffusion fabric of your panel evenly form side to side and from top to bottom. But while a soft box creates the same quality of soft light each time a panel can have a much wider range. One reason for that is the reality that a softbox has a fairly dense front diffuser that totally softens the light and lets no collimated or direct light emerge through the fabric. A typical softbox front diffuser eats about two stops of light but totally diffuses it. 

Panels can use a range of fabrics and the film industry has not been shy about sourcing different fabrics and materials to use on panels, from one quarter stop strengths to one half stop, to three quarters stop, full stop, stop and a quarter, etc. Each variation allows some percentage of less diffused light through while combining it with the diffuse light rays to create lighting that is more or less directional, more or less "soft or hard." 

Here is a list of the five advantages of using panels to light portraits: 

1. Panels can be made in a huge range of sizes. The biggest I have for the studio is 77 by 77 inches but some "silks" for the movie industry can be enormous. The biggest I've seen is 40 by 60 feet. Bigger panels can cover bigger areas with the same soft, diffused light, if you have enough light sources (flash, tungsten, etc.) behind them. 

2. Panels allow you to use different thicknesses of material which make diffusion weaker or stronger and that affects the light making it more strongly or less strongly collimated as it comes through the cloth, paper or plastic diffusion materials. There are some diffusion clothes that are so diaphanous that you can see through them like fiber glass air conditioner filters. The range of styles and looks is limited only by your imagination. Soft boxes? One  strength and a fixed position from the lighting instrument used to the diffuser. 

3. You can easily vary the distance of the lighting instrument to the back surface of the panel. Pull the light way back from the panel and the light becomes more and more even across the panel. Push the light in and you create a tighter and tighter spot of light surrounded by light that falls off towards the sides and the edges. This can create a look in portraiture where the main illumination on a face is strongest and then falls off away from the face in a very natural way without even having to use light blockers or vignettes. 

4. You can aim your light and move the lighting instrument back far enough to have raw light go past the diffuser on both sides and the top. If the portrait subject is lit by the diffuse light coming through the panel you could also use the direct light coming behind the panel on a background, doing the work of two lights. If you added a reflector to capture raw (un-diffused) light coming in front of the panel you can create a separate fill light source. You can also take light that comes over the top of the panel and, using a plexi, front surface mirror, bounce the light back toward the subject as a hair light. In essence the use of a panel and the use of light coming past the edges of the panel can give you up to four different light sources in one frame! This is a demo I have done for classes at UT and in workshops and it really does work. Even with a small, battery powered flash. See ragged illustration of concept below:

The diffusion panel cuts the exposure from the direct light by up to two stops which allow the light on the background, further away, to achieve the same level. 

The fifth advantage of panels over soft boxes is:

5. The panels can modify sunlight and existing, ambient light as well. Many, many times we are called on to photograph a person in the middle of a bright, sunny day. We can use a softbox and try to overpower the sun but there is still harsh light hitting our subject in areas not affected by the soft box's illumination. A diffusion panel can be rigged directly over a subject's head to provide valuable diffusion of the the direct rays of the sun. The light is much more flattering and controllable. All that remains is to find a background that is in open shade. In a pinch I will use a 1.25 stop diffuser on top instead of the more standard 2 stop diffuser and then use a tree line in the distance as the background. Foliage tends to photograph dark enough to prevent burning out highlights all together and while the less opaque diffusion will make the light on the subject a bit more contrasty it will still be a big improvement over direct sunlight. Secondary panels, positioned outside the main, overhead diffuser can be used to push light back onto the subject directionally to provide greater control in the shot. 

Also, the same panels can be used with black material instead of diffusion materials to provide subtractive light. Finally, we have net material to cover a 4x6 foot panel and, if the only background available to use on a sunny day is drenched in sunlight we can use the black net material as a neutral density filter for the background only. We do this by placing the black net behind the subject (between the subject and the insanely bright, sunlit background...) and, by placing it far enough back and using a wide aperture we can put the detail of the net out of focus while darkening the background and not affecting our foreground or subject. It's a wonderful technique that I learned from cinema DPs. 

The panels I use most are the Chimera ENG panels at 48 by 48 inches, the Westcott FasFlags at 24 by 36 inches (great for finer control within a scene), a Lastolite 3.5 foot by 6.5 foot panel and my most used panel, a Photoflex 77 by 77 inch frame with either 1.25 or 2 stop diffusion. 

When I say that I prefer panels to soft boxes (and I do) that doesn't mean I reject soft boxes! I use them all the time. They set up quickly and, unlike panels, don't require as many light stands because the lighting instrument and the soft box is attached to one stand whereas the panel demands its own stand, separate from the lighting instrument. The other benefit of soft boxes is the lack of spill light coming from the back of the unit and washing the white walls of a small room with too much light. Spilled light bouncing around means less control over lighting contrast and ratios. You can use blockers to control spilling light with panels but then, dammit, you have extra light stands all over the place.

Panels can be very cost effective lighting modifiers. One of my least intuitive but most fun "panels" is really just a white muslin background hanging on a background stand. With a powerful light aiming through it I can create a very soft, nine foot by 12 foot light source that is insanely flattering and looks so much different than the Mickey Mouse modifiers that get clamped on to small, shoe mount flashes. 

On many outdoor shoots I'll bring along a smaller panel (48 by 48") with a white reflective panel on it just to put up over my camera to provide shade or diffused light for me. 

Here's a gallery of behind the scenes looks at the use of panels in my work. Modifiers. They make the light work. 

Read my novel. See why it's garnered 36 five star reviews and 19 four star reviews out of 69 reviews, total. It's all about a photographer. A smart one in a tight situation.


stephen connor said...

Hi, Kirk,

Great article, but I think there might be a small sign that you're not fully back in the saddle in paragraph 6, where you've written, "Each small vacation....". I'm thinking (though I could be wrong) that you meant "...variation...". If I'm right, well, blame it on August.


Kirk Tuck said...

Thanks Stephen, I've corrected that Freudian oversight...

Terrence Chambers said...

This is a great technique that I want to try. I think I'll start looking for materials this week. Your blog is such a great resource. Thank you Kirk.

Dog Photographer said...

Great Article Kirk. I have been, because I read your blog daily and learn daily, been using diffusion panels for the last couple of years. It is all your fault. Thank You.

terryrogers said...

Great post Kirk. Thank you for this one and all of them that you do.
What brand constant source LED light do you use/favor?
Terry Rogers

Kirk Tuck said...

Hi Terry, I am currently using the CooLed lights from DotLine. A very concentrated LED that mimic a traditional hot light and can give good, hard edges (unlike panels with lots of smaller bulbs). The concentrated LED means we have the kind of control that hard light give us but without the heat. Perfect for use with diffusers.

Kirk Tuck said...

Terry, here is a link to one of my previous blog posts where I discuss the lights. https://visualsciencelab.blogspot.com/2015/09/shooting-with-bigger-led-lights-follow.html

Gordon Lewis said...

Ah Kirk, you've brought back the memories. I knew Dean Collins well and used to work closely with him back when he was producing his books, DVDs, and magazine articles for Petersen's Photographic magazine. One of the many amazing things about him was that he was color blind, yet if you looked at the way he used color you'd never guess. You have definitely learned what I believe was one of his most important lessons: even some of the most sophisticated looks can be pulled off with little more than a single lights source, diffusion screen, reflector, and/or light absorber.

neopavlik said...

Nice mention of Dean Collins. I probably have the same 2 DVDs and watch them from time to time.

Few weeks ago I bought a California Sunbounce Sun Swatter for outside and I'm able to have it do double duty indoors too. I also have 2 of the 39x72 Litepanels and a 77x77 on your recommendation. Oh and a Medium Scrim Jim set up too. That reminds me I should start playing with natural light a bit.

Craig Yuill said...

I once made an unwieldy 2'x2' softbox out of foam core board, using a shower curtain liner as the diffuser. I also made a more-portable 1'x1' softbox. I had fun experimenting with them, using them mostly for still life shots, and for some portrait work as well. I liked the light they produced. Those diffusers definitely look interesting. To some extent they are the modern-day equivalent of the North-facing window used by artists and photographers in the past, except that they can be used anywhere at any time.

Frank Field said...

Kirk -- Just a big "thank-you" for a wonderful tutorial. Your posts are almost always quite informative, this one especially so. Thanks for taking the time to pull this trove of knowledge together into a single post. Frank

Spiney said...

I attended a seminar with Dean Collins in the 90's. I learned so much that evening, and have used it everyday. Went back to the studio and created a series of PVC panels complete with a set of translucent white rip stop nylon, reflective opaque white, and opaque black for subtractive lighting.

We lost a great teacher in Dean.