My goals for this project were simple:
- Spend less than $30.
- Spend less than 8 hours building it (even taking pictures, I spent only 4).
- Produce something I wouldn’t be embarrassed to use in front of clients.
- Produce something that EASILY folds flat for storage and transport.
I’ve seen a number of DIY soft-boxes. Most are made from cardboard, wire and fabric or other random items. None of these look very good or are very strong. I wanted something that would hold up to some abuse and that didn’t look like it was assembled from old boxes.
The primary material of this soft-box is “foam board”. It is a layer of foam between 2 pieces of card stock. You might remember it from elementary school projects. It is very strong, but still easy to cut and work with. No power tools are needed. Best of all, it is light and cheap.
- 4x Elmer’s Foam Board ($2.99/each for a total of $12)
- White Duct Tape ($4 a roll, need 10′ so $1)
- Blue Painter Tape (for dry test fitting only, <$1)
- Heavy Duty 3/4″ Wide Self Adhesive “Velcro” (<$10)
- 16″ of both sides
- 24″ of hook side only
- 32″ of Velcro Cable Tape (<$5)
- ~24″ of 3/4″x1/8″x Aluminum Bar Stock (<$3)
- 4x #8 x 3/8″ Machine Screws and Nuts (<$1)
- 2x Large Fender Washers for #8 Screws (<$1)
- 1 yard White Fabric (~$2 for “muslin”)
The key is the foam board. I purchased mine at Michael’s. I’m sure other craft stores have it as well.
Many of the items above I had in bulk already. For example, I keep white duct tape and blue painters tape around. I also keep velcro cable tie around as part of my camera kit. Most of the things that I bought, like the adhesive velcro, I didn’t even come close to using up. Even so, the list above comes in at around $30 if you guesstimate the partial cost of bulk items. The only thing I used up completely was the foam board and fabric.
- Sharp Utility Knife. If you don’t remember changing the blade, it isn’t sharp!
- Large Cutting Board/Mat.
- Large Straight Edge (at least 30″)
- Hack Saw
- Drill + Misc Bits
- Sewing Machine
- Clothes Iron
The methods used here could be easily used to make any size or shape soft-box for which you can get foam board. The foam board I have is 20″x30″. Therefore the biggest square soft-box I could build was 30″x30″. If I increased the number of sides above 4, I could make larger boxes, but the time and effort to assemble it would increase considerably.
One key to this design is to have the double angle. Without this, the shape is not rigid. It can wobble to easily. My original prototype had this problem. Luckily, having the second angle also helps make the box deep enough to be effective.
Step 1: Layout
Each of the 4 side panels will be made from a single sheet of foam board. Repeat this process 4 times so you have 4 identical panels. The layout of each panel is mirrored across the center line.
- Lay out a center line bisecting the board along its long dimension.
- Along the bottom long edge, add marks 2″ on either side of the center line.
- Add a mark 4″ down from the top along both short edges.
- Draw lines from the 2″ marks along the bottom to the 4″ marks along the adjacent side. These are referred to as line A.
- Measure 3″ from the side along line A and place a mark.
- Connect the marks from step (5) with the nearest top corner. These are referred to as line B.
- Draw a line line between the two marks created in step 5. This is the score line referred to as C.
Step 2: Cutout
A sharp utility knife is key with foam board. If your knife is not sharp, the foam will tear and not cut. This makes weak and messy edges. I find that cutting in 3 passes works best. Let the sharp blade do the work instead of pressing down hard.
- Using the utility knife, cut along lines A.
- Cut along line B.
- Score, but do NOT cut through the back side of the board, along the score line C.
Repeat this for each of the panels. Once this is done, you should be able to fold the blank along the score line C towards the side you didn’t cut through.
When the cutouts are finished, do a “dry assembly” using painters tape. I find the simplest way to assemble this box is to lay all 4 piece long edges together. This will leave one large gap. Tape the 3 seams that meat leaving a penny’s width gap (to allow them to fold together). Once you have taped the other 3 seams, stand the box up closing the gap and tape the last seam. Then tape the lower section below the score C to create the compound shape.
If your layout and cutting was correct, what you should have will look like the shell of a soft-box. If not, figure out which piece(s) is messed up and make a replacement. Once everything fits, remove the painters tape and disassemble the box again.
CAUTION: Even though the painters tape should not harm the paper surface in general, it might if you pull from the cut edge towards the center. To avoid this, always start where the tape is in contact with the flat of the board, not the edge.
Step 3: Finish the Edges
Wrap each edge with white duct tape. Miter and fold the corners to make everything look nice. You are done when there are no exposed foam edges.
If you plan on breaking your box down frequently, this step is vital to protect the paper and foam. If you intend to assemble the box once using duct tape, covering all the edges might not be required. You would still want to cover the face edges and the rear opening edges since they will remain exposed.
Step 4: Assemble Box
There are 2 (or more) ways to handle this. It really depends on how you will use your soft-box. If you mostly work in a studio or fixed location and you won’t be breaking your box down, you can tape the edges together using white duct tape. This will result in a very strong and robust box. Unfortunately, it will take up large amounts of space if you ever need to store or move it.
I need something I can break down when I’m not using it. That leaves me with 2 options. My original prototype was assembled with painters tape and this works well for short term use. The problem with this is that it looks cheap and low end. That isn’t the message I want to send.
For this box, I used short sections of velco instead. It has worked very well and looks very clean.
Stick 1″ self adhesive hook sections to the edges of the panels, then use 2″ long sections of double sided velcro cable tie to connect them and assemble the box. Because the velcro cable ties are double sided you can attach other things on top of them in a stack. This is key later for the diffuser.
Place hook 1″ velcro sections along the edges of each panel where indicated in the image below.
Assemble using the 2″ cable tie sections.
Step 5: Make the Diffuser
For those that have never worked with fabrics before, this step may be a little intimidating. It isn’t hard, but there are some tricks. If you are new, you might ask someone with experience sewing or quilting for help. The good news is that white fabric is very inexpensive so if you mess up, it won’t break the bank.
The end result of this step is that we will have a square with nicely finished edges with a 1″ margin all the way around the front of the soft box. To mount the diffuser, we will use this margin and velcro.
Start with a piece of fabric at least 6″ longer on each edge than you need. That means you need a pieces of fabric at least 36″x36″. Luckily fabric generally comes in widths no narrower than 36″, and usually wider. To be safe, buy 2 yards at least. This will give you lots of fudge room.
The process of finishing each edge is:
- Cut the edge straight and square if it is not already straight and square to the other edges.
- Fold and press a 1/4″ of fabric along the edge.
- Fold and pin another 3/4″ more. This will roll the original 1/4″ under out of site.
- Pin from the outside towards the center of the fabric, NOT along the edge.
- Once the edge is even, press it. At this point you should have no exposed fraying fabric on the edge your are working on.
- Using a sewing machine, stitch 1/8″ from the inside edge of the fold.
Repeat this so you have a two finished edges in a right angle corner and two unfinished edges opposite. No need to worry about exactly how long to make these finished sections. Just make sure you finish MORE THAN 36″ on these two edges. In the next steps we will trim the diffuser to size using the softbox as a guide before finishing the last two edges.
Place the fabric flat on the floor or another large surface. Set the dry fit soft-box on top of the diffuser so that one corner of the box is against the newly finished corner, but leaving the folded edge outside the box. Using painters tape, tape the two finished edges against the outside of the box. Gently pull the diffuser tight towards the other two sides of the box.
Cut the fabric along the two unfinished edges so that 2″ are left outside the box. Repeat the steps above (2 through 6) of folding, pressing and stitching to finish the two remaining edges.
Step 6: Mount the Diffuser
- Peel the backing off of the 1″ loop velcro sections and attach them (velcro to velcro) to the 4 hook sections already on the front edge of each panels. This will leave the adhesive exposed.
- Lay the cloth diffuser out flat.
- Set the assembled soft box on top of the diffuser and center it.
- Start with one edge.
- Fold the center of the edge up and stick it to the exposed adhesive back of the velcro.
- Stretch the corners away from the center and stick them to the adhesive.
- Turn the box 180 degrees and repeat steps 5 and 6.
- Turn the box 90 degrees and repeat steps 5 and 6.
- Turn the box 180 degrees and repeat steps 5 and 6.
- Carefully remove the diffuser by separating the two sides of the velcro.
- With the diffuser off the soft box, firmly press each of the hook sections into the fabric to make sure it is stuck well.
I originally tried to stitch the velcro onto the diffuser. My sewing machine didn’t do so well with that, so I abandoned it. The velcro I bought seems to stick to fabric very well once it is pressed onto it firmly. You might try sewing the velcro on, but if you are using adhesive velcro, your machine probably won’t like it!
Once everything is finished the corners of the diffuser will actually stick on top of the black velcro ties holding the corners together.
Step 7: Make the Internal Baffle
Adding a second internal baffle to help diffuse the light evenly is simple. Start with an 18″ square of fabric and then use the same fold and press technique used to finish the edges of the main diffuser. When you are finished you will have a ~16″ square of cloth with finished edges.
Apply 4 pieces of loop self adhesive velcro to the diffuser, one on each edge, near the corner.
Test fit the internal baffle in the assembled soft-box. Note the location of the velcro. Place 1″ pieces of hook velcro inside the soft-box to match the diffuser.
Step 8: Bracket and Mounting
Because the exact dimensions of the bracket depend on the flash and trigger setup, I’m not providing a specific plan. Rather, I’m going to show what I did with pictures and give some general rules. From there, it will take a bit of trial and error to get everything positioned right using the aluminum bar and machine screws.
The basic rules are:
- The internal reinforcing plate, while optional, is highly recommended. This box is BIG and even though it is made of foam board, it is still heavy. Without this internal bar, the foam flexes more than I like where the bracket attaches.
- Be sure to use large fender washers anywhere a machine screw penetrates the foam board and there is not aluminum bar. If you don’t, the screws will just tear through.
- Do NOT over tighten the machine screws. You will crush the foam board and it will loose all its strength. They only need to be snug.
- Whatever the box is mounting on should attach as close to the front of the box as possible. Even with the position of my tripod screw hole and heavy flash and trigger, the assembly is very front heavy. A future version may use a bracket from the lowest screw (at the bottom) just for attaching to the tripod. This would also raise the box higher.
That’s it! You have a BIG ASS soft-box and it cost you almost nothing. If you were careful it should look very good and under all but close inspection, it will appear “off-the-shelf” and maybe even then.
And remember, if you totally fail as a photographer, you can always market your soft-box as the world’s largest cone of shame.