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.
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?