Several types of light modifiers can be used to make your videography look more professional. Two of the most popular modifiers among videographers are umbrellas and softboxes. But which is better for your videography needs?
Umbrellas are best for beginners or videographers who want more versatile, soft, diffused lighting to cover a large, open space. On the other hand, softboxes are best if you desire more precise, directional, and controlled lighting for more enclosed spaces.
Although umbrellas and softboxes are very similar, they have a few key differences that benefit different types of videography. Keep reading to learn more about these lighting modifiers, how to use them, how they work, and which will better suit you personally.
Is a Softbox or Umbrella Better?
Umbrellas and softboxes are two of the most commonly used light modifiers in photography and videography, thanks to their ease of use, cost-effectiveness, and impressive results.
Both umbrellas and softboxes work similarly.
They are meant to diffuse or spread out a light source over a particular space, giving you a well-lit, natural, and professional-looking result in your videography and photography projects. They are both great for beginners and experts alike who want soft, natural lighting at a reasonably low cost.
However, softboxes are a bit more pricey.
Whether or not you use an umbrella or softbox as your light modifier depends highly on a few factors:
- Where are you recording? If you’re recording video in a vast, open space or outdoors, an umbrella might be best. If you’re recording video in a more confined space, however, a softbox is probably a better bet.
- What is your budget? Umbrellas tend to be far less expensive than softboxes, although they both are easily accessible for beginners and experienced videographers alike.
- What are your specific videography needs? Umbrellas are more versatile yet offer way less control over your light source’s general direction and shape since they are meant for wider shots in more open spaces. You might need a softbox if you’re shooting in a confined space.
- Are you going to be on the go or recording in one stationary place? Softboxes aren’t as portable as umbrellas and are usually much heavier. They take more time to set up and move around, while umbrellas are much better suited for being transported to different spaces regularly.
To help you better decide which lighting modifier suits your needs, we’ll now cover the pros and cons of both.
If it is for photography, check out my guide to which is better between umbrella diffuser vs. softbox.
Pros and Cons: Umbrellas
Although they are very similar and are both meant to diffuse a light source over a specific area, umbrellas and softboxes aren’t the same. While they both are lighting diffusers that produce soft, natural lighting, umbrellas have far less control and spread light over a much larger space.
Control and Precision
You shouldn’t expect a lot of control over the precise direction of your lighting with an umbrella, but they’re great for larger shots in more open areas. They also are very forgiving for beginner videographers, as they produce broad, soft, natural light that makes most subjects look great regardless of the setting.
Cost and Portability
Additionally, umbrellas are great for videographers on the go who are interested in a light diffuser that is versatile, inexpensive, and easy to set up and move around. They are highly portable, fairly lightweight, and work for various videography needs, even if they don’t offer you much control over exactly where the light falls on your subjects.
Recording In a Large vs. Confined Space
If you’re recording video outdoors, in a large room, or an otherwise large and open space, an umbrella is probably the better light diffuser for you. While umbrellas don’t have very specific uses, they are a great all-around solution if you’re on a tight budget and can’t afford a wide range of different, expensive light modifiers.
Umbrellas Might Be a Better Purchase
Generally, if you’re a beginner, an umbrella might be a better purchase to help take your video recording to a more professional-looking level if you’re trying to decide on your very first light diffuser.
Pros and Cons: Softboxes
On the other hand, softboxes are best for small, more enclosed spaces where you want to easily control your lighting direction. While umbrellas mimic broad, natural sunlight more closely, softboxes emulate more narrow, precise lighting, as if it were coming in from a window.
More Control In Confined Spaces
Softboxes are also easily modifiable with attachments like grids to help you get even more control over your lighting direction and shape.
Unfortunately, softboxes are heavier, bulkier, and generally more expensive than umbrellas, so they aren’t as well-suited for beginners. They also aren’t as versatile as umbrellas for larger spaces.
If you’re recording video often in small areas and want more dramatic, controlled lighting for your subjects, a softbox is probably the better choice. They are ideal for users with their own studio spaces, while an umbrella is better for people who record in various different settings.
Lighting Effects Are Limited
However, keep in mind that softboxes aren’t meant to be an all-purpose light diffuser in the same way umbrellas are. They are intended to create even, narrow lighting over a small space. While you might get away with using an umbrella in a small, enclosed space, you definitely won’t be able to use a softbox in a wide, open space.
Check out which is better for video studios: PowerDirector vs. Adobe Premiere.
How Do Lighting Modifiers Work?
Both umbrellas and softboxes are, as mentioned above, lighting diffusers, meaning they are designed to take your light source and spread it over a specific area. They are not light sources by themselves.
Umbrellas are a great all-purpose light diffuser, though they aren’t as easily controllable as softboxes.
While your light source would typically go directly into the back of your softbox to be directed as needed, an umbrella is usually set up behind or around whatever you’re recording with a light source pointed towards it. The umbrella, in turn, reflects or diffuses the lighting and spreads it evenly over the space you’re recording.
There are two types of umbrellas used in photography and videography: reflective and shoot-through. While they are both quite similar, they have slightly different uses.
To use a reflective umbrella, you would direct your light source at the inside of it while it’s open, and the reflective surface would then bounce the lighting back towards your subject.
Shoot-through umbrellas, on the other hand, are used almost the same way but with one key difference. You point the back of the umbrella towards your subject while the light source is placed behind it. Shoot-through umbrellas usually use a soft, opaque fabric to diffuse the light through rather than a reflective surface to bounce the lighting off of.
Both types of umbrellas are cheap, easy to use, and produce similar results: soft, natural lighting covering a large space.
Generally, softboxes are meant to be put on top of, in front of, or around your light source.
In most cases, your softbox will have an opening in the back meant for your light source to fit into. Typically, they have reflective material on their inside backing, and the front is covered by a thin layer of nylon or polyester.
The term “softbox” explains it perfectly: It’s a box-shaped device that softens and diffuses your lighting for a more natural and better-looking result.
The main reason why softboxes are so great for more narrow, directional lighting is that they confine your light source and then project it through nylon, polyester, or another type of fabric, which spreads it across your studio space or wherever you’re recording.
They can be moved or redirected for better, more precise lighting, though they are heavier and bulkier than the typical umbrella.
If you are interested, check out my guide to making a DIY cardboard softbox.
Overall, umbrellas and softboxes produce similar results, though umbrellas provide less control and directionality over your light source. They are best for recording in open spaces, like outdoors or in large rooms, while softboxes are better for more precise, narrow lighting in smaller and more enclosed areas.
Additionally, umbrellas are a bit more versatile, lightweight, and easier to use effectively, while softboxes take more precision and are more challenging to move around. The type of diffuser best for you depends on your personal preference, budget, and videography needs.