Using a Single Softbox with a Shiny Card for Headshots

Sometimes you just want a simple image, a headshot or a 3/4 image that has a very direct light to show the skin color, open the eyes and bring some vivid highlights to the person.

I like the big softbox and how it can simply wash the person with a clean, bright light that seems to make them glow. Usually I work the box to the side, like a large window light, but for this portrait of, well… you know (heh), I decided to do an on-camera axis shot. Many times I use an umbrella in this position, but the large, diffuse, square softbox light was intriguing.

I added a large shiny board below the softbox that would reflect the light up from the floor area and provide a bright, shiny, poppy light for bottom fill.

Before we head on over to the tutorial, I just want to make sure we have a few links taken care of here:
November Wallpapers
The Cleveland Workshop
Our November 1 Tech Sheet
Should Photography be Easy

Now, on to the tutorial.

Learn to Light with inexpensive tools at Lighting Essentials

Before we start, here is the full image as it was processed.

You can see how the light is open and bright on her torso. and how the eyes seem alive with the open light and slight reflection of the shiny card below. Briana is standing in front of the V-card and there is some natural wrap going on there with the slightly angled V-card. you can see it on her shoulder edges and the way the light seems to stay pretty clean across her shoulders.

There is enough fall to show the shape, but the light doesn’t simply fall away like it would with a smaller light source without the V-Card behind her.

One of the most important parts of this setup is to make sure that the light is actually reflected back on to the model. I stand behind the model and look into the shiny board to see if the reflection is bright on the board. Once I show the model what to look for, they can let me know if the reflection is there.

Here you can see the light as it is reflected off the shiny board and on to Briana in position for the portrait.

Here you can see the light as it is reflected off the shiny board and on to Briana in position for the portrait.

Keeping the light source very close to the subject gave a liquid look to the highlights on the lips, nails and especially the jacket and top. The soft highlights give the shot a warmth that is natural.

You can see how close the light is to Briana here. The shiny board is 4 feet square and covered with a textured bright material.

You can see how close the light is to Briana here. The shiny board is 4 feet square and covered with a textured bright material.

The set as seen from the camera area (not on camera axis) shows how close the background is to Briana. This keeps the light from the box falling on the background as well as her. Since the light is way larger than she is, the light wraps around and doesn’t create any shadows. This natural wrap helps to keep the image more open and bright. The brightness of the background also helps Briana stand out from it.

You can see how the light wraps around her and keeps the background with very little shadow.

You can see how the light wraps around her and keeps the background with very little shadow.

Shooting from between the softbox and the shiny board gives a total ‘wash’ of light to the subject. Here is a second shot from the session.

This image shows how nice the light spreads across the skin and highlights the curves of the wardrobe.

This image shows how nice the light spreads across the skin and highlights the curves of the wardrobe.

I hope you liked this tutorial on using the bright shiny board and large softbox. Give it a try… you can even use a scrim or very large umbrella in the same position. If you try this with speedlights, try using a couple of them to spread the light wider across the scrim or into the umbrella.

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  1. Awesome setup. Thanks for the helpful tips you included such as asking the model if she sees the reflection on the board. 😀

    BTW, the link to your Learn to Light DVD on this page is causing a Page Not Found error (at the time of this reply at least).

    • Those are 4’x8′ fome core panels. Check out framing and sign shops. You may have to buy a case.

  2. Interesting use of the V card to get all round reflection from the back. Less lights to use and effective. I will try this myself if I can find something for the V card.

  3. Hello Thanks for the lessons.
    Where do you get those large v cards
    What are the dimensions of it.


  4. WizWow:

    You wrote, “The shiny board is 4 feet square and covered with a textured bright material.”

    1. did you purchase this 4×4 reflector board or make it?

    2a. if you made it, could you write about it?
    2b. if it was manufactured, by whom & where did you get it?

    3. what is the reflector board made of – foam core, cardboard, plastic, etc?

    4. what is the textured bright material – aluminum foil?

    On the V-Cards:
    I found 4×8 foot foam core panels at Home Depot in their insulation department. Cost: just under $9 with taxes. On one side they are aluminum foil and on the other there is printed information (blue ink on a white-ish background). The guy at Home Depot says I can easily paint the printed side with a latex primer then once dry paint them any color I want. I am going to paint 4 white and 4 flat black.

    Since the panels are foam core and foil they are delicate. So I will run a strip of clear shipping tape along all edges. When folded at a neat 45 degree angle at the corners that will add a bit of strength there.

    And since they are cheap, light weight and foil covered I can cut one in half and end up with my own pair of 4×4 reflector boards.

    Terry Thomas…
    the photographer
    Atlanta, Georgia USA.

    For future reference, I believe the correct spelling is “foam” not “fome”.

    • Hi Terry.

      Fome Core is a brand name.

      It is available at framing shops and sign stores. Art Supply Stores will really jack the price.

      1. Made the board from a piece of fome core and trimmed the edges with gaffer’s tape.
      The shiny material I used was purchased 22 years ago at B&H. It is a vinyl roll with a semi beaded shiny surface.
      After the introduction of the fold up reflectors, it is a lot harder to find it at still photography stores. Video folks still use the material, so check with a video supply house. You can achieve nearly the same look with crumpled aluminum foil… slightly crumpled and then dulled with dulling spray. I have made a few like that.

      A good alternative to Fome Core is Gator Board. It is more expensive, but it is way more sturdy. I use Gaffer Tape to do the edges and the seam.

      Alternative shiny board material for headshots:
      Polished Aluminum.
      Shiny White Laminate
      Aluminum Foil
      Shiny Folding Reflector (5-in-0ne)
      White piece of Fome Core

      All work a little different in the amount of contrast, but I use all of them preferring to let the differences work to my advantage with different faces.

      For instance, I would probably not use the shiny aluminum on an older face as the effect could actually enhance what we are usually trying to minimize. If it is a young face and I want a very bright bottom fill, I may go the shiny board.

      Hope that helps.

  5. Thank you for the reply and the reminder about Gator Board.

    I too have used the rumpled aluminum foil trick many times. I had one 24×36 foam core board I covered last for over 20 years, see below.

    For others reading this, the trick is to totally smear the board with a layer of white Elmer\\\\\\\’s glue (or similar). Quickly wash and dry your hands. Then get a roll of aluminum foil and place long strips of it shiny side down onto the glue. Press the foil into the glue with the flats of you hands. Let it wrinkle a bit otherwise you will have too harsh a reflection (almost like a dull mirror). By having wrinkles the reflections bounce off in different directions causing a softter look.

    Of course you could glue the foil down with the shiny side up for a harder look. The overall cost is very little so why not?

    Back in 1973 when I made my first foil reflector boards I cut a hole in the dead center of one. Then I ran a WD40-coated 3/16\\\\" bolt thru a large flat washer, thru the board, thru another washer and finally into a hollow aluminum tube which I had filled with epoxy. (Visualize a flat umbrella, rather than a curved one.)

    Once the epoxy in the tube was hardened I could hold the rod in place on a light stand with one of my Larson Reflectasol clamps. (\\\\"Jawow\\\\" all Banana Club members!) BTW, after the epoxy set it was easy to remove the bolt for transport because the WD40 did not allow the epoxy to stick to the bolt yet the threads were permanently there for reassembly. These days I would use JB Weld Epoxy.

    Because the rod and board were so light no counterweight was needed. With a nice long rod I could get the board positioned anywhere near the subject I wanted yet not be tripping over the lightstand. As I mentioned that board and rod lasted well over 20 years and survived many moves.

    A good source of DIY materials is coming up: Christmas. During the week after Christmas and before New Year there isn\\\\\\\’t much going on so I swing by Dollar Stores, gift shops, Home Depot, etc. looking for rolls of gift wrap on the mark-down tables. I have found matte silver, shiny gold and other useful colors and patterns to use on home made reflectors or as backgrounds.


    Terry Thomas…
    the photographer
    Atlanta, Georgia USA

  6. What kind of camera/light settings did you use here?

    Is there an easy way to figure that out without a meter?

    Would a large reflector work just as well as the board? If so, what color would you suggest, silver?

    • Hi.

      Camera and settings have no relevence.

      You can use a gray card in the position of the model. Shoot to get a single stack of pixels dead center in your histogram. Replace with model and test… you will be correct or damn close. Makes sure the camera does not pick up anything in the frame other than the gray card.

      For the bottom fill, you can choose to use a silver sided reflector for a more brilliant fill (as shown here), or white side for a bit softer fill. If you choose the silver, make sure you can see the hotspot from the softbox in the silver board from the model’s position. If you cannot see a reflection from the silver board, there will be no fill. Angle accordingly: Angle of incidence equals angle of reflection… just like a mirror.