Modernize Your Softbox with LED Bulbs

There’s no denying that LED panels are a stellar option for lighting your scene. However, if you’re willing to sacrifice some of the portability benefits, then you might be better off keeping your softboxes around and getting the best of both worlds. Caleb Pike shows us exactly what kinds of bulbs we can use with our existing softboxes for an affordable entry into high-quality LED lighting.

The Problem With LEDs

LEDs have been pushing the boat out for years now, and with prices falling, there’s never been a better time to buy. However, I worry that some people think they’ll look great on their own (spoiler: they don’t). Unless you’re after a harsh, unflattering light, you’ll need some serious diffusion. In my own experience, I’ve found that I need more diffusion for an LED panel than I would for a Kino Flo setup.

A bare LED array on the left, and diffused on the right.

Enter the softbox, a setup that we all know and love, and likely have a couple lying around. I can't say it's quick and easy to put an LED panel in a regular sized softbox, but it doesn't look like too much of a pain to pick up some LED bulbs that fit right in. Pike makes a decent case for updating your existing equipment, if you were hooked in by LED arrays.

I have personally thrown a flexible LED panel inside a softbox. It was a neat solution, even though I couldn’t necessarily control the distance between the source and diffusion. So it totally begs the question: why not use softboxes as they’re intended? It might be a slightly bulkier solution, but not by much. The quality of light is more than decent, and above all it’s a rather cheap option if you already own softboxes. In fact you could even pick up a cheap set, plus these bulbs for about $100. Pike is recommending the Savage bulbs and less powerful Bonlux bulbs, negating the Neewer brand because the fan is too loud.

My Setup

My personal favorite setup for lighting with LED panels. Diffusing with a large circular diffuser (that includes reflectors).

With that in mind, my solution is based around being as portable and lightweight as possible. The slimmer the light, the better, so I’ll use flexible LED panels that weigh very little. Then I need a battery to power them so I don’t need to plug into a wall. Finally, we'll add a large diffusion panel. I’m a fan of fold-out, circular diffusion panels because they’ll fold up nicely and never crease. Obviously, a light stand for both the light source and the diffuser helps place the light where you need it.

By doing this, I can pack everything down to a compact size, and I have more control over my lighting including the color temperature, brightness, and level of diffusion. It might not have the wrap around aesthetic of a softbox and it's hardly and apples to apples comparison, but I'm more than happy.

I’ve got to hand it to Pike for testing these bulbs, because it’s important to see the downsides too. A fan inside the bulb could get annoying on a quiet set, and the price differences versus quality of light saves us so much time deciding what to pick up. For me, the lack of dimming or ability to use a battery is annoying. As a backup, and to breath new life into some old softboxes, it’s an interesting idea to bridge the gap between two schools of thought.

[via DSLR Video Shooter]

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3 Comments

Derek Yarra's picture

Would be a dream to be able to replace the modeling light bulbs on my strobes with LED bulbs like these.

Ben Sandness's picture

I was about to type this very same comment! Would prefer the bulb to be dimmable, too. :-/.

jean pierre (pete) guaron's picture

Dimmable would be great - one can only live in hope - maybe, later on? :)

I wish I'd seen your article before I kitted myself with various other gear, at the suggestion of my camera shop. But of course I couldn't, because you've only just written it. That said - this is a much better approach for my purposes, doing macro work for product catalogues, and food photography - especially doing stackshots or setting up a TS lens. Flash suits some, but I prefer this approach - and if it's not mains power, the batteries have an unpleasant habit of fading at quite the least suitable moment.