In portraiture, glamor, product, and macro photography, the mastery of light modification makes all the difference between a mediocre photographer and a brilliant one. Tools like a softbox and an umbrella diffuser help the intrepid photographer attain an intimate knowledge of lighting. But what is the difference between the two?
A softbox produces soft, focused, controllable light, but it’s expensive. An umbrella diffuser spreads light in all directions, but it’s cheap, compact, compatible with many light fixtures, and a cinch to set up, transport, and store, which might be a good choice for beginners.
The softbox and umbrella diffuser are only two of many different ways to manipulate studio lights. This article compares these popular light modifiers and provides insights into picking the best one for your photography arsenal and adapting them to your shooting needs.
What Is a Light Modifier?
A light modifier is a tool that uses diffusers to shape light to control the outcome of photographs. It converts a small, bright light (i.e., from a strobe) into a large, soft, diffused, semi-directional artificial light source. It’s essential in portraiture, still-life, or product photography.
Expert Photography says the job of a light modifier is to soften the light surrounding a subject by creating uniform lighting with pleasant shadows.
Every light modifier has pros and cons, but they all follow the same principle: The nearness of the subject to the light source determines the softness or hardness of the light. Distance produces a hard light, while proximity yields a softer one.
Photographers don’t have to remain confined to natural lighting when shooting indoors but use light modifiers instead. Softboxes and umbrellas are two of the most popular ones.
42 West photographers say umbrella diffusers are superb starting points for artificial lighting newbies. Those with intermediate lighting knowledge will appreciate softboxes more, as they offer more control and directionality.
Photographer Joe Edelman says the key to successful light modification is not which modifier you have but how you use it.
What Is a Softbox?
A softbox, which is also called a light bank, is a modifier that funnels and spreads light to create soft illumination. The light, which is like sunlight filtering through a window, can be used as a key, hair, or fill light.
Savage Universal states that a softbox is the ultimate lighting solution for portraiture because of its ability to control light spill onto backgrounds, which means that soft light is focused on the subject, rendering the background dark.
This method is useful for shooting portraits with a pitch-black background without using a black backdrop.
With softbox lighting, your flash needs less power output (compared with an umbrella diffuser) to achieve the desired illumination with the same lens aperture because you’re shooting through, rather than relying on reflected light.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the components that make a softbox:
- The mount for installing the light source is located on the tapered end of the softbox. It is typically a Bowens mount, the default setup for most softboxes.
- The diffusion panel consists of two white fabric sheets or baffles (one inside and outside its structure) for dispersing light. This double diffusion creates softer lighting other modifiers don’t offer. The softbox filters light from the attached light source by transmitting the light through this panel.
- Grids or louvers narrow down or fine-tune the amount of light.
- Velcro lining attaches to its bevel for securing accessories.
- Four to eight sticks are inserted into the ribs of the softbox.
- It produces a directional light source but with softer illumination.
- It renders a narrow range of field, giving more light control over the subject.
- It has less of a light spill.
- It’s adaptable in various situations.
- It’s available in a variety of shapes, such as square, rectangle, octagon.
- It comes in various sizes. The largest ones produce the softest, most focused light. So for starters, buy the biggest you can afford. Later, you can add accessories like honeycomb grids to expand your lighting collection.
- It’s more cumbersome to set up than umbrellas.
- It requires some knowledge of balancing between the main and fill lights to avoid high-contrast lighting.
What Is an Umbrella Diffuser?
An umbrella diffuser is made of the same thin, delicate fabric found in front of a softbox. White umbrella material creates a softer effect than silver. A studio umbrella illuminates venues by modifying existing light into a more expansive light source.
An example of existing light might be from a speed light or a battery-operated mono light, which produces a broad, soft light similar to outdoor lighting. In a traditional position, an umbrella delivers indirect, bounced light.
The unrestricted kind of lighting that it produces is helpful in the following cases:
- When you need an even illumination to envelope your subject
- Event photography
- Interior photography
Unlike a softbox, you don’t need to follow a complicated process to set up an umbrella, as it’s ready to use once you open it. Just insert it into your studio strobe’s bracket to install it.
It doesn’t use a Bowen’s mount, so you can use it on almost any lighting instrument that accepts an umbrella.
- It’s the most popular light modifier.
- It’s a standard fixture in any studio.
- It’s affordable.
- It’s easy to use, making it suitable for beginners. Simply pointing an umbrella at a subject produces a broad sweep of diffused light.
- It’s compact and portable, making it convenient for expeditions and location shoots.
- Some versatile types have removable layers (with black, silver, or gold linings) to allow transition from reflective to shoot-through.
- It’s a nightmare for shooting outdoors on a windy day, but you can use camera bags or sandbag weights to secure the light stand base.
- An umbrella lights up most of an indoor venue, reducing control over the darkness of the background.
- It needs more flash output compared to a softbox.
- It cannot control light spill as a softbox does.
- Some variants are expensive.
Differences Between Softboxes and Umbrella Diffusers
Although they serve the same purpose—to provide a softer light source—they have key differences.
Several factors affect these distinctions:
Light Dispersal and Control
Softboxes create controlled direct lighting while umbrellas produce broader, diffused, uncontrolled lighting. They also give off a softer light and umbrellas produce sharper light.
You get two stops of light reduction when you use a softbox, but there is none with a silver umbrella. Use umbrellas when you prefer more light on the subject. Use softboxes when light quality and control are more important.
Effect on Subjects
Softboxes give human subjects a polished look, so you’ll want to choose a bounce umbrella for quality eye reflections. However, it may be harder to contain and may cause light contamination.
Umbrellas are suitable for group portraits because they spread light uniformly, while softboxes are better suited to individual portraits because they produce more defined light.
Energy and Cost Efficiency
The softbox is the best choice for the most control, as it saves on flash power, so each battery charge generates more shots. Umbrellas are inexpensive and are simple to set up and take down. Softboxes require time to assemble and dismantle and are more expensive.
Umbrellas are easier to transport and are better for location shoots and backdrops because they diffuse lights over a wide area. Subjects have to be far enough away from the background to avoid light spills.
They are also suitable for rooms with white ceilings and walls or less precise applications because they give off soft, wrap-around lighting.
Softbox light won’t bounce off walls. Some umbrellas act like open softboxes, allowing photographers to shoot through the surface, so you will want to use umbrellas when pressed for time.
Do you find that you can’t decide between umbrellas and softboxes? Get the best of both worlds with these variants:
- Hybrid (aka brolly) box: This collapsible umbrella softbox is a low-cost combination of umbrella portability and quality light diffusion with softbox performance and spill control. Its disadvantage is its umbrella construction, which cannot take the shape of rectangular softboxes, and comes in different sizes.
- Multi-function umbrella softbox: Savage Universal’s photographer Cheryl Woods suggests pairing this two-in-one light diffuser with a standard umbrella adapter to achieve a softbox’s soft, directional light.
Tubular Insights suggests asking these questions when making a decision:
- What is the purpose of your project?
- What are your subjects: people, animals, inanimate objects, or nature?
- What kind of shot do you want?
- Do you want more control over your lighting?
- Do you prefer light to cover a small or broad area?
The Best Option Depends on Your Skill and Purpose
Your answers to the above questions dictate which light modifier to use. Also, the differences outlined previously show how they perform in various scenarios.
No single light modifier covers everything, but softboxes and umbrella diffusers are both excellent at softening light, and there’s no contest between the two. Both are vital gear in videographers’ and photographers’ kits.
Although they operate similarly, each format has unique features. Give both a test drive to get the look you prefer.
However, if your budget restricts you to choose only one, select according to:
- How the modifier controls the quality of illumination.
- How its light control method complements your shooting needs and creative goals.
- Compatibility with your existing lighting equipment.
Expert Photography’s Chad Verzosa recommends collapsible umbrella softboxes for novices because they’re easy to use. He believes these are ideal for all kinds of photography, from portraiture to still life. He prefers these himself but also keeps traditional rectangular softboxes handy for specific shoots.
Although it’s practical to start with an umbrella, you don’t have to limit yourself to it. If you think a softbox is more appropriate for what you do, then get one.
There’s no “one size fits all” solution to artificial lighting, as your choice of light modifier depends on the effects you want to achieve, your specialty, subjects, and budget. Whatever you choose, any light modifier makes light softer and consistent when used correctly.
Place the light source close to the subject, and take the flash off-camera when possible.
You don’t need a vast array of light modifiers to create astounding imagery, but you should know how to use them. Learn, practice, experiment, and carry on shooting.
Check out whether you can use a storage unit as a photography studio.
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