How to Affordably Create Very Soft Light

How to Affordably Create Very Soft Light

Creating soft light can become an expensive pursuit. A large, indirect softbox will cost around $2,000 and the cheaper ones are often badly built, are small, or generally lack good light quality. Being a tight git, I set about finding a way to create high quality, soft light for my food photography, although this set up will work for pretty much all genres.

The Inverse Square Law

In order to create the soft even light in the first image below, it is important that we understand a few fundamentals of light. If you are not already well versed, go and have a read about the inverse square law. If you haven’t heard of this before, your understanding of photography and light is about to make a massive improvement. 

To create the soft light, we are going to make a DIY scrim. You can buy these off the peg, but they tend to be very expensive. Everything that you need to buy to make your own can then be re-purposed or packed away neatly afterwards. 

Kit Needed

I am in a privileged position in that I have a pretty large and well kitted out studio that I work from. However, this principle can be scaled up and down. For the light source, you can either use a flash, studio head, or just window light. In the image above, I have used two 500-watt studio lights from Bowens and two large Bowens softboxes. These are then two meters away from the large tracing paper scrim (inverse square law in action to keep even light across the scene). The effect that this produces is incredibly soft and diffused light. The other two lights pointing at the ceiling are not relevant to this idea. They are just offering downlights and fill. This was to recreate the British dining room look with a window and the dining room light turned on (it's often pretty dark here).

Scrim Versus Softbox

There is a major advantage to using a scrim over just a softbox. Having the ability to focus the light on the final diffusion material is something that is usually reserved for the most expensive light modifiers. The flexibility that this allows is incredibly useful in controlling shadows. I often throw in some gridded Broncolor heads to pick out dishes on the table. These lights work alongside the wash of soft light that I have already created and it makes it the dishes look naturally lit, but perhaps a third of a stop brighter than before. 

The downside to the scrim is the spill that it creates. A softbox, by its very name, is a box that light leaves in one direction. In the BTS picture above you will notice a trolley of large flags. I often use these to block the spill if it becomes an issue. A black card will have the same effect. 

What are the lighting hacks that save you money?

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John Dawson's picture

If tracing paper isn't readily available, use cooking parchment or, better yet, order a roll of Savage Translum plastic (I use medium weight). It's rugged, relatively inexpensive and, most importantly, produces beautiful light and gradients.

Obligatory disclaimer: I have no affiliation with Savage, I just love their products.


David Mawson's picture

>> These are then two meters away from the large tracing paper scrim (inverse square law in action to keep even light across the scene).

Or you could just put a flag (an opaque blocking thing) between the light and diffuser where the hot spot would be - think of a beauty dish. If you put the the flag close enough to the light it will cast a soft shadow rather than a hard one, which is what you want. Google umbra and penumbra.

Scott Choucino's picture

You can do, but this is referring to the light fall off from top to bottom of the table. If it came in closer and used flags for hot spots the shadow sides of the dishes would look too dark and the opposite side of the table would be considerably darker than the side where the lights are coming from. You could add a bounce, but it's not always the desired look in food work.

David Mawson's picture

>> If it came in closer and used flags for hot spots the shadow sides of the dishes would look too dark and the opposite side of the table would be considerably darker than the side where the lights are coming from.

No. You're possibly thinking about the way flags are normally used, which isn't what I'm talking about. If you place them really close to source then they create penumbra wherever you want, dimming the light selectively. With the right flag in the right place you will simply remove the hotspot. (I should probably confess that I have a physics degree - although this is actually high school physics.)

This shouldn't be that strange - it's why a beauty dish doesn't have either a hotspot or a shadow at the centre

Scott Choucino's picture

Sounds interesting. So if I bring the light closer and use the flags in the way I do in portraits (kind of making a beauty dish out of an octabox), how does that affect the fall off of light?

For example, if I moved the lights closer (next to the table) in this example, I would lose 2 stops of light by the time I got to the opposite end. Do I then flag the entire side of the table closest to the lights to negate this?

How would this visually look compared to the approach I have taken?

Also, if you can link to anything that I could read about this it would be greatly appreciated. I certainly don't have a degree in physics, but I am always looking to learn more.

David Mawson's picture

>> So if I bring the light closer and use the flags in the way I do in portraits

I think in this case you're better putting a flag - and I'm using the term in it's most general sense - between the light and the diffuser. And you want a very small flag that's the shape of the hotspot - probably a piece of card on a wire. The idea is to have it cast penumbra over the hotspot -

I've read that some Hollywood Golden Age lighting was done this way, especially for leading lady's close-ups. By using small flags of the right shape you can control light in terrific detail.

Scott Choucino's picture

Thanks, I am going to have a play in the studio later this week.

David Mawson's picture

Scott - just remember that the "flag" has to be small compared to the light source! There are some articles somewhere on the net on how this type of lighting was used in 20s and 30s Hollywood. I usually keep notes on this type of thing with links, but apparently I messed up in this case. I remember very small flags being shaped to deepen shadows on the cheeks and give more cheekbone. Fuse wire and black art foam are probably the ideal tools. (But I would say that - I used them and instamorph, dual lock and gorilla tape for almost everything.)

Btw, your article on the business aspects of photography is outstanding.

Bjarne Solvik's picture

I just wounder if a big umbrella, like a shoottru but used reflective would be much less complicated. Or use a wall or something to bounce the light.
Never found softbox with direct light to be as soft as reflected light? Why should I use a scrim? That also is direct light. Even bouncing the light from the wall is reflected light.
Also a scrim should bounce the light much like a umbrella anyways?

Scott Choucino's picture

The reason for not using an umbrella in food work is the catch light. Ideally, you want rectangular catchlights to mimic windows.

Bounced light can work really well too.

Bobby Z's picture

Nothing wrong in making your own scrims but they are not that expensive. I just checked. A nice Mathews 48x48 with a frame is $100.

Scott Choucino's picture

That's a good price! I think mine cost about $2, but obviously has its downsides.

Jason Lorette's picture

I made a Beauty Dish out of a large mixing bowl. :)

Jonathan Ferland-Valois's picture

I have a big piece of white fabric that I use, sometimes as background, but at other times I've shot through it to create super diffused light. Once, I suspended it in a circle to form a big cylinder of fabric, and tried it for a self-portrait with a flash on each side of my face and one in the back for a perfectly white background. The light was soft and very even.

Paul Scharff's picture

I saw another post (PP perhaps) about using a shower curtain. I love finding simple solutions that do the trick, particularly for quick projects.