Today I’m going to share my thoughts on one of the most popular light modification choices for beginning portrait photographers. It’s made by Impact and it’s called a quickbox softbox kit (24” x 24”). For under $150 it includes everything you’ll need (except a camera, lens, flash and flash triggering system) and it was recently mentioned by Scott Kelby on his recent blog post: If I Had $1000 To Spend on Improving My Portrait Photography, I’d Get… posted on April 28, 2014. As an all-in-one kit this system has lots of positives (along with a few negatives) and for this article I’ll be sharing my full review.
A Little Background on Light Modifiers
In my opinion, photographing people is one of the biggest challenges there is for the working photographer. Creating a connection with our subject and bringing out their personality is a huge percentage of what we do a portrait photographers. But equally important are the technical aspects of creating an image (camera settings, posing, lighting, etc.). Having great light is an important part of the equation and (most of the time) it’s important to use the most flattering light you can. If you’re going to use a flash or a studio strobe it’s important to use a light modifier to shape and control your light. There are numerous choices out there for light modification but the most popular is the simple softbox.
The simplest answer is:
With portrait photography – a larger source of light will always look softer (better) than a smaller source of light.
I know there are exceptions to all rules and there are plenty of people who take amazing portrait shots with super small light sources. But those images happen when the photographer is trying to create an unusual or unique look. Smaller light sources are very directional, create harder shadows and they have a smaller area of coverage so the images created with them may not be your typical portrait look. If you’re looking to make beautiful portraits then I suggest sticking to the rules.
|By using a hot-shoe flash (on your camera or off) you’re adding light to your shot and that means you can use camera settings that will lower noise (lowering your ISO) and help with sharpness (you’ll be able to use a sharper aperture setting and your shutter speed will be faster). Unfortunately there are trade-offs to using a small flash (without a light modifier). With a small hot-shoe flash your light source is about 2-3 inches wide by 1-2 inches tall (and most pop-up flashes are much smaller). A portrait captured with a hot-shoe flash can help to fill in darker areas of your subject and most of the time it’s way better than using nothing at all. But if you look close you’ll see that shadows have a hard edge and the light has a punchy (high contrast) look. If this is the style you’re going for then that’s great.|
The best way to get softer, more flattering light is to increase the size of your light source and to place that light source where it will create the look you want. Getting your flash off of your camera is an important first step.
When you leave your flash on your camera your source of light is delivered to your subject from the exact same direction you’re pointing your camera from. The resulting image is well lit but usually very flat because you’re completely eliminating shadows from your subject (and shadows are how we define our subjects shape). I wrote a full article on my blog about this subject and if you’re interested in learning more be sure to check it out here.
Getting your flash off of your camera allows you to introduce the shadows that will define your subjects shape and it adds a three dimensional quality to your image. When it’s done right it’s subtle but that’s what we want. The best portraits don’t call attention to how you lit your subject – a viewer should only see the subject.
Increasing the size of your light source will diffuse (soften) your light and that makes for a more flattering look. By adding a beauty dish, for example, you’re increasing your light source and this quickly improves the look of your subject. A simple beauty dish made to work with hot-shoe flashes can be purchased for under $35 (here’s a link to a universal 6” beauty dish made by Impact) and it not only gives you a larger light source, it helps to focus the light and prevent light spill (light spill happens when something you don’t want lit up is illuminated by your flash). Beauty dishes are available in sizes ranging from 6” all the way up to over 25” with several choices in between. I own several beauty dishes and they’re a great choice for adding control and size to my flashes.
For the most flattering light with the most control the professional photographers choice has always been a softbox.
The Impact Quickbox Softbox
For a long time all softboxes were kind of complicated to assemble. A typical softbox starts with the mount/speedring (where it attaches to a strobe) and uses steel rods inserted into a fabric box to create the final shape. Assembling a softbox was a bit tricky and eventually required replacement of the rods. Additionally, softboses were designed to be used with full size studio strobes so it required a little effort (or some additional accessories) to use with a smaller hot-shoe flash. This style of softbox design is still the most popular I know if.
With the popularity of flash photography on the rise the makers of softboxes have developed new systems that are much easier to set up and designed to work with hot-shoe style flashes. These new designs are called “fast folding” or “quick” softboxes and they’re a great way to quickly and easily increase the size of your light source when used with a small flash. This design is perfect for people who are new to using softboxes.
Here’s the general rule of thumb for using a softbox:
The bigger the softbox – the softer (and more flattering) your light becomes.
I love using large softboxes to create great light. While bigger is usually better, it’s important to remember that a small flash can only give you so much light. By increasing the size of your light source you’re also decreasing the amount of light you’re creating. With really big softboxes (especially when you’re outdoors on location) a single small hot-shoe style flash can quickly become overloaded. Because of this I’ve always found the 24” x 24” size to be one of the best choices when working with hot-shoe flashes. This size lets you create great looking light but also isn’t overworking your small flash. It’s a perfect size for head shots and it also works great for full size portraits (with pleasing light fall-off).
B&H Photo sells a great kit made by Impact that gives you everything you need to create great looking portrait light as well as getting your flash off of your camera. It includes an 8’ air cushioned light stand, a basic umbrella bracket and a 24” x 24” softbox (with a case for storing and transporting your softbox). Here’s a quick look at what you get:
For this review I’ll talk about each individual item and then about how they work together. Let’s start with the light stand and umbrella bracket.
The LS-8A Stand
The included light stand is a pretty standard portable light stand that folds down to 27” long but extends to 8 foot tall. This stand sells for about $33.00 at B&H and features air cushioning which prevents the top of the stand from quickly dropping when you loosen one of the adjustment knobs. With a maximum height of 8 feet tall this stand covers almost any need you’ll have. I own a ton of these same stands and I’ve used them to create some of my favorite images.
Overall the stand does a great job but it’s important to note that it’s a light duty design. If you place a studio strobe on this stand and fully extend it you’ll notice that it starts to bow. With the 24” x 24” softbox and a hot shoe flash it bends significantly forward (especially if you are angling the softbox down). Another issue with this stand is the small base. While this is important for portability it can cause a problem when you mount a medium to large light/softbox to the stand and extend it fully. It’s basically stable but if someone bumps into it (or if you’re outside with a little wind) it will topple very easily. Your best solution is to use some sandbags but the $150 kit doesn’t include sandbags.
I love the affordability, portability and maximum height of this stand but the light duty construction keeps this stand from getting my highest rating. I give this stand 3.5 stars out of 5 stars.
The Impact 3117 Umbrella Bracket
I love umbrella brackets. Even the most basic umbrella bracket is designed to mount on a stand to give you the ability to adjust the angle of an attached flash. The 3117 umbrella bracket that is included in this kit is a very basic design with a hard plastic construction. It’s light weight (which is great for portability) and the angle adjustment is accomplished by turning a large plastic handle. The angle adjustment handle can be pulled out and moved to whatever position works best. Here’s a quick look at the umbrella bracket included in this softbox kit.
The 3117 bracket includes two spigots (one with male threads and one with female threads) and a basic cold shoe for mounting a hot-shoe flash. The spigots are handy but I’m not a fan of the small cold shoe. Luckily you won’t need the cold shoe to make this softbox kit work.
To use this bracket with the softbox you’ll need to combine the two spigots together (screw them together) so you can attach the softbox mounting bracket to the umbrella bracket. Be sure to use pliers (or whatever tools you are most comfortable with) to make sure the two spigots are solidly connected to each other. I prefer to use a double ended spigot (like the Impact CA-100 available at B&H here) so that there are no issues with tightening the two included spigots together. Here’s what the two (included) spigots will look like when combined:
Overall this design works well and I own about a dozen of these umbrella brackets. The only real issue I have is the light duty design. When you use a medium or larger softbox with this bracket you’ll need to really crank the adjustment handle down or the softbox will start to drop down. Not a big deal but you’ll need to be a bit careful (I’ve snapped a few plastic handles over the years). I prefer metal umbrella brackets because I use some pretty heavy gear on a regular basis but for this kit the plastic bracket works fine.
I like the small size, light weight and affordability of this umbrella bracket but it’s a bit light duty for heavier flashes and bigger soft boxes. Overall I give this umbrella bracket 3.5 stars out of 5 stars.
The Impact Quickbox Softbox (24” x 24”)
The 24” by 24” softbox (available without the stand and bracket here) is the real star of this kit. The softbox features a fast setup and comes with everything you need to attach a hot-shoe flash and includes two diffusers (an inner and an outer diffuser). I’ve seen plenty of softboxes that don’t include the inner diffusion surface and this causes a hot spot in the center of the outer diffusion surface. The inclusion of the inner diffusor is a great feature at this price point.
Also included is a nice zippered case for storage/transportation. The case has an external pocket to store the flash attachment bracket separate from the softbox (which prevent any scratching or tearing of the softbox material). Here’s a look at everything included with the softbox:
The construction of this softbox is very solid and flips open quickly and easily. Unlike a typical softbox that uses a central speed ring and removable metal rods (one for each corner of the softbox) the quick box design uses four triangular shaped metal rings permanently placed in each side. This design keeps the shape correct when it is open and allows for super fast setup and takedown.
The inside of the softbox is silver which maximizes the efficiency of this system for use with small hot-shoe flashes. The only downside to having a silver interior is that the light sometimes gets a “punchy” look (especially when you’re not using the included diffusers). Hot-shoe flashes are punchy already and using silver reflectors can really amplify this characteristic. Here’s a look at the inside of the softbox (without the outer or inner diffusers installed):
It’s important to note that I’m highlighting the silver interior because I own several softboxes that have a white interior and the light I get from those softboxes is much softer and pleasing (especially when placed close to my subject). I’ve only seen one version of this softbox with a white interior and that’s the Lastolite Joe McNally EZbox hotshoe 24” x 24” which sells for around $170 (and doesn’t include a stand or umbrella bracket at that price). I still like the look I get from this softbox but I do wish there was an option to purchase one with a white interior in addition to this model.
If you’re used to the old style of softboxes then how this softbox attaches to the flash bracket may surprise you. On the back of the softbox the four sides come together with an overhang. This overhanging area is sized to attach to the flash bracket with just friction (in other words – the bracket inserts into the open space on the back). This may seem flimsily but it actually works really well. The fit is snug and hasn’t become separated yet. If it does loosen up over time then you can use small spring clamps to help hold the softbox in place. One design I’ve seen includes an elastic strap that goes around the back of the flash to help hold it in place and I’d love to see something like this added in the future.
The flash bracket is made of hard plastic and seems pretty solid. The design is quite nice with good adjustability to ensure it can connect properly to almost any hot-shoe flash. The included cold shoe is large and works well. Here’s a look at the flash bracket:
One very cool feature to this design is the full adjustability of the flash bracket. in addition to the up/down movement of the front of the bracket and the front/back movement of the cold shoe you can rotate the cold shoe. This may sound like a minor feature but if you’re using a flash with an optical trigger or part of a proprietary flash control system (important if you’ll be using high-speed sync) you might need to rotate the base to aim it at your camera position. Here’s a look at the flash bracket with one of my Lumopro LP-160 flashes attached (with the base rotated to face the camera position):
With the flash rotated like this you can use a pop-up flash to trigger your flash with full TTL control or, if your flash has an optical trigger, you can use a flash (turned all the way down) to trigger your off camera flash.
I own a number of fast folding softboxes in various sizes but one thing I really liked about this bracket is the large size of the opening for the flash head. It has no problem fitting my biggest hot-shoe flash with a StoFen diffusor installed along with a velcro strap and a colored gel with plenty of room to spare. Some of my quick boxes are incredibly tight so this is a very welcome feature. Here’s a look at the entire assembly put together:
The 24” x 24” softbox is a perfect size to use as a main light for basic portraiture and the 8’ stand (with or without the umbrella bracket) give a large amount of flexibility for light placement.
If you’re looking for maximum output with good light control leave the inner and outer diffusion materials off. This setup works well for lighting up larger areas or when your light needs to be placed further away from your subject.
I like to use the inner diffuser without the outer diffuser for a punchy high contrast look. This setup gives a food amount of softness but gives a lot of light output and a pretty big coverage area.
For maximum softness I use both the inner and outer diffusers and I place the softbox as close to my subject as I can. This setup has always given me the best results for my portraiture work. When placed in really close to a subject (with the power of the flash a bit lower) the results can be awesome.
In my early testing I found the Impact Quickbox to be a great performer. The quality of the softbox feels much higher than the $150 price might suggest.
It’s important to note that this isn’t a perfect softbox system. As I mentioned above, the stand is a bit light duty when using such a big softbox. The front edge of the softbox extends over a foot forward of the light stand’s center of gravity so it does bow considerably when you fully raise the stand. This is a relatively minor complaint when I consider the price of the entire system. If you ever buy a heavier duty stand you can always use the included stand for all sorts of lighter duty uses (which is why I own so many).
One complaint about this system is the size when it’s not in use. In its folded state it takes up a considerable amount of space. It is so big that it won’t fit in almost any of my normal cases or bags (and I own a few relatively large ones). This size means that you’ll have to carry it separately from the rest of your gear or buy a really huge rolling style bag if you want to transport it with other gear. Since it’s designed to be used on location with small hot-shoe flashes it’s really a big package when not in use. By comparison my 5’ octa shaped softbox (which is not a quickbox design) folds up much smaller and fits in a standard light stand bag. The quick box system (when stored in it’s bag) is much larger than my 43″ collapsable 5-in-1 reflectors (when they’re folded up and stored in their bags) and they are some of the biggest accessories I own. Again – for the price it’s not a deal breaker but it is something to keep in mind.
The softbox by itself was much better than I expected for the low price and the quality of light for portrait work was really nice. I rated it four out of five stars.
Using the Impact Softbox on a Portrait Shoot
I took the 24″ x 24″ Impact softbox kit on a shoot to see what I thought of it on a real world shoot. What was it like to use the Impact 24″x24″ softbox on a real shoot? It’s a very solid performer.
|As I noted earlier in this review the light stand does bow considerably the more you raise it so I highly recommend spending an extra $20-$30 for a sandbag (something 10-15lbs would be best for this system). Without a something to weigh the system down (or having an assistant holding it steady) it’s super easy for the light stand to tip over (possibly on to your subject and that would be really bad). In an indoor or studio environment you might be able to get by without sandbags but if you’re going to be shooting outside then the smallest amount of wind could easily topple the stand. Do yourself a favor and get some sandbags or work with an assistant.|
The quality of light exceeded my expectations big time. While I prefer the look of white interior softboxes, the look of this silver interior wasn’t objectionable at all. In fact, with a small hot-shoe flash the additional gain of a silver interior might be a huge advantage (especially outdoors in brighter conditions). With both the interior and exterior diffusors installed (and a Stofen Diffusor on my flash) the light was very even and extremely pleasing in quality. I started my shoot using only the 24″ x 24″ softbox to shoot Samantha (on location) and here’s a quick look at how the softbox, umbrella bracket and light stand were set up along with where the camera was located:
And here’s a behind the scenes look at Samantha, the location, the softbox placement and the camera position:
I used a LumoPro LP160 hot-shoe flash (with a StoFen diffusor) triggered by a CyberSync radio trigger system (each sold separately) on my shoot. I used my 70-200 f2.8 lens on a full frame Sony DSLR mounted on a Manfrotto tripod (the camera was tethered into my laptop running Lightroom 5 so we could review the images instantly). My camera was set to manual mode with a shutter speed of 1/125 second at f8 (ISO 200). Those camera settings brought the level of the room down (darkening the background) and with the flash set to 1/4 power I got shots like this:
The quick softbox did a great job of keeping the light off the background while giving me great looking light on Samantha. The 24″ x 24″ size worked really well with nice fall off but the size wasn’t large enough to really wrap around Samantha. Using a reflector (or a second flash) would really open up the shadows on the left side of the shot but I wanted to limit myself to using just what was included in the kit.
By itself the Impact Quickbox did a great job. It looks great on a shoot and it offers good control of light spill along with really great looking soft light. In close to Samantha it gave me exactly the kind of light I love for portrait shoots.
Once I knew how it performed by itself I proceeded to use it as a main light along with some accessories to get even better looking images – but that’s a subject for a future article. For now let me say that it’s a great looking main light that’s capable of creating killer shots. Here’s a look at another image from the shoot (this one added in a second flash located behind Samantha to camera left for a rim light and a 45″ white reflector low to camera left to open the shadows up a bit):
The added flash and reflector added style to the shot but it all falls apart if the 24″ x 24″ quick box doesn’t do it’s job as a main light. The great news is that the 24″ x 24″ softbox did its part very well on this shoot.
In the field the Impact kit assembled quickly, performed perfectly, looked very professional and stowed easily when the shoot was over. My shoot wrapped up outdoors after the sun set and this quick box design was easy to fold up in the dark (with no worry about losing important pieces of the softbox). With a few accessories (especially a sandbag to keep it steady) it performs way beyond what anyone should expect from a $150 system.
I’m a huge fan of fast folding quickbox designs like this 24” x 24”system from Impact. If I didn’t consider price I’d be cautious of the silver interior, the light duty stand and the massive size when it’s folded. But this entire system can be had for under $150 (including shipping) and it gives you spectacular looking portrait light in a very professional looking package. I’d love to see some changes (I’d love a heavier duty light stand and a white interior for the softbox, for example) but those changes would certainly drive the price up. As it is now I like this kit enough to give it a full recommendation.
In addition to this softbox I own several in sizes ranging from 16” x 16” up to a massive 5 foot octa-shaped monster. My favorites are my 3’ and 5’ (octa) softboxes and I love the quality of light they produce. There’s no comparison between my 5’ octa and this 24” x 24” softbox but my 5’ octa cost me over $400 (and it didn’t include a stand or an umbrella bracket).
If you’re just getting in to portrait work (and you don’t already own a stand, softbox and umbrella bracket) then this is one of the best values I’ve seen. It does what it’s supposed to do, is well built and it won’t break the bank. If you’re just getting into portrait photography and need a good (first) softbox kit I highly recommend this as your first purchase. You’ll still need a flash and a way to trigger your flash but this kit has everything else you’ll need to get started.
Overall I give this system 4 stars out of 5 stars. If it cost any more it would have rated closer to 3 stars but the low price makes this kit a real value that’s difficult to beat. I’ve used softboxes that give me better results but they cost me three to four times what this system costs. Here’s how I arrived at my rating:
If you’re interested in learning more about off camera flash I’ve written plenty of blog posts on the subject over on my personal photography blog including a three part article about building up a lighting setup for portrait work here.