I'm having trouble getting a nice, smooth light falloff when shooting portraits. If you look at the left side of David Hobby's beautiful portrait, thats the effect I am trying to achieve. I have used softboxes on alien bees, and small lumiquest softbox 3's on speedlights. I never seem to get a good fall off, and my guess is because of size of the light source, and placement.

Is there a good set of general guidelines that I can use as a starting point? e.g. use a 4 foot octobox, center at eye level with the model, 1.5 feet out from model's face at center, and 45 degrees off camera axis?

  • \$\begingroup\$ Adding an example of an image you have taken that you consider to be unsatisfactory would help. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 27, 2011 at 16:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ He explains briefly how he made this shot on his blog. He spends most of the time talking about the neutral density filter he used to let him open his aperture, but it appears he used a 60" Photek Softlighter II and a Profoto head. \$\endgroup\$
    – Evan Krall
    Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 5:53

3 Answers 3


Che's description of the lighting sounds about right, but I want to address another issue you brought up. You said:

use a 4 foot octobox, center at eye level with the model, 1.5 feet out from model's face at center, and 45 degrees off camera axis?

The only time the center of the softbox should be pointed at your sitter is when you are doing over-and-under lighting (or "clamshell" lighting) or Paramount lighting ("butterfly" lighting). If the softbox is off the camera axis and the center is pointed at your sitter, then half of the light is passing behind your sitter into empty space.

Instead, move the softbox so that the sitter is near the far edge. You don't have to move it far enough forward to be a "feathered" light; just don't waste all of that wonderful diffuser area lighting empty space (unless you really want to restrict the light for effect). And yes, "close enough" is a lot closer than most people think if you are really going for soft light -- you'd want to be right on the ragged edge of having the box in-frame a lot of the time. Once you're about twice the box's diagonal away from the subject, it's just another light -- you might as well be using an ordinary reflector for all the good the softbox is doing you.

  • \$\begingroup\$ When you say "sitter", are you referring to the model? \$\endgroup\$
    – Evan Krall
    Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 5:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ "Sitter" has been standard English for "the subject of a portrait" for a couple-three centuries. Some sitters are models (exemplars), particularly in classes or in advertisements, but most are just folks playing the part of themselves in this life. \$\endgroup\$
    – user2719
    Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 15:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ The more you know. \$\endgroup\$
    – Evan Krall
    Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 17:53

It looks like the key was relatively big light on the right side and above the eye level of the model (see reflection in the eyes), I'd say 60 degrees off camera axis and quite close. The falloff might be further softened by some fill light. (David Hobby tends to use ring flash for that purpose.)

(Also note that for softness of shadows, it's not importat how big your light is, but how big it looks from the point of view of your subject. Eg. big softbox 20 meters away is going to give you harder light than small softbox right next to the model.)

  • \$\begingroup\$ Is that last part accurate? See Is there a difference between a large, far light source, and a small, close one? \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Commented Nov 27, 2011 at 14:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ @mattdm: I think apparent light size is the important thing as long as you're concerned about how your shadows look. The actual distance affects falloff, so you're right that the sources are not completely interchangeable. \$\endgroup\$
    – che
    Commented Nov 29, 2011 at 9:50

The closer the light source to the subject the greater the fall off. If you want a softer fall off move your light source away...not closer.

Also, the larger the light source the more diffused the light it produces and the less light falloff you will experience. For example, a large softbox will produce less light falloff then a small softbox; a bare flash will produce more light falloff then a flash shot through an umbrella.

Check this out

[Source] http://diyphotography.net/light-falloff-cheat-sheet-card


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