(Soft)box of tricks

How a cardboard box can be turned into a useful light modifier for the grand sum of 60p

I was in my garage the other day and realised something; it’s full of empty cardboard boxes. It’s a shocking confession I know, but what with eBay and other things you just never know when you might need a box, right? The 53 I counted, however, maybe considered a little excessive. I started to think whether I could trim the numbers down a little and my mind drifted to the fact that I’d been taking some flash images a couple of weeks earlier where I’d been a little disappointed by the harshness of the direct flash light. Within moments, a plan was hatched.

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After a root around in the section of the garage not populated with cardboard, plus the kitchen drawers, I ended up with this selection of goodies with which I decided to make a softbox:

  • 1x small cardboard box
  • 1x roll of kitchen foil
  • 1x roll of electrician’s tape
  • 1x pair of scissors
  • 1x flashgun (I’m using an EF-42)
  • 3x sheets of tracing paper at 20p a sheet
  • 1x bottle of glue (optional)

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I started by placing the flashgun in a central position on the box and drawing around it to give me an approximate shape of the flash head.

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Grabbing the scissors, I cut the shape out, going slightly inside the lines I’d drawn to make sure that the head fitted through snugly. 

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Confident my cutting skills had progressed from primary school, I taped the sides of the box down. They could have been cut off, of course, but I preferred to tape them down to create slightly more robust sides to the box.

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I used a couple of lengths of foil to coat the inside of the box. This could be glued down if you wish, but the nature of foil meant that it moulded to the shape nicely and stayed put. There’s no need to smooth it down, just as long as the light can happily reflect around, you’re fine.

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Having covered up the hole in the box, I then cut a second hold through the foil and pushed the flash head back through.

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Putting the box to one side, I took a sheet of the tracing paper and folded it in half to provide the diffusing panel for the front of my softbox. As it transpired, I only needed the one sheet, but you could use more if you wanted an even softer result.

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The tracing paper was then taped on all four sides of the box leaving it ready for action.

Now, it’s pretty evident that my box had a flaw in that it covered up the AF illuminator. As I was only working in dim light, this wasn’t an issue, but if you want to shoot in pitch black you’re going to struggle. There are no worries about metering, though, the X-T2 I was shooting with has TTL metering so I could be sure of accurate exposures.

So, just how good was my softbox? I’d say the results speak for themselves:

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This first image was taken without the softbox attached. As I was close to the subject with the EF-42 flash mounted on the camera’s hot-shoe, there’s an issue with coverage. The flash hasn’t illuminated the bottom part of the frame very well, plus the shadows behind the soft toy are very harsh. All in all, not the best.

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With my softbox in place, however, there’s a real improvement. The coverage is much more even and the shadows are far less harsh.

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But this shot is arguably even better, created by pointing the flashgun, with softbox attached, straight to the ceiling. It’s created a lovely even top light to the toy, which looks more like studio lighting than a flashgun with a cardboard box stuck on it.

Not bad for 60p and 30 minutes of my time, is it?

Throwing some shapes

Black card, tape and Velcro are all you need to add extra creativity to out-of-focus highlights.

If there’s one thing that Fujifilm XF lenses are well known for it’s bokeh. Some folks mistake this term as referring to purely out-of-focus highlights, but in reality it means the whole out-of-focus area of an image and how appealing it looks. But there’s fun to be had with highlight areas, particularly pinpoints of light the likes of which are created by fairy lights. Take a look at the two shots below, the one on the left is a defocused shot taken with an XF55-200mm at the 200mm setting and its widest aperture. The shot on the right was created by slipping a piece of card with a heart cut in it in front of the lens. Cute, eh?

And it’s easy enough to do.

First up, you’re going to need some materials. I used the following:

  • 1x sheet black card
  • 1x scalpel
  • 1x scissors
  • 1x roll of electrician’s tape
  • 1x pack of Velcro strips
  • 1x Fujifilm camera and lens

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The more eagle-eyed among you will also notice there’s an X Series box inner as well. More on that later…

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Start by taking the card and a pencil and drawing round the lens you want to creating the bokeh shape for.

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Once you’ve got a nice outline (not wonky like mine), cut it out using the scissors, then place it back on the lens to make sure it’s the right size.

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Measure the diameter of the card and then use the scalpel to cut out a second circle that’s approximately 1cm across.

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Once you’ve done that, cut a strip of black card and apply the electrician’s tape to one edge of it.

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Slowly wrap this around the circle you’ve already cut out, creating a shallow holder in the process.

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The holder should now slide neatly over the front of the lens.

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Take the Velcro and cut two short strips, sticking them on either side of the small hole.

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Finally, cut a final small piece of card and then either the scalpel to cut a shape you want to appear in the bokeh. A heart is easy enough to cut by hand, but if you want something more intricate shaped punches are available in craft stores and provide a smooth edge. Stick the other part of the Velcro on this card and attach. This way you can easily make other shapes and remove/attach as you wish.

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You’ll need to do some experimentation with different lenses and aperture settings. Naturally, the wider the aperture the better, plus you’ll find that manual focusing is better. After my initial tests with this shape to produce the shot at the top of this blog, I created a second slightly fatter heart shape for the shot below, which I prefer. To add a bit more interest, I also added a lily as it’s my wife’s favourite flower and I thought it fitted the heart theme.

And the X Series box inner? Well that was used for the shot on the right. See, Fujifilm even produce creative packaging as well as great cameras!

Banish camera shake with a stringpod

Tripods. They’re very useful when it comes to avoiding camera shake, but they can be quite bulky things to lug around – even the lighter carbon-fibre versions. But while Fujifilm have created impressive Optical Image Stabilisation systems in their lenses, there is a way of beating the shakes using nothing more than a piece of string and a tripod quick release plate. Better still, you can fit this set up in your pocket so you’ll never have an excuse for leaving it at home.

These are the constituent parts needed to create your stringpod. String (funnily enough), a tripod plate and a pair of scissors (unless you’ve got very strong teeth). I’ve used green garden twine largely because it’s easier to see in these pictures. Normal string does the job just fine.

DSCF0084Start by passing the string through the oval handle on the bottom of the quick release plate.

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Now, pull a double length of string out and place it under your foot. Don’t cut the string just yet, you’re just sizing up at this stage.

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With the string under your foot, hold the plate so the string is taut and make sure it’s at eye level. It’s worth screwing your camera on to the plate and repeating this process, varying the length of string as required until you get the height perfect for you. Only when you’re happy, cut the string.

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Being a failed boy scout, I only know one type of knot, so I tied it here once I had the height right for me. My stringpod was now ready for use.

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If you want to use the stringpod standing up and have a Fujifilm camera with a tilting rear LCD, you have two options. First, just place it under one foot, pull the string tight and use the camera’s viewfinder. Alternatively, to shoot at waist level, flip the screen out, stand with your feet around shoulder width apart, pass the string under both feet and, again, pull it tight to create a triangle.

Finally, if you want a lower angle, wrap the string around one wrist, pass it under both knees and pull the whole set up tight. The key to reducing camera shake, is keeping that string tight.

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So, how well does it work? Due to a motorbike accident some few years ago, I have the weakest wrists known to man so I don’t really like to stray below 1/60sec when I’m hand-holding. This shot was taken at 1/20sec at f/22 and, as you can see, it’s all over the shop.

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Using my stringpod, however, I was able to get a shake free result using the same exposure combination. I’m not saying it’s going to work with ten second exposures at night, but it could well get you out of a tight spot when you’ve left the tripod at home.

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