Where to Position a Softbox for Portrait Photography

Where you place a softbox greatly determines how a subject looks in an image. A softbox also sets a photo’s mood. While a softbox is usually placed in front of a subject, photographer Gavin Hoey from Adorama demonstrates what happens when it is moved to different positions:

Softbox in Front of Model

Hoey starts out with a standard lighting setup. He places the softbox in front of the model for a classic look. The side of the face closer to the softbox is well lit while the other side has a soft shadow.

portrait with softbox in front of model

And when the model turns slightly toward the light, the image looks more or less the same.

softbox position

Portrait with softbox in front of the model

Portrait with softbox in front of the model.

Softbox Slightly Behind Model

Next, Hoey moves the softbox so that the back of the softbox is in alignment with the back of the model’s head. This creates greater contrast, as half of the model’s face is illuminated properly while the other half remains in shadow. However, we can still make out some details in the shadows.

portrait with softbox slightly behind the model

When the model turns slightly toward the light the shadow shapes the face, giving it a three-dimensional look.

portrait with softbox slightly behind the model

Split Lighting

Moving on, Hoey shifts the light farther back so that it’s central to the model. The softbox fires an equal amount of light behind and in front of the model. This creates a split effect in which the side of the face away from the light is in dark shadows while the side facing the light is properly illuminated. As expected, there’s very little detail on the shadow side.

softbox split lighting

But when the model turns toward the light, the result is astounding. Hoey gets an image that works brilliantly for a portrait.

portrait with split lighting

Portrait with split lighting

Portrait with split lighting.

Softbox Behind Model

Finally, Hoey sets up the light so that almost all of the softbox is behind the model. This setup sheds more light on the background, making it brighter.

position of softbox behind subject

This time, when the model turns toward the light, we can make out some of the details on the shadow region of his face.

portrait with softbox behind model

Portrait with softbox behind the model

Portrait with softbox behind the model.

There’s no concrete answer to where you should place your softbox. Every position creates its own signature look. You need to understand for yourself what kind of look and mood you want and adjust the position of the softbox accordingly.

“The more you move your light, the more you’ll learn, and the more variety you’ll be able to create in your portraits.”

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