Creative Portraits in B+W

Shooting in the studio is always a joy because it's so laid back. With no constraints and ultimate control over lighting and the set, there simply aren't many of the practical limitations to creativity that are realities for most shoots. Recent I photographed one of my oldest subjects, my good friend Erik, in his studio-converted apartment in Connecticut. During the edit, both Erik and I were feeling the high-contrast black and white look, as it fit well with the very two-dimensional minimalist set we had created. Playing with shapes and lines, I think we were able to create some interesting and unique portraiture. Take a look.

How To: A collapsible DIY softbox grid for around $5

Grids (also known as honeycomb grids or egg crate grids) are an extremely useful lighting tool for photographers who know how to use them. The problem is they can be expensive. I recently bought a cheap $50 softbox for a speedlight that I sometimes use both in and out of the studio, and I was looking into purchasing a grid for it. Unfortunately the model of softbox didn't have any grids designed to fit it, and even grids for similar size softboxes are as much or more than the price of the softbox itself. Not wanting to double the investment in a cheap softbox that I might end up throwing away in a year or two anyways, I decided to make myself one DIY-style. The total budget came in around $5. Here's how I did it.

The finished product: a collapsible DIY softbox grid. Say goodby angular light!

The finished product: a collapsible DIY softbox grid. Say goodby angular light!

A grid is used to block the angular light coming from the face of a lighting modifier while allowing only near-perpendicular (and therefore highly directional) light to pass through. This is useful when trying to control the spill from a light source. Without any kind of spill control or recessed front to the softbox, the light will spill all the way up to 90 degrees from the face of the front panel. For smaller light sources modifiers like snoots or barndoors can control this spill, but for softboxes this isn't an option. While you could add a flag or cutter to block unwanted light, this would require using another C-stand and grip arm in addition to the flag itself, which is a lot of gear to bring. And in some cases the light may be too close to the subject that a flag might show up in the frame. Enter the grid. One example might be if you're tying to top-light a subject who is standing a few feet away from a backdrop. You could boom a softbox overhead to give him a large wrapping light source,  but the light would fall onto the backdrop — perhaps unwelcomely. Adding a grid to the overhead softbox would allow you to direct the light onto the subject while keeping your backdrop free from light spill.

The materials for this project are pretty simple:

  • 2 sheets of heavyweight posterboard (not foamcore or cardboard) — 97¢ each at Walmart
  • 1 roll of 1" industrial strength adhesive velcro — $6 or $7, but you only use half of it
  • Black gaffer tape — you should already have this if you're a photographer
  • Utility or pocket knife
  • Scissors
  • Straight edge with ruler markings
  • Pencil
Here's the materials you'll need for the DIY softbox grid. Well, most of them. Not pictured: a knife and scissors.

Here's the materials you'll need for the DIY softbox grid. Well, most of them. Not pictured: a knife and scissors.

The concept was simply to make something like those interlocking storage dividers where the slits fit into each other at the intersections. If done right the whole thing would fold diagonally and lay flat. The first step was to do a little math and figure out how many strips I needed and how thick to make them. My softbox is supposed to be 24x24 inches, but the actual face of the softbox is around 21 inches square. You should make sure to measure the actual dimension instead of trusting what it's supposed to be or your grid might not fit when you're done. I figured that with the two sheets of poster board I could make my strips 2" deep spaced 1.5" apart and have enough for the 32 strips measuring 2" wide and 21" long. Remember to add two strips to each end as "caps" to enclose the whole thing and make sure the ends of the strips aren't just dangling free.

I used my straight edge to mark off the strips as well as the locations of the 1.5" spaced intersections, as marking them after they're cut would have been way too tedius. You end up with large grid pattern. Then it's time to get cutting. I laid down some newspaper so I didn't cut through to the tablecloth and used my leatherman to cut the strips. I figured it would be faster that way than scissors.

After all of the strips were cut I began to make the notches for the intersections. While a single cut will work, with the thick posterboard it's a tight fit when the grid is extended. If you want to make it a little more flexible I'd advise cutting out a small 1mm groove of paper at each slit to make it easier to open and close. Remember the cuts don't have to be exact, they only have to be slightly past half way into each strip. Also remember to leave four strips without notches as these will be the end pieces.

After all of the notches are cut, start assembling everything. It should come together fairly easily, but the further you go the stiffer the structure will become. Once you're done you should have something that looks pretty much like a grid. Then tape the loose ends of the strips to the end pieces using the black gaffer tape to keep them from getting bent up as well as to provide a place to put the velcro for attaching the grid to the softbox.

This was actually before I added the two final end pieces to the right and left. But you get the idea.

This was actually before I added the two final end pieces to the right and left. But you get the idea.

When you put the velcro on, it doesn't need to attach to all four sides. In fact, it might make it more difficult to attach if you do try to velcro all four sides if your grid doesn't have an absolute perfect fit. I just used a small piece of velcro on each corner of the opposite sides of the grid (top and bottom). I stick the other side of the velcro to the inside of the softbox at the corresponding positions, and now you can attach your grid.

The grid folded up flat. It's sort of long, but won't take up too much space. It's far more portable than other designs I've seen on the internet.

The grid folded up flat. It's sort of long, but won't take up too much space. It's far more portable than other designs I've seen on the internet.

And there you have it. If you were careful with your measurements and cutting you should be able to collapse the whole thing into a nice little strip that is easy to take with you to your shoot. Happy shooting with your new DIY softbox grid.

If you have any questions on the process, feel free to ask!