It's only a few days since I released the first in a series of lighting field guides and I have started to receive some feedback. All of it very positive so far - thank you - I cannot wait to see what you make. A reader sent me a question regarding a comment that I made in Window Light that claimed that windows are the best softbox in the universe or something like that. Specifically what I meant exactly.
Off the top of my head here are my thoughts. First and foremost most windows are huge compared to softboxes that you can buy. They are huge in a couple of ways. The first way is that what could be considered the front of the box is usually as big bigger than the biggest you can buy. Four feet by six feet is considered a substantial softbox. Most people don't buy them that big. That's actually not a big window.
The more important dimension is actually how deep the "interior" is and where the light is actually made. With softboxes the light is made in a pretty confined space that is relatively close to your subject. With windows the light is made so far away that it may as well be infinitely far away. You just cannot make a softbox as deep as the entire outside world and sky.
That brings us to another big difference. The light is not manufactured at the face of the window - with a softbox it sort of is. With a window it's all blended together really really far away and the window is actually just an aperture to cut it off to whatever the window dimensions are. Unless of course you have some diffusion material pasted on or in front of the window. This contributes a significant difference to the quality of light. It also affects how the light spreads in the room you happen to be using it in. If the room is huge and dark it may not make that big of a difference. If the room is more normal it makes a huge difference in how the entire scene looks and how much the box lifts the entire room. If you get one of those really really really expensive fabric grids you can fake it a bit better - go price a Chimera for a 4x6 box…
Since the light is made extremely far away with a window the fall off characteristic are also massively different. I could probably go on and on with more nuances as well as describe the way windows spread vs softboxes with diffusion at the face and how that looks etc etc. Not important. In circumstances that allow it I prefer windows - real ones. If I have to make something look like window light I usually try to use the environment first - even if there is no window I simulate it in other ways that work more like a real window. Happens to be a subject for another book in the field guide series. The last thing I reach for is a softbox. Do I use them? Absolutely sometimes they are the only way to go depending on where you are shooting and what you have to get done.
As photographers we should all be students of light. Constantly looking at it and coming to terms with why things look the way they do and recognizing the photographic possibilities of certain conditions. That little X100 that I love so much is what I use to make visual notes no matter where I am when I see things that I like in terms of light. Ambient lighting conditions and using them are not a separate and distinct exercise compared to making your own in a studio or at a location.
I used to treat them as to completely different things. Huge mistake. Since I started looking at them the same way, strobe, sun, windows, continuous tungsten, whatever each set of circumstances has informed my use of all the others. A continuous journey - not a destination. Just some food for thought.