Softbox v.s diffuser panels in small product photography: Cosmetic brushes shoot for Anisa International.

I was using various softboxes for most of our product photography, but about a half a year ago I discovered a perfect use of  translucent diffuser panels in product photography.  I am talking about usually small product with glossy reflective surface with inevitable  reflection form the lights on it.

The main  difference between softbox and diffuser panel is how the light is spread on the “working” surface: good softbox is suppose to produce even flat light on its front screen while diffuser may have very different pattern, depending on how we highlight it. What does it mean for me when I shoot some glossy, especially dark glossy object? The reflection from that light.

Reflection will be very different: softbox always gives sharp-edged square while diffuser panel can produce very uneven, gradient filling. Gradient is the key: it can be round, square or linear, whatever I need to show on the object.

Below is the example images I’ve got while shooting line of cosmetic brushes for Anisa International. Managed by Anisa Tewlar, company makes high-quality cosmetic brushes and accessories, I am really glad to work with them.

Top-down shot of the black glossy brush, done with two softboxes on each side of the brush:

atlanta cosmetic product photography lighting setup softbox

Cosmetic product photography lighting setup softbox

The result:

product photographer atlanta softbox reflection example

Softbox reflection example

Do you see? Both softboxes is completely visible on the brush, and while it is not looking bad, the whole picture can be misleading: It is not quite understandable is it a reflection on brush or brush has such white inserts? Also, this is not the best way to show the shape of the brush handle… Think how this image will look on a small catalog insert or on the package.

Now, let’s add a translucent diffuser panels between the brush and softboxes ( I was using both panels from Westcott Illuminator Reflector Kit 6-in-1 – 52″, but any other will work just fine).  I’ve lowered the lights and moved them away from the table, knowing it will be more spread on the diffuser:

atlanta cosmetic product photography lighting setup diffuser panels

Cosmetic brush lighting setup using diffuser panels

Now we have an additional media to project our light, and this way it is very easy to get a nice gradient light on the diffuser. This is exactly what I want to see on the brush: a smooth gradient reflection:

product photographer atlanta diffuser panel reflection example

Diffuser panel reflection example

Gradient light gives us a very good idea of a cylindrical shape of the brush handle, a very nice dark edge around glowing panels makes image even more appealing to the eye.

This technique can be used with or without sofboxes, for any relatively small object. On the video below I’ve switched from sofboxes to a spot lights (original 7” Paul C. Buff reflector with a honeycomb grid) aimed to a diffusers with a sharp angle, creating a linear spots on it.

Here are few more brush sets from the same lighting setup (with diffusers):

product photographer atlanta diffuser reflection cosmetic-set 2

Green set of brushes

product photographer atlanta diffuser reflection cosmetic-set

Diffuser panels on a set of brushes

A little video tutorial from the photoshot:

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Lighting, light modifiers and accessories:

All shots were done with: shutter speed 1/250 sec, F13, ISO 100



About The Author: Alex Koloskov

The lighting magician, owner of AKELstudio, Inc.

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33 comments to Softbox v.s diffuser panels in small product photography: Cosmetic brushes shoot for Anisa International.

  • Hi Alex,

    I liked too much your video.
    Thank you for share your knowledge.

  • Hello Alex how are u?
    I follow your work and saw lots of your interesting tutorials (they are so good!!!) and i wonder which are the best lighting sources to use for video productions like your setups.I will be glad if you can tell me which kind is the best suit to your work but for video.
    For example to get the same results like here in this tutorial, what for your opinion is the best solution option to replace the spot light (i dont know what u use but it use for stills photography+flash in it)

    option A:
    with 40-50 cm long fluorescent like this:

    option B:
    to put this item in the soft box:

    My main goal is to have the same setup of lighting methods u use but to replace the spot light to accomplish better results in video dslr.

    Thanks for your info it is very helpful for all of us

  • Hi Alex,

    can you please tell me what is your F stop and aputure in this shoot?

    • Baryalay,
      I do not remember exactly, but looking at the subject (flat) and magnification ratio I’d set aperture somewhere between F12 and F16. This is for topdown shots.
      For an angle shot I’d need F28-F36 to get the whole thing in a focus


    alex, gr8 article…

  • erez peled

    Great article!
    I am really happy i signed up for your newsletter.
    You are doing an excellent job here :-)

  • Hello brother Alex

    I’m not from the United States

    But I am very impressed with the lessons drawn up by the lessons of Brotherhood Active

    I am a beginner in the world of photography

    And I want to know the type of lens appropriate for images

    And also I want to know where you buy imaging tools from the net

    Because I was watching you have talls i not found in Amazon

  • Artemiy Terekhov

    Thanks for the article

    Can ypu please explain 2 things:

    1) Why stripboxes here are better then softboxes? Softbox is wide, so we will have more wide glossy reflection, right?
    So it is better to use very thin stripbox? eg 10 cm wide?

    2) Diffusers
    Does their size matters?
    I mean – does diffuser should be bigger in dimensions than stripbox? How bigger it should be?
    Eg Stripbox is 20×80, and diffuser is 40×80 – will it be ok?
    or, as we move stribbox away from diffuser we should have diffuser to be 40×100?

    • Artemiy,
      Here is the answers:
      1. I like stripboxes mainly because it is easier to modulate its lights. To create a gradient on a diffuser, to draw a rim light around the subject, etc. They spill less than softbox.
      I rarely need a large bright area which softbox provides.. but yes, if i need it, i use softbox.
      2. yes, diffuser should be bigger than a stripbox, in general.
      the size of diffuser is based on a particular shot requirements: sometime I need really small, positioning it close to a subject, and sometime I need a really large one.. especially if shooting rounded glossy subject.
      Like you said, to get more diffusion you need diffuser to be larger than a light source. in your case, both will work, it does not rally matter 40×80 or 40×100… but personally i’d prefer to use something like 100×100 :-)

  • Don Raffaele

    I am just getting into product photography i am confused should use strobe flash with umbrella’s or softbox ?

    • Raffaele,
      Evryrhing is depends from a particular shot and situation, there is no “should”. However, in product photography we often need to have an uniform and rectangle shaped reflections, and softbox does much better job than umbrella.
      So… you may want to leave umbrellas for portraiture.

  • leon lee

    Hello, Alex, I bless you in the distant happiness and China, these days I’m looking at your blog, and learned a lot in your photographic knowledge, although we have the language barrier, but I probably know you can still how to operate, to express what you want. Thank you, finally the way, this text is to use Google translation, the translation may be not authentic, so please bear with, I wish you a happy life!

  • Jim Clarke

    Thank you Alex I found this most informative as usual. Great work and very much appreciated.


  • PS: Are you loving your Einsteins? I need to get some, they seem just great. Good review btw.

    • Vadim,
      I am quite happy so far… Nice strobe for it’s money. They have a problem with the clamps for the light modifiers, currently providing with the rubber strips to fix them on a place:-) Hopefully it will be fixed soon. Other then that, great units.
      P.S Is this a secret? My question about the camera and lens, you did not answer:-)

  • Good job posting your tutorials – You’re a rare bread of photographer while most today keep to themselves and hate sharing. Keep up your good work.

    I agreed with the first poster above – the problem of the softbox vs diffusion-gradient – you have to be careful with the surface of your object. If you have a chrome surface, the highlights created by a softbox show that it is highly reflective/polished or satin/ more dull. The black brush for myself, I cannot tell if it is glossy or somewhat satin in finish – but this is where our clients will tell us what they prefer in the end and which is right or wrong – we offer the options and they will decide.


  • Tudor

    Hey Alex. Really nice stuff. Nice of you to share. Congrats and keep the good work.

  • Terrychan

    You’re really a generous man for sharing ur every wonderful job’s technic to us.
    I’ve learnt a lot from your blog. Most appreciative of you.

  • Salman

    why you used 100mm macro lens not 24-70mm L for this product ? any specific reason ?

    • @Salman,
      I prefer to use non-zoom macro lens for any product shoots: they are usually superior in everything (detail, sharpness, color, etc) then zoom lenses (if both are “L”).
      Remember, zoom lens made only for your convenience, not for the image quality:-)

  • Also – I wanted to ask where you got the acrylic sheets that you’re resting the object on?

    • usually i buy it in home depot and air-paint to a color I need. The one I’ve used for brushes was from office depot; this is a replacement a sheet for drawing board.. very thin, very white and one side is matte another is glossy..

      Need to get few more like these:-)

  • Very informative as always alex! On many objects you can achieve a similar effect using a light tent with softboxes illuminating the tent.

    • Peter,
      Light tent can be used, but not as efficient as panels: you can’t remove any side of the tent when needed, and it will give you (even if you are not highlighting that side) a unwanted reflection from it. Also, there is no way to pull apart or change the angle of the side panels… and many more limitations.
      I’ve tried, but never use shooting tent anymore.

      thank you!

  • Alex, Double diffusion works very well for smooth gradients, I find is a little flat for me. I use diffused grids and then tuck my scrims in close to subject.Then move the spots around and find more detail. This way I am able to create reciprocals that have a bit more shape and punch. Dennis

  • Ken

    Alex, great article, double diffusion is not a new thing but something to be discovered as you have. I like the results that you get, this sort of things is a personal taste thing so there is no right or wrong answer only the clients approval answer.

    Actual diffusion of the light is a product of how close the light source is to the diffuser. The closer the two are the less the diffusion. So for an experiment place the diffuser panel near the subject and move the light source back away from it, use a straight reflector for the test. use half metre increments and wind up the power to maintain your F stop so you have only one variable (is it you who doesn’t use a lightmeter ? I forget) You should see a greater diffusion as the light source is moved away.

    Now for something special put a another diffuser panel in between the original diffuser panel and the lightsource that is say 2 metre’s back from the subject.

    So now you have a very simple system of diffusion adjustment for different objects to different taste. WHo needs softboxes anymore??!!

    Do this and have the results on my desk in the morning ( add a silly smiley here)


    • Yep, this is exactly what I though : why i do need those softboxes? :-)) You are right, no flash metering for me: WYSWYG while shooting tethered.

      BTW, softbox + diffuser will give you the same result as 2 diffusers, but with more option on a gradient pattern (based on a shape of a softbox)

      Thanks for the comment!

  • Tobi

    Great article, however I’ve got one question: Is the brush in the fourth picture as shiny as the one in the second picture? It looks rather flat, as though it had some satin surface. If it was indeed shiny, I think your diffused lines didn’t work all that well.


    • @Tobi,
      I agree with you that with diffuser brush looks softer and not that shiny. Flat? Not for me:-)
      The actual finish of the brush is not that extremely glare as you see it with softboxes, I would say it is somewhere in between.

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