Softbox vs. Reflector: Which Is Better?


Many hobbyists want to take their photography to the next level. To do that, they need to get superior light-manipulation abilities provided by tools like softboxes and reflectors.

Softboxes are better at softening artificial light used indoors for a product, fashion, and portrait photography. In contrast, reflectors work well in lighting the shadows created by sunlight hitting subjects (mostly human models) in outdoor photography.

While a professional photographer should get both these tools, this article covers the pros and cons of each so you can get better informed about your potential purchase. Furthermore, it helps you understand which of the two you must buy first for your professional photography journey.

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Softbox: A Brief Overview

Photography is the art of controlling light. And controlling light means more than just its direction. You must have mastery over the softness and the sharpness of light, its intensity, and of course, its movement. 

Ever since artificial lights were created to aid photographers in lighting their photos in low lighting conditions, the golden hour’s real estate hasn’t gone down. That is because artificial light can’t hold a candle up to natural light.

However, great photographers can use harsh and directional artificial light but still capture natural-looking photos. Their secret? Softboxes (and of course, years of experience). A softbox helps soften artificial light so that it gets diffused upon getting triggered. 

However, it also gives a level of control as containment areas keep the light from getting scattered. That has made softboxes essential for fashion, product, and portrait photography.

While you’re likely to own a softbox in the future, whether you need one right away depends on your photography needs. The following pros and cons might help you understand better the situations in which softboxes offer you an edge.

Pros of Softboxes

If the following advantages are what you’re looking for, you are better off investing in a softbox.

Help Artificially Light Subjects

Ambient light seems sufficient for our eyes because our cornea and lenses don’t work the same way as a DSLR camera. Since eyes don’t have a shutter that captures a still by letting light pass in at a short interval, a small amount of light can continuously get registered and be sufficient to light a subject. 

A camera’s shutter speed, on the other hand, is relatively fast and must be increased further if the cameraman is holding the DSLR instead of mounting it on a DSLR. That allows the shutter to close in just enough time to capture the moving subject or take a picture before the exposure registers the photographer’s hand movement.

While this higher speed is beneficial in precision capturing, it requires light to be bright enough to compensate for the small amount of time the shutter remains open. Photography lights are used with softboxes to allow enough light to enter so that a natural effect is maintained while the subject is captured.

Reduce Contrast and Sharpness

When one takes a picture using artificial light, the light’s brightness and direction-restricted path create harsh contrast. The highlights are lit too brightly, and shadows are deep enough to look like dead pixels. 

With a softbox, you can help diffuse the light while retaining some control over its direction. That helps create a pleasant blending of shadows and light to give results we typically associate with professional photography.

We recommend the MountDog Softbox Lighting kit:

1350W Photography Continuous Softbox Lighting Kit 20'X28' Professional Photo Studio Equipment with 2pcs E27 Socket 5500K Video Lighting Bulb for Filming Portraits Shoot
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1350W Photography Continuous Softbox Lighting Kit 20"X28" Professional Photo Studio Equipment with 2pcs E27 Socket 5500K Video Lighting Bulb for Filming Portraits Shoot
  • 【Energy Saving Bulbs】: Our video lighting kit has two 95W light bulbs with a standard E27 socket.5500k color temperature:You can feel the daylight even in a dim environment. 2 x 95W bulbs save energy up to 80% and last approx 8000 hours,energy saving and sufficient lighting.While saving energy, the light is not weak, it can balance the pure white daylight and provide a natural photography environment.
  • 【210° Rotatable Head&Flexible Softbox Stand】: Studio light stand tripod is 27 to 80 inch adjustable height tripod. Made of premium aluminum alignment with 1/4 screw mounting on top to satisfy different photographers.The bracket is composed of sturdy materials to ensure maximum durability and stability.Softbox photo lighting angle can be 210° adjustable lamp holder, can adapt different shooting needs, give you the suitable light from multiple angles, setting-easy with a few minutes.
  • 【Super Quality Material】: 20 x 28inch Softbox light reflector made of professional particulate silver film reflective fabric with nylon white screen soften the hard light and eliminate object shadows. One-piece opening and folding easy to use and store. E26/E27 standard size 110-130V bulb socket.The soft box can diffuse light and provide the soft light beam to eliminate shadows and take perfect pictures.

Cons of Softboxes

While softboxes have indispensable advantages, they aren’t a catch-all solution to lighting problems. Below are the drawbacks you should keep in mind when using a softbox.

Inherit the Limitations of Artificial Lighting

If you’re familiar with artificial lighting, you understand that the setup is bulky even with a single light. Moreover, one has to use at least two lights to create editorial appeal in artificially lit photos. 

That makes the setup elaborate and bulky. Softboxes do not replace these lights but are an add-on. That means their inclusion only makes the accessories heavier and harder to transport. Furthermore, the setup becomes more time-consuming and elaborate.

Don’t Work With Natural Lighting

Softboxes help diffuse directional beams, but when the midday light starts creating harsh contrast, there is little one can do with the average softbox. Diffusion panels have helped photographers in this context, but a softbox doesn’t have enough diffusing surface to be used outdoors in this situation. Therefore, it is advisable to carry large sheets of diffusing fabric to soften harsh light on sunny days.

More Expensive

If you compare a reflector to a diffusion panel, you will realize that you can get three to five reflectors for a fraction of the softbox’s price. However, it is worth noting that both the accessories have a separate function, and comparing prices only because they have light-control in common is like comparing a bike’s price to that of a car. If you invest in artificial lights, the softbox cost is less, and many lighting kits come with the softboxes.

Find out how soft boxes compare to diffusers in this article!

Reflectors: A Brief Overview

Outdoor photography enthusiasts know the term “Golden Hour,” which refers to the hour where the light’s volume, intensity, and softness are perfect to light a subject. While this leads to beautiful images of scenery and other average-exposure subjects, many photographers aren’t too keen on being constrained by the hour of the setting.

If you’re taking pictures of a model with a flowing scarf or your subject wants to capture a hair flip, “the golden hour” lights your photo quite poorly. That is why you need harsher light. But with harsher natural light comes the obligate sharpness and contrast. 

Furthermore, unlike natural light, you can’t use multiple suns, and the light hits your subject only from one direction. Reflectors help reflect some of the natural light to the shadows in a subject, thus creating a pleasant picture.

While most semi-professional and pro photographers have reflectors in their photography arsenal, it is best if a budding photographer learns the advantages and the drawbacks of reflectors to understand the situations where they are ideal.

Pros of Reflectors

When you purchase a reflector, you get to benefit in the following ways.

Avoid the Adverse Side Effects of Natural Light

The sun is an abundant source of light that costs nothing and is readily available. Furthermore, photographers who can control natural light to deliver excellent images are considered more advanced than those who need artificial lighting for every photo. However, there is a reason why three-point lighting has become so popular: natural light has its drawbacks.

  • The intensity of sunlight can’t be controlled and can sometimes lead to excessively sharp photos.
  • The sun lights the subject from one direction, and if the light is strong enough, the shadows are too dark. The contrast has a jarring effect.

A reflector helps you deliver some of the light into the excessively dark shadows, thus reducing the contrast. Furthermore, the sharpness is also brought down once the reflector is placed at an angle that lights the lines between highlights and shadows. That, alongside a diffusion panel, can give you perfect photos.

Relatively Cheaper

Reflectors are a great gateway accessory into photo lighting equipment because they allow you to use the abundant, free sunlight in creative ways to take photos that look professional. While you may initially use reflectors out of necessity, the fact that they complement natural lighting will make you focus on being creative with sunlight. That will help you improve your photography and get a better understanding of light. This education is transferable to artificial lighting.

We recommend the Neewer 43 Inch Light Reflectors, which are great quality.

Cons of Reflectors

There is only one main drawback of reflectors that you must keep in mind before relying on them to be your sole light-management accessory.

Poor Performance With Artificial Light

While in spacious environments with abundant sunlight, reflectors work well; using them in smaller studios with the average photography light will give you flat images that look worse than ones captured by a phone. 

The reason DSLRs cost more than phones is that they can take photos with a degree of depth. However, the artificial light is too bright, and the reflector erases the shadow creating a flat image. You can fight this drawback by using lights with higher control settings, double diffusion, and larger studio space.

Which One Should You Use?

You should use a reflector initially with natural light. That is a cost-effective way to start taking better photos and understanding light simultaneously. Eventually, you’ll need to use photography lights with indoor subjects; that’s where you should invest in a lighting kit that comes with softboxes.

Conclusion

Whether you use a softbox or a reflector depends on where you are and what you want for your photo. Most photographers have both kinds of light management tools. Still, it is advisable to start with reflectors and get acquainted with controlling light before resorting to artificial light and diffusion tools like softboxes.

Sources

Last update on 2021-09-24 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Vinnie

I'm Vinnie, and I'm here to support you to create your own studio at home, whether it’s for photography, recording audio, podcasts, or videos!

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