There are a number of "mini-softbox" products on the market. These are meant to mount on a hotshoe flash (usually with an elastic band).

fair-use small image from lumiquest
Lumiquest Softbox III

Are these worthwhile portable and low-space light modifiers, or are they more gimmick than useful? Are they large enough to meaningfully diffuse light for portraits? Are they too close to the flash?

What are the use cases that these are especially good for? What can't they do?

Are any particular designs better than others?

  • 1
    I'd love to see somebody compare one of these in lighting the same subject vs a normal size softbox - moving the softbox back and adjusting the power to keep the same apparent size and magnitude. Mainly to compare the 'hot spot'.
    – rfusca
    Jun 22 '11 at 0:40
  • There's a related specific-recommendation question at photo.stackexchange.com/questions/1028/….
    – mattdm
    Jun 22 '11 at 15:28

I have the Lumiquest Softbox III that's mentioned, and I find it useful as a super-portable softbox that's better than nothing. Given the option to have a huge softbox that would be my first choice, but the small softbox, placed very close to a subject, works really well and provides a much softer directional light than one would get with a bare flash or with just a simple diffuser such as an Omni-Bounce.

  • 3
    +1 for the 'placed very close to the subject' - as far as size goes, its the apparent size of the light to the subject thats important.
    – rfusca
    Jun 21 '11 at 19:54
  • 1
    +1, but the key phrase for me is "better than nothing". Great for use in a pinch since you can use them on-camera, but if portable softness is what you need for a large-ish amount of your work, then a larger unit (Westcott, Photoflex and Lastolite offer good ones) on a bracket, wand (if you have an assistant) or lightstand will give better results.
    – user2719
    Jun 21 '11 at 20:45

Let's put it this way: even a cheap softbox is better than nothing. That said, the larger the softbox, the better, although it will look a bit odd on your flash. (I have one that's like 8in. square.) And, in those situations where you don't have much else, it is better than nothing.

Like @dpollitt says, I would first attempt to bounce the flash, but when it isn't possible these are your next best thing.

  • So would you say that the 8' size is within the "a bit odd" range? Just curious. :)
    – mattdm
    Dec 15 '11 at 4:21

I have had great success with the Gary Fong Lightsphere. You can see by the reviews on B&H that is is a very popular light modifier, especially among the wedding photography enthusiasts.

When they work the best for me is when I am in low light situations where bouncing my flash off of a white ceiling is not practical or possible.

They are not going to replace off-camera options, but when you have to stay portable and move around areas, and your camera is already at its highest light gathering capabilities, these are a very valid solution.

I think portrait work is going to be the best opportunity to use these light modifiers. If you are in a close cramped quarters, such as an apartment, you should still be able to bounce your flash or setup a simple lighting kit.

  • 2
    The lightspehere only works as a large diffuse light source if there's something to bounce it off of - walls, ceiling, something. It is not itself a large or diffuse light source - it can create a large source. Light modifiers like @mattdm is referring to try to create a large source themselves. Just different.
    – rfusca
    Jun 21 '11 at 19:18
  • 1
    @dpollit - Outdoors in the sun, I imagine its mostly just filling in harsh shadows against an already harsh sunlight - I'm not sure the quality of the light would be noticed as much since its just fill. I'm not saying its not a good product or doesn't have its place, its just functionally different than a directional softbox.
    – rfusca
    Jun 21 '11 at 21:31
  • 2
    I'm not criticizing or saying its a bad choice of product, or that it can't create soft light source in the right situation - just that its different product than a mini softbox.
    – rfusca
    Jun 22 '11 at 1:02
  • 2
    There is a huge difference between a lightsphere and mini softbox and that is the softbox is highly directional. If you have nothing to bounce off the apparent size of the lit surface as seen from the subject will be the same, giving very similar results as a softbox. But if there are surfaces to bounce off you'll get a very different result as the lit area as seen from the subject will contain these surfaces as well. For this reason you can't classify the lightsphere as a small softbox!
    – Matt Grum
    Jun 22 '11 at 8:00
  • 1
    @Matt Grum: Sure it is. It's not a very good softbox, but you can point a flash at the subject with the Fongbong on it and shoot through the lid... Jun 22 '11 at 20:56

As everyone else is saying, better than nothing, so not completely useless, but in no way to be confused with a proper large softbox. You'll still be better off taking the flash off-camera rather than leaving it on-camera. You will still get an edge to your shadows. And there will be a hotspot. But if used in close, it can be worthwhile. I use a cheap eBay ripoff of the Lastolite Ezybox Speed-Lite, a small 8" softbox. It differs from the Lumiquest in that it's deeper and shaped more like a traditional softbox, and has an inner baffle as well as the outer one. It's a PITA to set up, and doesn't fold quite as flat, so you are giving up convenience over the Lumiquest. I far prefer (if the venue allows), bouncing with van Niekerk's Black Foamie Thing, for quality of light, cost, and convenience over using the small softbox.

Here's a shot I grabbed at Comic-Con in the huge hallway at the front of the convention center (that's Mike Carlin conveniently mugging for me with Karen Berger), with this softbox.

Karen Berger & Mike Carlin
5DMkII, 24-105L @28mm, iso 400, f/6.3, 1/160s. Shot from 5-6' away.
YN-560(MkI) inside softbox, triggered with RF-603s, held in left hand overhead, ~1/4-1/8? power.

As the ceiling is well over 20' above, there really weren't any bounce surfaces around to use, and all the moving crowd of humanity that makes you feel like a salmon swimming upstream gives you limited working space, so it's not like you're going to set up a backdrop and stands (although there are folks who do that out back for the many many cosplayers). I had the flash off-camera with radio triggers, but was simply holding the flash in my left hand while I shot with the right. I think I had the diffuser panel pulled out and flopped down, so the flash would be set to its widest zoom setting as well inside the box.

See also:

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