DIY Japanese Soft Box – or Making Window Light Softer Part 3

Continuing on from the previous two posts, here and here, this post presents my concluding thoughts in this series on portraits and window light.

As for the actual photographs themselves, I would recommend just placing your subject as close as possible to the window and starting from there, sans reflector. Once you get good at this, then add a reflector and experiment.

For exposure, I would recommend setting everything to manual. Adjust the aperture to get the depth of field you want (personally, I tend to follow the half rhythm of “less is best”). Everything working well, and discounting any jewellery, the eyes, etc., there should be no real specular highlights (usually with this approach, the bridge of the nose, etc. doesn’t catch too much light and blow out). So, the regular highlight range should be all you have to worry about. Therefore set your exposure to perfectly capture the brightest part of the face and let the rest just fall where it may.

The alternative is to use aperture priority and the finest / smallest exposure area your camera has and lock the exposure on the brightest part of the face’s skin and then recompose.

Either of these methods should result in files that are relatively flat and retain a large degree of shadow detail and nice, natural fall off. In other words, files that will allow a large degree of manipulation, if you should so desire.

Then, you can experiment with what happens when adding light back in to the shadow areas with a reflector.

Once you have your set up worked out and are familiar with the results it gives in various combinations, all you need to do is set up your reflector somehow (if using) and concentrate on directing the subject. Easy!

Except, of course you need sunlight. Cos that does’t always happen. And then, you also need to remember to pay attention to any changes in the sunlight while you are shooting. And then there’s white balance…

DIY Japanese Soft Box – or Making Window Light Softer Part 2

Continuing on from this previous post, here’s some more thoughts on controlling window light. I’ve decided to keep things from here on relatively simple too, so as to be as broadly applicable as possible to the widest range of readers as possible.

Along with some means of making window light soft for portraits, a reflector also comes in handy.

Why? Well, because with a reflector you can direct light into the off side to fill in the shadows with more light. By varying the reflector (angle and / or distance) you get quite a lot of control over the transitions from highlight to shadow and this means you can get quite fine control over the mood or feeling of the image. All with very little equipment. Also with very little fuss (& that’s important – trust me).

Combine this control with moving both camera and subject angle, relative to the window, and you get an amazing amount of control over how light falls on a face.*

For example, in many of the portraits I’ve shown on this blog, I’ve used shōji window light and a reflector to give very soft and even lighting over a face. With the head side-on to the window and a reflector filling in the off window side, this results in an almost but not quite even distribution of light. This low contrast, minimal fall off result tends to be very flattering and well suited to female subjects and children.

As an aside, another thing you can do with a reflector, which is not often mentioned & which also probably won’t apply in the situation we’re talking about here, is to use one as a flag – i.e. something to block light with. Black is usually better for this (or something translucent when you want a reduction), but by varying the angle so as not to reflect on the subject, you can also block off harsh light.

Godox / Neewer and a range of other Chinese manufacturers make a wide variety of very cheap pop up / expandable reflectors that, while not being particularly well made when compared to the major brands, are still good enough, especially considering the amazingly low prices.

You can also make your own very cheaply. For use around the house / studio, it does’t really matter if they are not collapsable. I tend to get relatively thin foam core sheets in smaller sizes (it’s cheaper that way here – no idea about other countries) and cut them to the sizes I want. Then I use double sided tape to stick car windshield sunshade material to one side. I get really cheap car windshield sunshades from a 100 yen shop and cut them to fit. They are big enough that I can make several reflectors from just one. Then I use regular electrical tape around the edges.

One of mine can be seen in the third and fourth photographs in the original shōji / Japanese soft box post. Also, the photo in this post was taken on the shade side of a temple gate, and a reflector (a collapsible one in this case)  was used to catch the light coming through the gate and throw it back on the subjects to bring them out of the shadows

If you can’t get cheap car windshield sunshades, I have also seen similar material sold for use as disposable protective surfaces for around gas cook tops.

The end result is a reflector with one side silver and one side white. This gives you a nice range of reflective strength. Typically white is all you need, but when you really need to blast light back in, you can use the silver side.

Never underestimate the usefulness and utility of the humble reflector. If you are only going to have one lighting accessory, it should be a reflector.

Hope this helps. One more to come – here.

* remember, I’m pretty much only talking about tight-ish portraits here

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.

******* ******* ******* ******* ****** ******** ******** ********* ******** ******** ******* ******* ***

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.

Soft Box Maintenance – More on the Japanese Shōji Paper Door

I wrote the other day about how wonderful the light is when filtered through a Japanese sliding paper screen door, or shōji. The down side is, being made from light wood and paper, they need regular maintenance. Or, more accurately, the paper often needs replacing.

Below is a short photo essay from when we did the doors from another room a few days ago. All the gritty image processing details under the last image. The landscape orientated photos in particular look much better clicked on and opened up (i.e. larger).

_DSF9844-Edit _DSF9849 1-Edit _DSF9850-Edit _DSF9856-Edit _DSF9861-Edit _DSF9863-Edit _DSF9868-Edit _DSF9870-Edit _DSF9885-Edit _DSF9888-Edit _DSF9890-Edit _DSF9891-Edit _DSF9903-Edit _DSF9911-Edit  All X100s & via Capture One Pro => Lightroom =>  Silver Efex Pro 2 => Lightroom (RAW conversion to a reasonably flat image then imported to Lightroom & sent straight to Silver Efex for push process +3 Agfa APX Pro & light coffee toning and finally back to lightroom for exposure, dodge / burn, contrast, etc, and final vignetting).

The Japanese Softbox – Shōji

In a reply to a comment last year,* I mentioned shōji, or, Japanese sliding paper doors. I thought I’d expand on it here a little.

It’s very common here in Japan to have shōji, especially in washitsu – traditional style Japanese rooms. They are often used as an inside layer on the main sliding glass doors that lead outside from living rooms, etc. In some ways, they serve the same purpose as blinds or drapes. They also add a layer of insulation.

As a bonus, they also let in a huge expanse of wonderful soft light when the sun is shinning on them. In winter, when it tends to be clearer in the sky, you get more direct sunlight and subsequenty a really good look from them. Thus I refer to them as my Japanese soft boxes.

Often all I need is the light from my shōji and a reflector.

Below are some photos I took yesterday, showing the light you can get from shōji. The first portrait is sans reflector, and the second portrait has a reflector. You can see it in the catchlights. You can also actually see it in the third photo. All three are minimally adjusted camera generated jPEGs from an X100s & TCL-X100.** Under these are some photos of the shōji themselves, sans the teleconverter.

_DSF9756 _DSF9757 _DSF9773 _DSF9789 _DSF9797 * you know, like a few minutes ago

** ignore any metadata. In all cases above, I think I had the camera set for the wrong lens