Hard vs. Soft lighting, and How To Build a Small Softbox

Marcus and I have finished (more or less) the lighting setup for the next shot of the film:  the intro to the kitchen, above.  It was a crash lesson for me in the differences between hard and soft light.  I mean, I vaguely understood the difference before, but this setup made it clear what works best for small, intricately detailed sets.  (For some great little tutorials explaining hard light vs. soft light, try here, and here, and here.)

The verdict (for now) is:  small, controlled soft lights work well for larger spaces of gentle, moody lighting, while tiny pools of hard light work well to accent specific textured areas.  The key here is keeping ALL light sources small and controlled.  Most of this set is lit from above, which is what would happen anyway (pretty much) in a real theatre, but also it allows the light to scrape the surface of the items in the set, showing off their textures well.

The problem as Marcus described it is that our small 150 Watt fresnels are designed to light up sets at their regular, real-world scale.  If you were to scale up these lights along with the kitchen set to match the kitchen’s real-world scale, the lamps would all be at least a foot in diameter.  That’s pretty big for all the moodiness, subtlety, and texture we wanted to achieve here.  The soft lights (made by bouncing hard light off a large piece of white foam core) we had used in the last setup don’t work well in this context, because they would be too hard to control.  There would be too much spill to where you don’t want any light, creating too much ambience.

So we went for two solutions to the problem of overscale lighting.  We either used snoots on the lights, to create the smallest of spotlights, or, for lack of snoots, made flags as close to the light as possible, so that the lights only emit through a tiny area.  (When flags and gobos are close to the light, they create soft shadows; when further away from the light, the shadows get harsher.)  These were our hard lights (used to bring out some textures, like the stack of plates on the wall.  The harsh shadows caused by the hard light emphasize the linear pattern of the plates.)

For the softer lighting effects above the countertops and lighting the fridge and chair, we built some custom-made softboxes.  We made two versions:  one was attached to a fresnel, taped on to the barn doors like an added snoot extension (for lighting the fridge); and the others (for the 2 countertops) were made using very cheap puck lights from Home Depot, some foam core, and a few other things, which I will explain below.

Here’s what you need:

1.  Lights.

These 120 volt halogen puck lights were very cheap — $19.99 for 3.   They’re dimmable, though slightly warmer than our other fresnel lights, so the other lights needed to be warmed up with orange gels to compensate.  These each had their own power source, which is important — you don’t want the type of puck lights that string together onto one power cord.

2.  Diffusion Paper.

This stuff is just vellum, as far as I can tell.  Just make sure it’s heat-proof.  I’ve read that parchment paper can work for this too, as it’s designed to be used in an oven.

3.  Tape.

I used a layer of aluminum tape that’s usually used for duct work, available at a hardware store.  The advantage to this stuff is that it’s heat resistant.  I also used black duct tape to cover up the shine of the aluminum.

4.  Honeycomb grid.

This was a present from Marcus — it’s been sitting in his garage, unused, since 1984, apparently.  It comes from an airplane hangar?  Or the plane wing?  Or something.  But it’s commonly used in lighting, just for this sort of application.  You can also use the grids that cover those institutional-type fluorescent fixtures — kind of a white plastic grid.  The honeycomb pattern is a little more advantageous, but the square pattern of those white plastic lighting covers will do.

5.  A large-ish sheet of black foam core, 3/16″ thick.  It has to be black, so it contains the light and doesn’t bounce it everywhere.

How to build the softbox:

1.  Cut honeycomb grid and diffusion paper to size.

The size should basically be the area that you want to light, and fairly small.  These lights don’t spread much across the diffusion, as they’re not too powerful — these ones were built to be around 4″ by 10″.  The idea was to have one softbox hovering over each of the countertops, which were about this size.  Tape the edges of the grid with aluminum tape (if they’re sharp metal), and attach the diffusion paper to one side.  This side goes on the inside of the box.

2.  Cut foamcore into shape to make a box.  I cut one large sheet that was the full dimension of my box, 10″ by 22″, then scored creases so that it folded into a box shape.  (Sorry, I didn’t take in-progress pictures!)  So, the final box was going to be 10″ wide, 8″ high, and 5″ deep.  So I knew one side would be 8″, the top 5″, the other side 8″, and the bottom 1″ (to allow for a 4″ opening for the grid.)  Total = 22″ in length.  I then scored one side of the foamcore into these dimensions, and folded it up into a rectangular, open-ended box.

I cut 2 pieces of 8×5 foamcore for either side of the box, and taped all the seams (including the scored ones, to reinforce them) with the aluminum tape.

3.  Measure the diameter of the light casing, and cut a hole.  You could put 2 puck lights per box, depending on how bright you want the source to be.  We used 1 for each of these.

4.  Secure the grid to the open space at the opposite end of the light.

The light shines through this, down through the diffusion paper, and through the honeycomb.  The diffusion paper softens the light, while the grid contains the soft light and prevents it from shining all over the place.

We taped a grip plate to the side of the box, because that was what worked best with the set — we could only put the grip in from the side.

I then covered all the aluminum tape with black duct tape, so that the aluminum wouldn’t reflect onto the set.

5.  Insert the light.

The light should be pretty snug, so that it doesn’t drop into the box.  Then it can be taped in place with a few pieces of the aluminum tape — not too many, in case you need to adjust it.

6.  Carefully poke a few air holes through the top of the box.  These lights will get pretty hot, so it’s important to let heat escape.

That’s it, then rig in place!

Just for comparison — here is my original, lame attempt at lighting this same set.  There is some soft light on the fronts of the cabinets, making lots of ambient light, and soft shadows, but not really being controlled well.  Then there’s a hard light lighting the fridge and chair in the corner — hard frontal lights create ugly harsh shadows.

In fact, if you just compare that area of the set, you can see the difference between hard and soft light.  The image on the left has a 150 watt Arri directed at the fridge, and on the right is the final lighting setup, where this corner has been lit by a small foamcore softbox.  It’s a tricky comparison, because some other things changed — the focus, for example — but you can see the difference in the quality of light and shadow pretty clearly (click to enlarge):

I’m off to Vancouver and the BC islands for a couple weeks, surfing, hiking, and yogaing, but I’ll do a more detailed post on this lighting setup when I get back.  It’s a good one — lots of lights, flags, and the new softboxes!

Happy Spring!

11 thoughts on “Hard vs. Soft lighting, and How To Build a Small Softbox

  1. Mark Fullerton

    Thanks again for the great lighting lesson.
    I am lovin it – great stuff.

    So those home made soft boxes don’t get too hot really?

    The end result is just fantastic, really makes the set come alive.


  2. Stephanie

    Thanks guys!

    The lights do get quite hot, but the boxes can sustain it… foamcore is pretty hardy. It’s used close to super-hot fresnels all the time to crop the light… And the other materials are heat-proof: aluminum tape is designed to go on heating ducts, and the diffusion paper is made for this kind of application. The heat isn’t a problem.

    I should have mentioned though (and will in my follow-up post) that the light coming from these boxes is quite low. To shoot this we had to dim down all other lights on the set, and shoot at a very wide aperture, with a long exposure rate. (1 second exposure at 5.6.) If you need more light, you can easily double up on the halogens — using 2 per box rather than one.

  3. Mark Fullerton

    Thanks for the follow up on the heat question.

    The lights may be “quite low”, but the results are “beautimus”

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