Lighting: Forget that Square Softbox

For precision -- and flattery -- in the studio, you need a strip light.

The most popular studio lighting accessory? Hands down, the square softbox. Whether mini 12x12-inchers or 50x50-inch monsters, these boxy lighting tools are often the first thing to greet you when entering any portrait studio.

But does the square (or almost square) softbox deserve its popularity? For me, the answer is "no."

Although square softboxes put out a relatively soft-edged or "wraparound" light that's flattering to people and objects, unless baffled (and therefore dimmed), they often throw a ball of light that's hotter in the center than the edges. And this ball shines straight ahead in a broad, fat swath that makes it tough to finesse -- useful but sloppy.

Now, consider the strip light. A long, narrow softbox, it too produces a flattering, soft-shadowed light equally suited to products and people. But due to its tighter throw, it can be aimed more effectively, casting its light only where you want.

The combination of soft and more aimable light makes the strip in many ways a more useful studio tool. The narrower strip is also less bulky, making even large strip lights much easier to mount, aim, and generally handle than square softboxes of comparable lengths. And they're widely available from most major lighting manufacturers.

Strips serve as excellent…

• Portrait lights. Mounted vertically, a strip light will illuminate a head or half-length of an individual. But, unlike a square softbox, it won't spill much light onto the background. Conversely, deployed horizontally and high, it will light groups, putting the emphasis on individual faces, with midsection and legs receiving minimal illumination -- usually a good thing. With roughly equal output from left to right, most strips produce little or no central hot spot, good for groups.

• Rim lights. Strips are the perfect tool for backlighting a full-length standing portrait in order to edge or rim the length of the figure with light -- almost a necessity when shooting a dark wardrobe against a dark background. Again, because the strip's output is even, the figure will be evenly accented from head to toe.

• Hair lights. Most portrait studios use a snooted head to light hair. The problem? The subject must remain relatively still if the hair is to be correctly and consistently lit from frame to frame. With a longer strip light overhead, however, the subject has great freedom of lateral movement, with head and shoulders remaining consistently lit from first frame to last.

• Sweep lights. Used to top-light objects on a table or sweep, the strip light, because of its narrower throw, will tend not to light the sweep's back splash, making it the preferred tool for producing fade-to-black backgrounds with tabletop subjects.

While square softboxes are excellent for many general lighting situations, for flatteringly soft light and a modicum of precision, strips rule.