DIY: 30″ Square Soft Box that Folds Flat for Travel

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.

Simple!

The finished soft-box.

The finished soft-box.

Broken down and packaged for travel.

Broken down and packaged for travel.

Materials

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.

All materials:

  • 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”)
Most of the materials: Foam Board, Industrial Velcro, White Fabric, 3/4" Bar Stock

Most of the materials: Foam Board, Industrial Velcro, White Fabric, 3/4″ Bar Stock

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.

Tools

  • 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
  • Scissors
  • Sewing Machine
  • Clothes Iron

Assembly

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.

  1. Lay out a center line bisecting the board along its long dimension.
  2. Along the bottom long edge, add marks 2″ on either side of the center line.
  3. Add a mark 4″ down from the top along both short edges.
  4. Draw lines from the 2″ marks along the bottom to the 4″ marks along the adjacent side. These are referred to as line A.
  5. Measure 3″ from the side along line A and place a mark.
  6. Connect the marks from step (5) with the nearest top corner. These are referred to as line B.
  7. Draw a line line between the two marks created in step 5. This is the score line referred to as C.
Soft-box layout.

The completed soft-box layout.

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.

  1. Using the utility knife, cut along lines A.
  2. Cut along line B.
  3. 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.

Partial dry fit assembly.

Partial dry fit assembly with panels flat.

The "dry assembly".

The “dry assembly”.

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.

Opps! Paper pulling apart.

Opps! If you pull the tape off the wrong way, the paper might pull apart.

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.

Tape along one edge waiting to be rolled over.

Tape along one edge waiting to be rolled over.

Fold the ends over to make a nice corner.

Fold the ends over to make a nice corner.

A finished corner.

A finished corner.

All four panels with finished edges.

All four panels with finished 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.

Velcro tie holding panels together.

Velcro ties holding the back of the panels together.

Place hook 1″ velcro sections along the edges of each panel where indicated in the image below.

The black tabs indicate all the locations for hook velcro on the panels.

The black tabs indicate all the locations for hook velcro on the panels. The velcro along the bottom should be added later in the “mounting the diffuser” section.

Assemble using the 2″ cable tie sections.

Velco cable ties holding the soft-box together.

Velco cable ties holding the soft-box together.

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:

  1. Cut the edge straight and square if it is not already straight and square to the other edges.
  2. Fold and press a 1/4″ of fabric along the edge.
  3. Fold and pin another 3/4″ more. This will roll the original 1/4″ under out of site.
  4. Pin from the outside towards the center of the fabric, NOT along the edge.
  5. Once the edge is even, press it. At this point you should have no exposed fraying fabric on the edge your are working on.
  6. 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.

The process of creating the finished edge.

The process of creating the finished edge.

Pressing the edge before stitching.

Pressing the edge before stitching. This makes getting a consistent seam easy.Also, note the direction of the pins.

Stitch near the inside edge of the edge fold.

Stitch near the inside edge of the edge fold. You can just stitch over the pins without a problem.

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.

Diffuser temporarily taped in place on one side before cutting the other edges.

Diffuser temporarily taped in place on one side before cutting the other edges.

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.

Cutting the remaining two edges accurately is easy using the box as a guide.

Cutting the remaining two edges accurately is easy using the box as a guide.

Top Down

The diffuser after the remaining two edges are cut but before they are finished.

Step 6: Mount the Diffuser

  1. 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.
  2. Lay the cloth diffuser out flat.
  3. Set the assembled soft box on top of the diffuser and center it.
  4. Start with one edge.
  5. Fold the center of the edge up and stick it to the exposed adhesive back of the velcro.
  6. Stretch the corners away from the center and stick them to the adhesive.
  7. Turn the box 180 degrees and repeat steps 5 and 6.
  8. Turn the box 90 degrees and repeat steps 5 and 6.
  9. Turn the box 180 degrees and repeat steps 5 and 6.
  10. Carefully remove the diffuser by separating the two sides of the velcro.
  11. With the diffuser off the soft box, firmly press each of the hook sections into the fabric to make sure it is stuck well.

White velcro ready and waiting for the diffuser to be pressed against it.

First the center two, then the outer two.

First the center two, then the outer two.

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!

Mounted diffuser.

The diffuser finished and attached.

Once everything is finished the corners of the diffuser will actually stick on top of the black velcro ties holding the corners together.

"Stacked" velcro holding the corner together and the diffuser on.

“Stacked” velcro holding the corner together and the diffuser on.

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.

Internal diffuser with edges rolled and pressed waiting to be stitched.

Internal diffuser with edges rolled and pressed waiting to be stitched.It is square even though it doesn’t look that way in this picture.

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.

Internal Diffuser

The internal diffuser mounted using velcro.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
Braket and soft-box mounted on tripod.

Bracket and soft-box mounted on tripod.

Internal reinforcing plate.

Internal reinforcing plate.

Results

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.

Look close at the center.

Look close at the center.

Posted in DIY
31 comments on “DIY: 30″ Square Soft Box that Folds Flat for Travel
  1. T-roy says:

    So let’s see some example shots with the softbox amigo! :) Nice write up and I’d like to try this out some time as well, to see how it would work for me.

  2. audiophile says:

    Magnificent! Genius!

  3. Butch Davis says:

    As a Design Engineer of 20 plus years, it’s a very nice design and I congratulation you. The problem is your costs are way way off. First, foam core runs $5.00/sht (30×36).I suspect you got the hardware at “gov’t job costs” since the general public cannot get such small qtys. of factory quality hdwr you used, not to mention the White Duct Tape runs ~$25.00/roll. Fender washers have been around $1.00 ea since 1990, and the ACAD designation is 2x (oops!). You should have specified “#8×11/64 ($8.90/50) L.D..WSHR Zinc Plt.” Recalculate your cost (maybe using McMaster-Carr). If a job is worth doing it’s worth doing right and complete.
    RB Davis

  4. Andrew says:

    Not sure what to say… I bought my foam core sheets at Micheals and they were $2.99… Fender washers are like $0.25 at Home Depot in this size… I don’t order from industrial supply places… Its a DIY project, not a full industrial design… I have an idea and I go to various stores looking for things that work.

    As for the duct tape, as I said, some of this stuff I have around (like white duct tape) and I used a tiny mount of the $10 or $12 roll I already had (again, I don’t buy “the good stuff” apperently, just what I find on sale).

  5. Butch Davis says:

    $2.99 had to be a clearance or 1/2 off and those are not “Fender Washers” for $.25…more like LD Wshrs. Like I said, I’ve done this for a living for over 20 years (plus another 10 as a Tool & Die Maker)

  6. Andrew says:

    I never said some of these items were not on sale, but it seems like the Micheals here always have foam core for that price (always on sale)…

    I guess one of the advantages of not being a pro is that I’m ok with something I call a fender washer that isn’t one technically – although, it is always what I called one and that is what the label on the box said… I was truethful – in fact, I had reciptes for everything that wasn’t lieing around including the washers and foam core. That was months ago so they are gone now, but I have no reason to lie, even if you think I do…

  7. Fred Thorsby says:

    Hey Andrew, I like it, I’m going to make one tomorrow. Fender washers or not, looks good!

  8. Fred Thorsby says:

    Andrew, purchased the foam core board at JoAnn’s Fabric and Crafts on sale for $1.99 each, regularly $2.99. The Fender Washers were about $.25 each. Go figure.

  9. Andrew says:

    Yeah, that sounds about right… Sometimes doing it DIY is cheaper than if you did it right and ordered stuff through the normal industrial channels I guess…

  10. Dana B says:

    So I used to work for Gov’t too. Anything I got at McMaster could be gotten 50% less somewhere else and 75% less if you really looked. A design engineer. Need I say more? LOL. I will though, design engineers are the reason there are only two flash triggers with a pass through hot shoe on the TX making most of them useless for event Photography. Design engineers are the reason the 580exii battery door doesn’t open as nicely as the 430exii or have the batteryholder like the 199A. Get over yourself and really make something worthwhile once in your life and stop complaining about something you could never make yourself.

  11. Dana B says:

    And so Andrew, I think its a great design. I’ve been trying to see if I can modify it so that the thing will fold flat as one piece as I have a tendency to loose stuff and I think it would be cool. IVe helped design a couple of things, mostly stuff that gets eaten after people fawn over it. My only claims to fame in the design dept is modifying PVC pipe to relieve stress on optical fibers as they leave tables and pointing out to the designer of the worlds fastest laser pulse analyzer that he needed to have a special tool built if he wanted it work in real life. So kudos to you on designing something that we the non engineers can make and use and isn’t loaded with features we don’t need and costs what the 99% can afford.

  12. Andrew says:

    Thanks Dana. I originally tried to make it fold up, but it is just to big… The Velcro assembly makes it pretty easy to package up for transport and storage though. I have wanted to make an improved version that uses silver mono-coat (the plastic film used on model airplanes) to reduced the amount of light leaking through the foam board. That stuff is amazing translucent…

    The other issue I’ve had that I would like to fix, is that duct tape, while very sticky, lets go slowly at the Velcro. If I had to do it all over again, I would probably notch the tape edging at the Velcro locations so the Velcro was stuck directly to the foam-core.

  13. Jeremy says:

    I’ve been looking at DIY soft boxes, and this is the one I am going to build. Our Walmart has foam core for a couple bucks a sheet. Not sure where that guy is buying his $25 a roll white duct tape, but last time I bought it for about $8. Fender washers at the Ace hardware up the street are about $.20 a piece (I’ve bought a lot of them over the years). Prices seem about right on to me. I would like to see how you set this up with lighting, though.

  14. Jeremy says:

    Oops, I guess the very first picture shows it in use.

  15. Michelle says:

    I love this idea! I wonder if I can make an octagon? Plus I can find white poster foam boards (20×30) at the Dollar Tree that I use as reflectors all the time. I’m not trying to break the bank on an experiment!

  16. Nancy says:

    Funny, here we can get decent foam core at the dollar tree too. So I think that the “pro” just isn’t looking in the right place. I actually think you were pretty average with pricing. You can also find the duct tape at Walmart for about $3.85 for the smaller roll. Anyway,I will definately be trying this. And i promise not to complain. Thanks for the help!

  17. Lovely Andrew, love the design! I’ll try to build it with some modifications – have some ideas how to hold the box together better while still being able to easily fold and transport it. Have to calculate how expensive this is gonna get, though, probably more! Thanks so much for doing this and writing about it!

  18. dam says:

    Thanks for the plans. Made two today. I like the way they came out. Made a couple changes. I did not need them to be portable so after using the blue tape to assemble I chalked the inside seams; Then taped all the outside edges and seams with very heavy duck tape. Very solid. Used iron on seam tape instead of sewing the cloth parts and put elastic in the edge so the cloth just slips on the outside. The inside cloth is held with Velcro. The last change was my light stands use an adapter to allow using two different thread sizes. My flashes uses the smaller tread so I use the adapter it self as the nut for the bracket support and then mount the flash to the adapter. This allows the metal bracket to turn down instead of up like yours and like you I used an metal strip on the inside. No washers required. Total spend for two. about $30. Had the Velcro, tape and bolts. thanks again dan

  19. Yvette says:

    Wow, awesome , awesome job!! Ignore the gainsayers.

  20. Alicia says:

    This is a great tutorial. I am definately going to have to give it a try. Would it be possible for you to post a photo of what it looks like (inside and out) once your flash and trigger unit are mounted to it? I would like to see how you get your flash unit attached.
    Thank you

  21. Designer Dave says:

    Love it!
    I’ve seen a few of these and most of them line the box with tinfoil because purchased soft boxes have a reflective material inside of them. Have you tried this? D you think it would be a good improvement?
    I also think I may modify it so it fits a continuous light source instead of a flash.
    Thanks for the instructions!

  22. Andrew says:

    @holger feroudj: I look forward to seeing the results!

  23. Andrew says:

    @Designer Dave: I considered using silver model airplane covering film but never got around to ordering it. I suspect it would help with the leakage and efficiency. The panels GLOW when you shoot with it because the foam core is actually pretty transparent. One of the other failing of this is that the seams leak light like nobodies business so if you are trying to keep the room dark except for the target of the box, it doesn’t work so well. Replacing the velcro ties with some sort of long fold over cloth hinge might fix that.

    If you do try lining it with something reflective, I’d love to see the results!

  24. Designer Dave says:

    I’m pretty sure they make black foamcore too. I’ll be on the hunt for some today. And that’s a great suggestion for the foldover hinges.
    Thanks!

  25. Mark says:

    Firstly, thanks for the tutorial. I’ll be building one of these myself in the next few weeks.

    A couple of ideas regarding light leakage, efficiency and portability:

    Yep, foil or similar reflective material will increase efficiency and reduce leakage.

    An alternative to the velcro that allows light to leak would be a duct tape ‘hinge’. I have done this on a couple of smaller projects (including a t-shirt folding board) and it seems fairly solid. If you use wide tape and position the edges of the panels along it with a small gap, not only will you be able to fold all four panels together for storage, it will be a constant seal from front to back (except for the front barn doors, obviously). You will likely need a couple of layers of tape inside and out, but you can judge how many yourself as you determine the strain each will need to take.
    To join the first and last panels, the constant seam obviously can’t work, so I would perhaps go for a small lip on one of those panels that would overlap on the outside. If this extends front to back, then velcro along the inside would hold it nicely and again provide a front to back seal against leakage.

    At the back, where the flash head enters the box, I thought perhaps a t-shirt sleeve could assist. Velcro the body end of the sleeve to the square opening and then the head of the flash passes through the center. I don’t know how much light leakage this would block, but it will block some, resulting in a small increase in amount of light firing forward.

  26. Mike says:

    I have a question. I’m trying to use your design as a basis for my soft box, but I have different dimensions that I have to work with. I need the smaller opening in the back to be 10″ W x 12″ H. I would like the opening in the front to be 20″ W x 24″ H. I’ve been playing with it, but the geometric formula you used would probably be helpful. I know that the length of the sides have to be the same between my 4 shapes, it’s the degrees of the angles that would have to change. Any help would be appreciated. Thanks!

  27. Abdul Sami says:

    Is it reliable for 500 watts bulb ?

  28. Andrew says:

    I only use it with speed lights. Given that it is basically paper, I would be VERY careful about any hot light source in it. A 500 watt tungsten light is a big heater and I suspect you could start a fire rather quickly.

  29. Carla says:

    Love this! I’m going to try it, though I’m thinking of a few changes, like using a wider strip of velcro on the outside so it covers the length of the unions and doesn’t leak the light… And maybe putting tinfoil on the inside and painting it black on the outside. Maybe it could work?

  30. Marcello says:

    Hi Andrew

    congratulations and thanks for this great “tutorial”
    Just a question, have you tried covering the inside panels with aluminum foil to get more light power from the box?

    cheers!

    Marcello
    Barcelona

  31. Kate-Lynn says:

    Awesome tutorial! It’s really nice and clean looking. I recently made one using corrugated plastic. More expensive, but its a little more durable and you don’t have to worry about the foam core tearing. :)

    OH! and as for the duct tape slipping, try using pop rivets with a back washer (pop rivets wont work on soft materials without it). It’ll squish the foam core but it should hold really well. I recommend testing it on a piece of foam core first, just to see how it handles.

    Again, excellent work! I’m going to use your pattern for my next soft box, hehe.

5 Pings/Trackbacks for "DIY: 30″ Square Soft Box that Folds Flat for Travel"
  1. […] The design is essentially based around the one you can find here: DIY 30? Soft Box that folds flat for travel […]

  2. […] The design is essentially based around the one you can find here: DIY 30? Soft Box that folds flat for travel […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>