SCRIM VS. SOFTBOX: How a Little Hollywood Magic Can Give You a Lot More Flexibility with Your Lighting

DSC00112

The diffusion of light is one of the fundamental principles of photography, for every photographer wants to control how harsh or soft the lighting is in a shot to achieve a desired effect. The softbox remains among the most common tools for the diffusion of strobe lighting, one on which I relied for most of my
early studio work. Ultimately, though, I’ve found softboxes limiting and cumbersome because they can only hold the diffuser at a single fixed distance from the light source. I want a quick and easy way to change the distance between my strobe and the diffuser so I can soften or sharpen my shadows at will. But how?

To facilitate such adjustments, I now employ a longtime staple of the film and television industry: the scrim. In a business where powerful hot lights are the norm, softboxes are virtually nonexistent. Instead, filmmakers use large, framed rectangles of fine cloth or wire mesh called scrims to moderate the brightness of glaring theatrical lights and even the noonday sun. Having the scrims mounted on separate stands from the lights themselves gives a film crew easy mobility to modify their setup and respond to changing lighting conditions during the day. As a photographer who does fast-paced shoots both in the studio and at outdoor locations, I wanted that same versatility.

SOFTBOX VS. SCRIMS

As you can see from this picture of a recent catalog lifestyle cover shoot I did, my basic setup is simple. I position my main light—a 1000 w/s Profoto strobe—45 degrees to the right of my camera. In front of the light, I mount a 4′ x 4′ scrim on a 40″ C-stand at about the shoulder-level of the model I’m shooting, inclining the scrim forward at about 45 degrees. My preferred scrim is a one f-stop silk diffuser. Once the scrim is in place, I can easily move the light forward if I want hotter light and higher contrast. However, if I want gentler light and softer shadows on both the subject and the background, I merely pull the strobe back a bit. Just by increasing the distance between the light and the diffuser, I can take advantage of the light’s natural fall-off to lessen its intensity without having to readjust the strobe’s power level or change my equipment. To approximate the same result with a softbox, I’d have to switch to a softbox of an entirely different shape or size. The scrim makes fine-tuning my diffusion as easy as shadow-play!

Photoshoot for HSN
Bridge in Downtown LA photographing a campaign for the Home Shopping Network.

The principal drawback to this approach, of course, is that a scrim lacks a softbox’s parabolic reflective backing to direct and focus the light. Spill from the strobe can cause lens flare or bounce off nearby white walls to create undesirable exposure. Too much light can make garments appear milky or hazy, obscuring the crisp fabric textures that one wants in a nice, sharp image. To mitigate this problem, I use black flags to reduce the spill, and I place foam-core V-flats on either side of my subject to block unwanted reflected light. With these precautions, I can reap all the benefits of using a scrim while sacrificing nothing in image quality.

Depending on the kind of strobes you use, scrims can also prove a more cost-effective alternative to softboxes. To purchase a parabolic 60″ octagonal Profoto softbox and adapter ring for my Profoto D1 Air 1000 w/s strobe would cost around $700, while my 4′ x 4′ one-stop silk scrim together with C-stand totals only about $420. Needless to say, a softbox for a less-expensive strobe than the Profoto would be much cheaper, but I always believe in utilizing the very best equipment I can get, both for the superior results it gives me and for the crucial positive impression it makes on my clients.

The trusty softbox will always have a place in the professional photographer’s arsenal of diffusion tools. But I think the scrim offers pros a compelling alternative to this old standby, providing greater mobility, adaptability, and ease of use while giving results that equal and often surpass those of other types of diffusion. Why should Spielberg have all the tricks of the trade to himself? Give this Hollywood star a leading role in your next shoot!

5 Responses to SCRIM VS. SOFTBOX: How a Little Hollywood Magic Can Give You a Lot More Flexibility with Your Lighting

  1. Steve Brokaw says:

    Good ideal. I might give this a try

  2. looking forward to picking one or two up and giving this a go, I feel like this might give me an added air of professionalism.

  3. messed up on my portfolio site link, and its haunting me, correctly entered its http://www.briankmcquain.com, thanks again for the valuable post.

Leave a Reply