DIY Japanese Soft Box – or Making Window Light Softer Part 1

Yesterday I was asked, in a comment, about the kind of paper used for Japanese sliding paper screen doors. I’ve stuck my reply at the bottom of this post, just for reference. I was also asked what might serve as a substitute for someone living in the UK.

In essence, I said just look in hardware stores, paper suppliers, art stores, etc. for anything that lets light though and then build a light wooden frame and tape the paper to that.

But that wasn’t really the best advice. What follows still might not be the best, but it is much better.

The key point with what I call the Japanese soft box is that is it is very large. In the room in question, I have a four individual sliding panels. The doors themselves measure around 67cm x 174cm each. The area which is just paper is around 62cm x 160cm. Overall the whole area is around 174cm x 263cm. Thats around 68 inches x 103 inches. Or, around 5 ½ ft x 8 ½ ft. If that was a real soft box, it would cost a fortune*

The paper in these doors evens out and softens the sunlight over this huge area. For those that know about artificial lighting, you will already understand that the larger the apparent light source, the softer the light. In other words, the softer the transitions from highlight to shadow. Usually, when you want soft light / gentle transitions, you reduce the distance between the light source (soft box, etc.) and the subject. This makes it a larger light source relative to the subject – hence a larger apparent light source. My shōji is already huge, so when I have a subject close to this, the apparent light source is enormous. That’s why it gives such good results.

It’s no different really from a very large window receiving indirect sunlight. You often see wedding photographers, fashion photographers, etc. using such windows in country mansion venues, etc. My shōji just let me have quite soft window light that is also quite bright. The other thing is that window light is continuous lighting, so you can see what is happening with highlights, shadow fall off, etc. in real time.

So, if I was living somewhere with windows that received direct sunlight and I wanted to replicate this look, I’d just cover the window somehow with something translucent  – remembering that translucent describes something that allows the passage of light but also defuses or scatters it to such a degree that objects cannot be seen clearly though it.

So, I guess my previous advice (just looking in hardware stores, etc.) still holds here, but to speed things up, if I lived in the UK or anywhere else with Ikea, I’d just buy several of item 202.422.82, aka the Schottis pleated blind.** This is an expandable 90cm x 190 cm / 35 ½ inch x 74 ¾ inch pleated blind cloth – in other words, it’s just the fabric. It costs just UK£3. At just $2.99 in the US, I see that UK customers are being charged a pound more! Either way, it is still cheap enough to get several. Then I’d make a very light wooden frame and tape these to that. Or more probably, I’d just use removable tape and tape them directly to the window glass.

While at Ikea, you might also want to check out the Tupplur range of blackout binds. These are roller blinds that pull down. They come in a wide range of sizes and from memory, in white, grey and black. They would make excellent backdrops for tighter portraits. I already have a preferred white wall I use for portraits, and I intend to get one of the Tupplur blinds to replace my current method of blacking this out.

Okay, this has become a bit too long, so I’ll call it quits for now. Hope it is helpful. Part 2 is here. And then, part 3 is here.

* the Chimera 5ft x 10ft Lightbank is around US$3600 / UK£2500 – but of course, that’s a silly comparison, because the Chimera comes with a frame, lights, etc. But still, you get the idea. Regular 7 – 8 ft octagonal soft boxes range from around US$500 – US$1000 / UK£340 – UK£684, depending on quality, maker, etc.

** I have some Schottis blinds which I am going to build several light frames for soon. I’m going to fire strobes through them when doing product photography.

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Original comment reply

…it is paper sold specifically for that purpose, in rolls of various widths that correspond to the various door / panel sizes (with enough overlap for gluing and trimming). I think there are various types of real paper, and also tough wearing plastic (but very ‘paper like’) versions. It tends to be quite strong and thick. Sometimes (like in the ones in this essay) it comes with embossed patterns.

If it were me, I’d find out what width news sheet off cut rolls* are and build a light weight wooden frame and just tape it to that. Then prop it up against a window or door getting good, direct light. I find I need it to be direct light, as the paper is quite thick.

Failing the news sheet, I’d go to a large hardware store (or art or stationary supplier) and just see what they have. I often do that when I need something. For example, the reflector you see in the previous post was made out of foam core from a hardware store and a cheap car window sun shield from a 100 yen store (2 pound store?).

It wouldn’t have to look pretty, cos it’s not usually in the photo.

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