Sunday, February 6, 2011

Photo Studio Test #2 - DIY Softbox

Sorry folks for the very light blogging the past few weeks.  Back to photography themes.  Yesterday, I set up my second experimental home studio.  For this go around, I built myself a 15” do-it-yourself softbox for my Nikon SB-600 speedlight to use as my main light.  Now, for those of you not proficient in photog lingo, a softbox is simply a large light diffuser.  It creates more natural lighting effects by spreading out the source of the light.  This creates softer shadows than the standard harsh-edged ones thrown by simple, direct lighting.  The larger the softbox (with appropriate lighting inside,) the softer the shadows.

This softbox I built around simple trapezoids cut from 12x15” rectangles of corrugated cardboard.  The short ends of the trapezoids I cut to fit directly around my speedlight (40x65cm).  After assembling all four sides, I cut aluminum foil and taped it to the inside pieces of the cardboard shapes.  Next, to provide stability and a mounting surface for later, I took two $0.25 wooden rulers and laid them on the cardboard piece that would serve as the bottom (one on top, and one below, sandwiching the cardboard).  I punch holes through, using the pre-drilled holes in the rulers as templates.  I then attached three bolts to the construction fastened with wingnuts (on what will become the outside of the finished product).

I then duct-taped the trapezoids together to create the pyramid-shape needed for a proper softbox.  Next, I used scrap cardboard to fashion a frame (with solid corners) for the opening.  Essentially I took four corner pieces of cardboard, cut them to about 1½” in width, and taped them to the large, open part of the softbox.  This gave structure and stability to the overall product.  Then, I used tape to cover seams and make it look a little more presentable.

Lastly, for the diffuser itself, I took a $10 (most expensive part) shower curtain (unfortunately my options are quite limited here in Germany … multitasking is not in their vocabulary… I actually spent an hour at a home-improvement store and came away almost empty handed.  What kind of home-improvement store does not have a large selection of PVC pipe and fittings?!?!?!?!).  I cut this to a little larger than width of the frame of the box, and double its length.  This gave me a 17x32” rectangle of fabric.  I then used self-adhesive Velcro buttons to attach the fabric to the box frame.  The rectangle was to allow for the fabric to fold back over itself to provide double the diffusion effect.  All done!  Less than $15.  Mounting it is a little difficult though.  I gave up trying to attach the quick-release from my tripod to the frame.  The little bolt on that piece is not long enough to attach to anything other than cameras and speedlights.  So, I simply fitted the box over my speedlight, installed my light backwards on the tripod, and rested the forward edge of the box on the tripod handle, taking the weight off the hot-shoe mount of the speedlight.  This worked satisfactorily, but I need a better solution.  Time to get to thinking…

It did a decent job on diffusion

I’m experimenting more with manual mode on my D90, and incorporating the speedlight set in wireless, slave mode.  Unfortunately, unlike the more robust (and expensive) SB-800, the SB-600 only can be synched wirelessly (which means it has to be triggered by a flash or another separate, special device).  This means I had to figure out how to trigger my light using the on-camera flash.  Like any newb, the first thing we learn is to never use the on-camera flash.  Any amateurs out there, learn this and your photos will improve two-fold overnight.  So, I fashioned a piece of aluminum foil to act as a deflector for my on-camera flash.  I used a grocery-store quick-tie to secure it loosely around the pop-up flash, and molded the foil to deflect the light away from the subject area.  I turned down the on-camera flash value to its lowest (FV-3.0) and fired a test shot.  It triggered the speedlight just fine.

The shot went OK.  I shot it all in RAW which completely saved my bacon (see next paragraph).  The difficult thing about doing this yourself (without models) is you do not have the ability to adjust things easily on the fly.  So I struggle with the patience to pose, trigger the shutter release, then go back and check the results.  Often I will accept them unquestioningly.  The other difficult part is the focus.  I tried to calculate my depth of focus and prepositioned my posing stool to the ‘sweet spot’ of focal plane, but often the camera would move slightly, I would re-zoom slightly upon seeing my position in front of the camera, etc.  It’s much easier with a model and you doing the shooting.

The second thing I learned is that I have to adjust the lighting on the fly.   Just about all the shots were far too dark.  My overhead ‘hair light’ was a single halogen spot from my normal dining room ceiling light.  But it cast far too much orange when combined with the speedlight.  All the WB tricks couldn’t get rid of that.  The other part was, when I did my first run of post-processing, to achieve the right exposure, all of them had to be bumped up by about +1.5EV.  This made them all look extremely soft focus-wise, and noisy.


So for my next shoot, I plan on trying to incorporate these lessons.  Hopefully the results will be much better.

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