Softbox – Construction and Theory
- January 22, 2020
- Shane Hurlbut, ASC
Think INSIDE The Box
How to create your own awesome Softbox
WHAT WE’RE BUILDING
So today, I want to introduce a key component of my shoots – The Softbox (okay, now to make this more epic – play the choral music below and read that again!).
First and foremost, this thing is a professional piece of equipment. If you wanted to, you could spend a lot of money on it, but let’s be honest, unless you’re working for a production company run by the Kardashians or Floyd Mayweather, you can build it at home for a fraction of your budget and it’ll last just as long and be just as good at helping you to light effectively.
(Floyd here, showing that money can be thrown at a camera if you put a clear filter over the lens)
Here’s a few Softboxes on set to whet your appetite (WARNING: Softbox pornography coming up):
(Softboxes in action on different commercial and movie shoots)
After that beautiful interlude, and once your heart rates have returned to normal (mine still is hitting the high 140s after looking at that bike one!) let’s take a look at our homemade piece. The beauty of this equipment is that it’s construction is very simple and lightweight, weighing only about 5 pounds! For those of you not good with weights and measures then that’s a small chihuahua – put one of those in one hand and the softbox in the other and you can do a light work-out on set. Yet, despite this, it has a structure that is extremely rigid.
Arnold demonstrating the new Hurlbut softbox work-out
Introducing our Softbox
MATERIALS YOU’LL NEED
- Wooden struts (1×3).
- ¾ inch drywall screws
- Fender washers
- L Bracket
- Screw eyes
- Baby pins
- Safety Cables
For our softbox construction, we use foam core: black on the outside and white on the inside. Using wooden 1x3s around the top and another 1x3s around the bottom we create a strong structure for our box. This is key. We don’t want this falling apart and risking injury, decapitation, social embarrassment and outright shame to any of our cast (the crew will be fine).
Once this is built, we mount our lights up on top and then the diffusion is going to become the light source for our scene.
Shane showing a 1×3 and the white foam core
Before we go into the lighting, let’s look a little closer at the soft box – the white foam core on the inside is key because we want the lights that are hitting the diffusion to bounce around and produce a very even field. We precut our diffusions so that, depending on the output of your lights, you can attach however much diffusion you want with a staple gun. On that note, be careful with the staple gun, we all remember what happened to poor Marv on Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (see the below gif – imagine that happening just as you’re adding some soft frost)!
(Marv demonstrating poor staple gun etiquette – as well as a burglar, he won’t make it as a gaffer)
The diffusion on the underside of the Softbox
When putting this together, it would be best to use ¾ inch drywall screws and also fender washers – these are absolutely key to the success of the softbox. By creating a lot of surface area, it allows the drywall screws to bind and grab onto the foam core making the box very stable.
Fender washers to allow the drywall screws to bind and grab onto the foam core
It is important that we put black duvetyne over the top of the softbox to be able to contain the light we have created and stop it from blasting off our diffusion upwards into the ceiling, filling the room and defeating the purpose of the softbox. TC 08:14
So, what if you cannot get hold of any foam core to build your soft box? This happened to us in Italy and our response was to use… bedsheets! I mean, sure, a few people had to sleep without any covers for a few weeks, but the lighting was on point! TC 13:16
Crew members ‘happily’ donated their bedsheets for the softbox
The bedsheet Softbox
We took our frame membrane (that we built for the foam core in our example) and then bought black table cloths that you can pick up from pretty much any grocery store. These are incredibly lightweight and much cheaper than duvetyne (literally 99 cents a piece!). On the inside of our softbox we used the white bedsheets to bounce the lights downward onto our scene. If we take this one step further, you can go to your local “Bed, Bath and Beyond” for any diffusions – instead of half-grid cloth or full-grid cloth, buy soft frost or half soft frost shower curtains to staple into the interior of your softbox. Thankfully the crew did not have to give up their shower curtains for our bedsheet softbox too.
The crew reacted badly when we needed some more soft frost for the diffusion
99 Cent black tablecloths
MOUNTING YOUR LIGHTS
With the softbox, the majority of the weight comes from the lights themselves which can be rigged directly to the wall spreaders. However, if you wanted to rig the lights to the soft box then you can take some 1x3s with baby pins on them, set them on top of the box and screw them in dependent on where you want to put your lights.
1×3 with baby pins
Once all of your 1x3s and baby pins are in place along the softbox, it is time to mount the bicolor Aputure lights to it. The first rule would be to remove all cables – rig the lights first without the clutter of the cables around.
Mounting the Bicolor Aputure light on a baby pin
When your lights are in place then it would be best to put a safety cable around the light to hold it in place should it fall off the baby pin – again we don’t want to decapitate any of our actors mid-scene like in The Truman Show!
Just think, Truman would still be in Seahaven had the lighting guys used a safety wire…
Using a safety cable
Safety cables are relatively easy to find, I got mine from Harbor Freight. When wrapping them around your lights, it is best to go around twice as these lights aren’t going to be panning or tilting and can stay rigid throughout. On that note, remember to angle the lights so they don’t shoot directly through the diffusion – we want them to bounce off and create a glow. TC 02:08
I choose to gaffer tape my ballast to the top of the 1×3 on top of the softbox with the wireless antenna showing. This allows me to change the bicolor Aputure lights from tungsten to 4300 to total daylight etc. with a remote control so I’m not up and down ladders all the time like I’m in a niche wrestling match for WWE.
With a remote control, this guy would have been heavyweight champion
AND we could easily install 4 of those lights in our softbox and control them all from ONE remote!
Gaffer taping the ballast to the 1×3
With Bicolor Lightstorms, the cool thing is that they have a remote control set up whereby you can change the color temperature remotely, turn it on and off or dim it without ever having to go near the box – simple, cheap DMX technology that we use on Hollywood movie sets.
Remote control for Bicolor Lightstorms
However, what really took the cake was the DMG Lumiere’s. These were incredibly well suited to this size of softbox – take a look below…
Demonstrating how these babies fit like a glove to our softbox
The DMG Lumieres with the output and build quality of ARRI skypanels
I mount these horizontally across the softbox and, on this one, can probably fit 2 and another quarter one across the fixture. If you cut a notch in the top of the frame then they will sit flush to the top of the softbox, which will make them more secure and prevent light from escaping.
These lights are the size of Kino flo panels, but with the output and build quality of ARRI skypanels – with a range from 3000 Kelvins to 5600K. What’s more, they are bicolor so I love switching between daylight and tungsten with them.
RIGGING FOR ANY CEILING
There are several ways to make the soft box fit with what you want to do. For our scene we will be using it on a dining room scene, sending wall spreaders across our room before attaching our choice of lights first and then fastening the soft box to those spreaders. (Prepare yourselves for some pure unadulterated Softbox action below)
Suspending the Softbox from the wall spreaders
To do this, we use L brackets secured to the 2 x 4s at either end of the box. “Why are they called L-brackets?” I hear you ask. Here’s Floyd Mayweather again to explain…
Thanks Floyd, another excellent point, well made
Another way to do this is to use screw eyes all along the longer sides.
Once these are attached to the wooden frame then you can use all different types of cord (e.g. sash cord) to attach it to the wall spreader.
At the end of the day, this is your Softbox, you are building a box to emulate anything from a dining room lit by a chandelier to a cosy reading nook and contain your light source for your scene.
THE MAGIC OF WALL SPREADERS
People ask me all the time how I suspend my battens, lighting rigs and softboxes into various home and office spaces. Well, here on this glorious blog and with the help of my key grip, Dietmar, I am going to unveil to you the mysteries of wall spreaders.
It’s a subtle link, but Wall-E and some magic
Wall Spreaders can be used in both vertical and horizontal positions. Placed at each end of either a 2×4 or 2×6 precut piece of lumber, the Wall Spreader is a two piece system, one is simply a receptacle for the lumber with a padded flat plate welded to it to protect the wall or ceiling and the other is a receptacle for lumber and a telescoping piece to insure a tight fit. Yes, I’ve used the word receptacle there twice – it’s my word of the day!
The plywood pads at the end of either end of the wall spreader
DANGER: (Okay, I know I exaggerate at times, but this truly is a word of caution) Because lumber sags over long lengths and when weight is added to it, the entire structure may become loose and could come down – keep it tight and to avoid any damage to the wall or ceiling, plates should only be used directly in line with “studs” – yes, now I get to use my obligatory Olivia Newton-John gif…
“Tell me about it, Stud” – Well, Olivia, you asked for it. Dietmar will now explain studs to you
A key piece of equipment is a stud finder (I can’t carry one around as it’s always bleeping at me! – feel free to have an eye roll moment here). A stud finder (also stud detector or stud sensor) doesn’t actually detect Danny Zuko and other attractive men and, if it did, get us on Shark Tank we’d be millionaires! It’s actually a handheld device used with wood buildings to locate framing studs located behind the final walling surface, usually drywall. Once you find the studs in the wall, you can place the wall spreader over them. Simply place the stud finder against the wall and move it slowly along the surface to scan until it finds the stud.
Scanning for studs
If you don’t have a stud finder then the best option is to focus near to door frames, electrical points and light switches. It is also worth tapping the walls and listening to avoid anywhere that is hollow. The last thing we want is to do is go through a wall like the Kool Aid jug. In any modern building, the studs are likely to be 16” apart so keep an eye out for them.
Despite the commercials being happy and fun, that isn’t the reality when you take a wall down.
Finding the studs in the wall
For the wall spreader itself, there are 2 pieces that measure about 8½” – 9” at the end of the wall spreader that screw to make it longer or shorter. When you are measuring the distance that you want to cover with the wall spreader, make sure you subtract that from it.
We then use two ¾”, 1’ by 1’ plywood pads that we screw into each side of the wall spreader and coat them with a clean anti static cloth so that it gives them a good grip, but most importantly, doesn’t leave a mark on the wall. These have a big surface to prevent sliding.
Screwing the spreader into place
When twisting the screw to clamp the spreaders in place, it is always a good idea to listen carefully and if you hear any cracking noises then back up about half a turn or you’re gonna end up in the next room.
Listen for the crack or else…
When it is secure, test it with a little weight to ensure it is strong enough for your lights and you are good to go.
With these wall spreaders, we will suspend all our batten lights around the perimeter as well as our soft box in the centre.
WHERE TO SOURCE YOUR RESOURCES
Bicolor Aputure Light Storm