Almost anything can be used as a light modifier. As long as it interacts with light in one way or another, it can be considered a light modifier. In this article, I will show you how to build a do-it-yourself (DIY) softbox with things you likely already have around at home.
Beginning photographers may feel intimidated by the expensive light modifiers on the market that are often used by professionals, but the goal of the article is to demonstrate that expensive modifiers are not necessary to create high-quality images.
If I were just starting out in photography now, I would not be even looking at investing in Profoto or Broncolor equipment right away. A DIY softbox is more than enough for many types of introductory shoots. Sure, there will be some obvious differences between the results of high-end and DIY gear, especially to a trained eye, but you can still use a DIY softbox for shaping light as long as you know what you’re doing.
What You Will Need to Build a DIY Softbox
Here are the ingredients you will need to gather for this homemade lighting project.
- A Light Source. This can be anything from an IKEA flashlight to a Speedlite. I will make a softbox that can accommodate a light bulb, but you can pick a different light source and adjust the modifier to fit your specification.
- Two Cardboard Boxes. One will serve as the foundation and the other as the reflector inside. Ideally, they will be of the same size.
- Aluminum Foil. To create the reflective surface inside the softbox. Ideally, it should not be too crumpled
- Diffusion Material. This could be a shower curtain, baking paper, tracing paper, etc.
- A Hot Glue Gun. To glue the pieces of the softbox together and fix the light source in place
- A Knife and Scissors.
- Permanent Marker.
Once you have all the items on the checklist, it’s time to build!
Step-by-Step Instructions on Building a DIY Softbox
Step #1. Prepare the Cardboard Box
Take your cardboard box and cut off the lid flaps.
Step #2. Mount a Light to Cardboard
Create a hole in the back of the box so that you can fit your light source through it. In my case, I used a desk lamp and made a hole large enough to fit the base of my light bulb through. There are several ways you can hold your softbox in place. I was able to use the light bulb to hold the softbox in place.
For extra safety, you may want to use a hot glue gun or tape the light to the softbox. Bear in mind you may find it difficult to remove it afterward. If you choose to use my method, make a hole slightly smaller than the light bulb base, that way you will push through the bulb and it will hold in place fairly well.
It is best to use an LED bulb and not a filament one as they tend to get hot and your setup may catch fire.
Step #3. Make Measurements on the Box
Now to make the reflector. As this requires measurements, it will likely be the most difficult step of this tutorial. You need to measure the width and length of your box. In my case, the longer edge was 12.5in/32cm and the shorter edge was 9.5in/24cm.
The next thing you need to measure is the part of the box where the bulb will be. I figured that an opening measuring 3in/8cm long and 2in/5cm wide would be sufficient. It is best to base your measurement on the dimensions of your light. Once you have that, measure the length from the corner of your box to the corner of your light source square.
Step #4. Cut out Trapezoids from Cardboard
You will need to cut out two different trapezoids: one for the longer edge and one for the shorter edge. Take a piece of cardboard that will measure exactly the same as your longer edge and put it inside the softbox. Make a dot where the cardboard meets the edge of the softbox as well as a dot where it meets the light source square.
Then you want to connect the dots and cut out the reflector sides. Make sure that the slanted edges measure the same length.
Step #5. Tape the the Pieces Together
Cut out each side and tape together the four reflector sides and then insert them inside the softbox body. Now make sure to tape together the reflector and the softbox.
Step #6. Add the Aluminum Foil
Now you want to put aluminum foil inside. I recommend not cutting it into shapes as it can be difficult. It is also okay to simply cover the inside of the reflector in aluminum foil. The aluminum foil has to be slightly crumpled so that it catches and reflects light in many directions. Make sure to use plenty of tape to hold the aluminum foil in place.
Step #7. Add Diffusion to the Front
Finally, to diffuse your light source, you can put some baking paper (or any other diffuse material) on top of your softbox. This will even out the light. Remember that diffusion is not the same as soft light.
Voila! The DIY softbox is complete!
Shooting Photos with the DIY Softbox
Once I finished building the DIY softbox, I took my iPhone and shot a few simple images with this setup. Here is a product shot I did with my new softbox:
This is a simple perfume image that could be used for e-commerce. I noticed that the bottle lights up in an interesting way when the light comes through it, so I placed my softbox at the bottom of the frame to bring that out.
An Alternative to a DIY Softbox
If you don’t want to bother with building a softbox and cutting various shapes out of cardboard, you can also go with an alternative method. Frankly, I use this method all the time, both with flash and constant lights, even on large sets with decent budgets.
What I do is use shower curtains.
Frankly, I don’t know why more people don’t do this. A shower curtain is essentially a large diffusion material/fabric that is a lot more affordable than a dedicated scrim. The great thing about shower curtains is that you can set them up quickly and even cut them to create custom light patterns.
There are multiple reasons to use a softbox. If your reason is to create diffused light, then you can opt for a shower curtain and get results that may be just as good. In fact, if you want to create ultra-soft and diffused light, then a shower curtain is a better DIY option. The reason I would use a DIY softbox is when I need to reduce the spill of light to a maximum. Another reason would be if the light source isn’t all that strong.
Almost anything can be a light-shaping tool if you’re creative about how you use it. I encourage you to experiment with everyday objects to find interesting light qualities, and the easiest way to do so is to take a flashlight and shine it through or on things you see.