Unbelievably soft lighting is actually trickier to do than many think. Sure we can place a large softbox in front of our subject to light them, but does that really look good?
No, I’m not trying to trigger anyone here and I’m genuinely curious because, to me, the classic softbox look is a unique look to studio-style lighting. Does that softbox light really look like daylight? If that’s the look you’re after, is a softbox really the best solution we have?
We’re taught that a softbox is designed to replicate window lighting, but it really doesn’t. Don’t believe me? I dare you to find a natural-light shooter that would ever choose a softbox modifier over an actual real-life natural-light window. I’m telling you now, that’s a fools-errand.
So how do we get a more natural and aesthetically pleasing light on our subjects? How do we get a more ‘natural’ looking light? It’s this topic and problem that I’ve been trying to overcome for a very long time and although I’ve yet to find a perfect solution to the seemingly impossible task of replicating natural light in any space, I did come across a look that I liked along the way.
What makes natural light look ‘natural’?
The trick to understanding the properties of natural light is to remember that light never stops. Light just keeps going and going and it’ll (almost) always do so in straight line. The other key property of light is to remember that light loses its power (brightness) the further it travels.
Let’s look at a quick example of how that translates to us mere photographers. In the diagram below, light number 1 is the sun and light number 2 is a softbox.
We place our subject in front of the sun and in front of the softbox and then take a light meter reading at the subject. Then we take another light meter reading 100m away from the subject for both the sun and the softbox….
I’m sure my TED Talk slide above illustrates the issue. The sun is just so damn powerful that no matter how far away you are (on Earth) the power is the same, whereas the softbox loses its power almost instantly. Place your subject in front of a window you not only get that beautiful, crisp sunlight on the subject, but you also get the softer sunlight as the light is bounced around the room and landing back on the subject. This does not happen with a softbox. We expose the softbox based on it being a few feet from the subject at most and there is simply not enough power in that light to then bounce around the room and back onto the subject again. This always results in a very different looking light when trying to replicate window light with a softbox. Whether that light is good looking light or not is subjective, but let’s at least agree that it’s different.
Did you miss part 1?
It’s worth noting that this article is actually part 2. Don’t worry, you don’t have to read part 1 to understand this one, but in the previous section we discussed how to actually make a jumbo scrim for yourself using parts you can buy and assemble at home. We’ll be using that scrim to light the model in this article.
If you’re interested then by all means take a look at that original post too – DIY Scrim/Silk Frame For Huge Diffused Lighting Modifier.
So what’s the solution?
Like I mentioned earlier, I’ve yet to see a convincing solution to this ‘artificial daylight in a studio’ problem, but in the past, the method I’ve used to create somewhat realistic sunlight in a studio environment is to actually add another light. Big shock I know! Who would’ve thought a studio shooter would try and overcomplicate something simple with more gear! …But hear me out.
So if you recall the daylight window light properties we mentioned earlier, we need crisp, direct light as well as that diffused light that bounces around the room.
I use one strobe to create the strong, crisp lighting of the direct sunlight and then another super-soft strobe to replicate the diffused bounced light in the scene.
Light 1 – The Soft Light
So this is the light we built last week (no clue what I’m talking about? Check last weeks article on DIY Scrim/Silk Frame For Huge Diffused Lighting Modifier). With this jumbo lighting modifier we are able to create some unbelievably soft looking light in nearly any space.
Light 2 – The Hard Light
This second light is the one that will be creating the shadows and shape on the subject. Here I will be using a favourite modifier of mine, the Optical Snoot. Long-time followers of mine will know that I love this modifier a lot and I use it all the time in my work, but if you’re unfamiliar with it and are interested in learning more, take a look at my review of the Optical Snoot here.
Okay, so many of you have likely skipped all the way down here and although you missed out on the answer to pi a couple of paragraphs above, I’ll put you out of your misery and explain the setup.
To explain this thoroughly, I’ll share a few potential setups with the same tools and you can then decide what look best suits your needs. For example, firstly I’ll look at just the one super-soft light. From here, you may decide that you aren’t interested in adding the hard light at all.
It’s also worth noting that I made this DIY scrim whilst bored during the great apocalypse of 2020. As a result, all of these images were shot prior to the studios actually reopening and consequently were all shot in my living room…. which is very small. My point is that the setups I’m sharing here can all be achieved in almost any space and I’ll discuss my recommendations on how to change the lighting based on the size of your space later on as well.
One Light – Super Soft
Take a look at the setup below and see how I arranged the scrim in the small room and where I placed that single light to get the look.
Here’s a look at the type of lighting this ultra-soft setup can produce…
Pay close attention to the shadows and highlights in the shots above. See how much light is actually in the shadows of this setup, even on the shadow side of the subject. Also look at how gradual the light transitions from highlight to shadow are and look again at those shadows on the models face.
But let’s take a closer look at how that one single light is placed in relation to the scrim. It may not be immediately obvious from the digram above, but the light is actually placed right next to the scrim, but more importantly, it’s pointed directly away from it. The reason for this is due to the size of the space. If we had plenty of room, like in a big studio, then we could probably move the light away from the scrim and point it directly at it. This would essentially create the same look as the light is still passing through the large sheet of diffusion, but by bouncing the light off of the nearly wall like I’ve done here, we essentially create a double diffusion. Once as the light bounces off the wall and a second time as it passes through the scrim.
Two Lights – Hard and Soft
Here is where I feel things get a little more interesting though. In the setup below I actually add a second light and this time it’s a hard light. By combining the two lights in the same shot, we get some very striking lighting on the subject.
Our first light hasn’t changed, but with the addition of this second hard light, we are now able to really carve out some shape and structure on the model and all without losing any detail in the shadows.
Take a look at some of the resulting images from this setup…
Look again at the shadows and highlights and specifically look at the very crisp and clean line created by the jaw on the neck, as well as a little pop of highlight on the nose and cheekbone thanks to the contrast of lighting.
If you are curious as to how much each of the individual lights is doing, take a look at the examples below. On the left we have just the soft light, in the middle we have just the hard light and on the right we have both of the lights combined in a single shot.
Two Lights – Gobo and Soft
Finally, we’ll look at getting a little more creative with the light by adding a gobo to the hard light modifier. Nothing else has changed in the setup though. Take a look below.
Like I mentioned, nothing changed in the actual setup beyond the addition of that gobo to the optical snoot. If you’re unfamiliar with what that is, then take a look below.
Here are a couple of examples of how this lighting setup looked below…
It should be very apparent as to what is going on here, but what I want you to pay extra special attention to is how much light is in those shadows. The beauty of this setup is the fact that I can independently control the brightness (and ultimately, the density) of these very striking shadows. Remember these are two separate lights where the power can be controlled independently of each. If I want brighter shadows, I increase the brightness of the scrim light. Conversely, if I want darker shadows, I decrease the power of the scrim light.
It’s this two light, hard and soft setup acting as one that is extremely powerful and the looks you can create with it are limitless when you add the creative element of gobos too.
If you’re interested in seeing some more shots from this shoot with a variety of lighting from the setups I’ve discussed above, here they are.
But is it window light?
I think that’s ultimately up to you to decide. Of course it depends on what window we’re comparing it to, how overcast the day is outside, the size of the window, the size and colour of the room the subject is in and so on. But however you want to look at this, I personally prefer this lighting look infinitely more than any basic softbox I’ve used. Have I cracked the ultimate in-studio replacement for the daylight look? I fear the hunt continues.
Featured model: Ryo Love
About the Author
Jake Hicks is an editorial and fashion photographer who specializes in keeping the skill in the camera, not just on the screen. Jake currently has a workshop available on colour and exposure. For more of his work and tutorials, check out his website. Don’t forget to like his Facebook page and follow him on Instagram, too.
You can also sign up to the Jake Hicks Photography newsletter to receive Jake’s free Top Ten Studio Lighting Tips and Techniques PDF, and be sure to download his brand new, free 50 page studio lighting book. This article was also published here and shared with permission.