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Softbox vs Umbrella: Which Is Best and Why?

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When it comes to light modifiers, both softboxes and umbrellas are equally popular. Though they are used for slightly different reasons, setting up and using them involves pretty much a similar process flow. In this discussion, we shall take a look at both these modifiers and try to find which are the best usage cases for each of them. So, in essence, we are not pitting softbox vs umbrella, but trying to find out how we can get the best out of each of them.

Softboxes – What are they?

Softboxes are a type of light modifier. They are one of many different types of light modifiers that photographers use to shape the light they use in a studio environment. Light modifiers such as softboxes are also used in outdoor situations where they are mixed with natural lighting to create the desired look.

In mixed lighting situations, softboxes are mainly used as fill lights. Though there are exceptions, such as when shooting at the blue hour or when using natural light as backlight.

softbox light modifier.

Softboxes, as the name suggests, are a box with all of its sides, but one, sealed. The interior of the softbox is covered with a reflective material. sometimes baffles are also used to scatter the light. Light bounces off the reflective inner walls and gets projected out of the front of the lightbox which is covered with a diffusion panel made of translucent material.

Because the front is covered with a translucent material the intensity of the light is reduced and the quality softens. As you are aware, soft light is ideal for portrait photography. So, it comes as no surprise that softboxes find their main utility as portrait light.

Another thing to note is when you are using softboxes you may have to push the exposure a bit to compensate for the loss of light because of the translucent material at the front.

Soft quality light is flattering and produces very few harsh shadows. At least that is the idea. In reality, however, softboxes are a directional light source. The result is that they produce a very contrasting quality light. That means there are going to be some shadows. As a photographer, you will need to fill in those using a second light source/modifier. Ideally, a second softbox.

Ideal Use Scenario

using softbox for portraits.

The ideal use case for softboxes is in portrait photography. In portrait photography, it is often mixed with other types of lights/light modifiers like an umbrella and or a beauty dish to produce an array of different looks.

It is also widely used in product photography. Small products like electronic items, personal items like watches, jewellery, etc. are shot using softboxes.

Softboxes can be used in both studios as well as in outdoor shoots, as long as you have a way to provide power to the lights. Outdoor shoots are done using battery packs attached to the lights or using monolights that house the light, the fan, and the power pack all in one compact housing.

In outdoor scenarios, softboxes are used together with natural light in a variety of situations and for a variety of different results. They are used in difficult lighting situations such as during afternoons to eliminate shadows under the nose, chin, and eyes. In such situations, softboxes work as a fill light. Exposure is metered for the background and then just enough light is fired to fill in the shadows.

softboxes for product photos.

They are used during the blue hour to isolate the subject(s) against a blue background of the sky. The exposure is metered for the background and the light is set at 2/3rds of a stop to about one stop higher. Depending on the results you can always adjust the power of the light.

Different Types of Softboxes

Softboxes come in different shapes and sizes. They fit a wide array of different types of external lights – both strobes and continuous lights.

There are small softboxes that can be mounted on the built-in flash of a camera. Then some softboxes fit around the small mountable external flashes.

rectangular softbox used for taking a portrait of a young girl.

There are mid-sized softboxes that are used with smaller strobes. Then you have large octagonal softboxes or parabolic softboxes or umbrella softbox which are perfect to shoot with monolights.

The size of the softbox you need will depend on the subject that you are going to photograph. For portrait images, a 3-feet rectangular softbox (with or without a grid on) is better suited. You will require at least two to ensure that there are no weird shadows in the frame.

If you are going to make a full-length image then you need at least a four-feet long softbox.

Then you have octagonal softboxes as well as parabolic softboxes which produce wrap-around lighting. Softboxes have an advantage in the sense you can use additional modifiers like grids. With umbrellas, these are not possible.

How do you set up softboxes?

portrait of a man.

There are dozens of different combinations in which you can set up a softbox. Depending, of course, on the number of softboxes you have and also whether you are going to use them together with natural light and or other light modifiers / artificial lights.

In a studio setup where the subject is illuminated entirely by artificial lights, your softboxes will control the entirety of the lights in a scene.

The primary light or the key light will illuminate the subject’s face. The second light, also known as the fill light, fills in the shadows created by the key light. The third light can be used as background light to illuminate the background or be fired from behind the subject to create what is known as rim lighting.

Rim lighting creates a rim of light around the subject’s head and torso that helps to isolate the subject from the background. Rim lighting works in portrait photography as well as when photographing large products. For small products rim lighting is a bit difficult to set up.

Umbrellas – What are they?

Umbrellas are also a type of light modifier. They are used primarily for studio photography work but are also useful for outdoor shoots.

Umbrellas as light modifiers are a little different than softboxes in the sense that the light throw is a bit broader with them. That is why softboxes are the preferred lighting tool when photographers need a focused lighting tool, while umbrellas are used when they need the light to illuminate a larger area.

An important distinguishing factor between these two types of light modifiers is that you cannot use additional tools like grids with umbrellas. You can, however, use grids with softboxes. Grids allow the light to be even more focused. Grids are an important tool in the hands of portrait photographers looking for a contrasty edgy lighting set-up.

umbrella lighting.

Ideal Use Scenario

As umbrella lights have a larger coverage area, they are the preferred choice when photographing groups, a large product, and so on. You can also use umbrellas for shooting a couple, for example, for their wedding portrait. A softbox will be unsuitable for this purpose. Umbrellas are seldom used in product photography.

Let’s say that you are photographing a wedding and you need to photograph the entire entourage of the bridesmaids, the groomsmen, the bride, and the groom in a single photo. A softbox will be unsuitable in such a situation. The first thing the coverage is smaller, and second, most importantly you need broader less edgy lighting which is very difficult to accomplish using a softbox. Your solution in such a situation is to use an umbrella.

Different Types of Umbrellas

Umbrellas can be divided into two major categories. You have the ones that are translucent and have no reflective inner layer and you fire the light through them. These are also known as Shoot-through umbrellas. The second type is the one that comes with a reflective inner layer. These are also known as reflective umbrellas or bounce umbrella. You fire the light backward, i.e., towards the back of the umbrella so that the light is reflected off the walls and gets directed out of the front.

The Reflective umbrella has the effect of expanding the area of coverage of the light. Additionally, because the light is reflected off of the shiny inner layer, it gets a bit softer. Plus, you have the option to use different colors for inner layering. You can use a gold or a silver lining that allows you to control the temperature of the light.

There is also a plain white inner layer that perhaps is the best when you need a softer light quality that has a large area of coverage. There are not too many options but when you compare it with the Shoot-through umbrellas it is better than nothing.

How do you set up umbrellas?

Speaking of Shoot-through umbrellas let’s first take a look at how you can set these up. Shoot-through umbrellas are made with translucent material. That makes the light softer while the throw is wider. This is why you can place a Shoot-through umbrella close to a subject. That is why these lights are so useful for shooting portraits.

It is the closest thing to working with a bare flash, without the associated effects of harsh light. I.e., you won’t get those hard shadows.

A thing about umbrellas you have to keep in mind is that there is a lot more light that gets spilled onto the scene compared to a softbox. Softbox vs umbrella, in the case of the former the light is more focused. It falls on areas that the photographer wants to.

When that happens your exposure settings will change too. Just to give you an example of how things happen, let’s say with a softbox your exposure is 1/160 sec at f/8 and ISO 100. If you now use a reflective umbrella with the same light and from the same spot, with nothing else changing, your exposure will not remain the same. You will have to open up the aperture or push the ISO to keep the same shutter speed.

Softbox vs Umbrella: Is one better than the other?

softbox vs umbrella lighting.

What we just learned is that softboxes and umbrellas are just two different types of light modifiers They aim to serve two different purposes. It is very difficult to put your finger on one and say this is better than the other. So, it is definitely not a case of softbox vs umbrella or which is better than which. They have their specific best case usage scenarios, advantages and disadvantages. They are not designed to be used interchangeably. Yes, you can use them together, but not as a replacement for the other.

Softboxes are more directional and therefore the light is more contrasty and edgy. So, it all comes down to (a) the subject you are photographing, (b) the kind of look you want to capture in your photos, (c) the kind of lights you have and (d) the kind of readily available modifiers. If c and d are not an issue, then it comes down to a simple decision of the subject you are photographing and the kind of look you want to capture that determines the modifier that you want to use.

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Rajib is an avid travel photographer and an overall shutterbug. The first time he ever clicked an image was with an Agfa Click IV back in 1984. A medium format film camera. From that auspicious introduction to photography, he has remained hooked to this art form. He loves to test and review new photography gear. Rajib travels quite a lot, loves driving on Indian roads, playing fetch with his Labrador retriever, and loves photography. And yes, he still proudly owns that Agfa Click IV!
Rajib is an avid travel photographer and an overall shutterbug. The first time he ever clicked an image was with an Agfa Click IV back in 1984. A medium format film camera. From that auspicious introduction to photography, he has remained hooked to this art form. He loves to test and review new photography gear. Rajib travels quite a lot, loves driving on Indian roads, playing fetch with his Labrador retriever, and loves photography. And yes, he still proudly owns that Agfa Click IV!

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