Softbox vs Umbrella

Last Updated on March 16, 2021

Are you trying to decide whether to go with a softbox or an umbrella for your lighting modifier? In this article you will learn the difference between the two and which is better for your style and photography skill level.

woman in yellow sunglasses

When we look at portrait photography lighting we keep four primary factors in mind.

Color, direction, quantity and quality.

Most most portrait photographers utilize monolights, speedlights or strobes but most of the time these lighting sources require a modifier to enhance their quality and to achieve the best image quality possible.

Both umbrellas and softboxes offer you specific advantages as well as trade offs you must be aware of.

With that in mind though, there is one important similarity between the two. And that is, they both can be adjusted closer or further away from your subject to increase or decrease the softness of your lighting. Always remember that the closer your lighting source is to the subject the softer the lighting will be.

What Is The Difference Between an Umbrella and a Softbox?

Softboxes are the most popular lighting modifier for portrait photographers. They are great at diffusing your studio lighting and creating flattering light for your subject. Umbrellas, also a popular modifier, create a broader light than the well controlled lighting emitted through a softbox. Think of the softbox as producing lighting much like that of sun shining through an open window.

What Is a Softbox?

A softbox is a photography light modifier used to create soft light that mimics sunshine coming through a window. The softbox creates a beautiful diffused lighting effect when used with a speedlight, monolight, or strobe.

You will find softboxes that come in a number of shapes but usually octogon, squeare and rectangle. They also come in many size options ensuring you can get the best setup for your particular needs.

One great advantage of using a softbox is that due to shooting through the modifier you can use a much less powerful flash to get the same results needed when using an umbrella. This means less power for the aperture.

Softboxes also work well with accessories such as louvers and grids.

What Is an Umbrella?

The umbrella is a long used and very popular light modifier. They offer numerous great features including great portability, ease of use and they are priced reasonably.

For this reason they are great for the beginner or photographer on a budget.

Umbrellas provide a very broad light source that is the best for simulating natural outdoor lighting.

The portability makes them great for the traveling photographer on a budget. If you travel to sessions or setup and take down your equipment frequently you will appreciate the umbrellas ease of use.

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There are two different versions that you can go with. The shoot through umbrella and the reflective umbrella. Here are the primary differences between the two types.

Reflective Umbrella: They offer an opaque metallic design that can diffuse light when the inner side is facing the outside facing your subject. Then by shooting your flash at the reflective surface allowing your hard light to bounce off creating a softer more flattering lighting.

Shoot Through Umbrella: These are designed with a translucent white material that diffuses your flash light when shot through the umbrella. When the flash light passes through the translucent material it is diffused and produces a very pleasant light for your subjects.

Positioning impacts the quality and intensity of your lighting. When you place your umbrella in the traditional position you will need to use a more powerful lighting source because the light is diffused much broader than when using a softbox. But that broad lighting offers the bonus that all you have to do is point your umbrella at your subject to get great, soft lighting.

Which Is Best Softbox vs Umbrella

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I shoot with both softboxes and umbrellas but I definitely use my softbox more. They both offer excellent light modification and can be used interchangeably if you’re a photographer on a budget. But they do offer differences that can be seen in your photographs.

If lighting type is your primary deciding factor then choose a softbox if you want light similar to that of sun shining on your subjects from an open window. But if you prefer lighting you get when shooting outdoors then go with an umbrella.

If low price or portability are your main concern then an umbrella is a great fit for your needs. While if you plan to shoot in a dedicated studio you may want to go with a softbox instead.

For more photography tips and guides check out these articles