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Softbox vs Umbrella photography: What is the difference?

If you have been experimenting with off camera flash at all, at some point you have contemplated using a light modifier such as an umbrella or a soft box. These flash modifiers can add a tremendous amount to helping you control the quality of light on your subject. But often, the biggest decision you will face is how to choose between them? What is the difference between the quality of light each one offers?

Hard light

Hard lighting means that the shadows are distinct, even sharp.   Generally, more contrast is apparent in a scene lit by a hard light.  A bare speedlight will produce a small light source compared to the subject, even if it is placed only a few feet away.  The transition between lit and shaded sides will be a strong, distinct and sharp shadow.

A smaller light source creates more contrast, sharper shadows.

This first image was lit with a single, unmodified speed light placed about 5 feet away to the left of the subject.  (You can see the reflection of the small light source on the balls).  Note how much texture is brought out of the felt on the pool table.  This is due to the relatively small, high contrast light source and the angle it is lighting the scene by.  The shadows on the billiard balls is very distinct and the edge of the shadow is hard.  Additionally, a very distinct shadow of the balls on the table surface can be seen.  If you want a dramatically lit scene with lots of contrast, this is one way to get there.

Soft light

Put that same speedlight into a light modifier like an umbrella or softbox and it becomes a much larger light source.  The shadow edges become less distinct and can make all the difference in the quality and feel of the photograph.

A larger light source produces much softer, less distinct shadows

This second photograph was made with the speed light placed inside of 76cm x 76cm (30″ x 30′) soft box and placed 1 foot away from the subject, making the light source very large compared to the subject.  The biggest difference between this image and the previous one is the less distinct shadow edges, both on the balls and on the table behind them.  The texture of the table felt is also softer, due to the less distinct shadow and lower relative contrasting nature of the larger light source.  This type of lighting de-emphasizes small skin flaws in portraits and generally softens the skin texture.  More detail can be seen in the shaded side of the subject as the bigger light tends to wrap around the subject more.

Neither type of lighting is necessarily better than the other, but learning how to control the quality of the lighting can give the photographer a greater range of tools to control the mood of the photo being taken.

Lighting Modifiers

Two of the most popular off camera lighting modifiers are the umbrella and the soft box.  While they both accomplish the same basic function of making a small light source larger, how they go about it is different and the construction of the modifier makes for subtle differences in how and where you will use each one.

Umbrellas

An umbrella is basically what it sounds like.  It is a collapsable umbrella constructed exactly like your rain umbrella with an important difference:  The inside surface of the umbrella is a highly reflective white fabric and the exterior is covered in a black, opaque fabric.  The umbrella is mounted onto a special bracket on a light stand and opened up.  A light source (speed light or studio strobe) is mounted onto the bracket facing into the open umbrella.  When fired, the light from the flash unit reflects off of the inside of the umbrella.  The advantages of an umbrella is that it is inexpensive, comes in various sizes, and is a relatively directional light source (meaning that you can control where the light goes to a certain degree).

The classic reflection lighting umbrella.

The biggest limitation of the umbrella as a light source is how close you can place it to your subject.  The closest you can get the actual light source (the reflective interior of the umbrella) is usually 3 or 4 feet (about 1.0 to 1.5 metres).  This limits how “big” or soft you can make the light source.  The second disadvantage to a reflective umbrella is that it is normally difficult to diffuse the light to soften it further (although there are some creative work arounds).

Shoot through umbrellas

There is a second type of umbrella that can be used.  Sometimes the entire fabric of the umbrella is a translucent white fabric, so that rather than being reflected off of the interior of the umbrella, the light passes through the open umbrella.  In this manner, rather than being a reflected light source, the shoot through umbrella is a diffuse, transmitted light source, similar to a soft box.  Because the light stand and the bracket no longer get between the subject and the light source, the shoot through umbrella can be placed very close to your subject, allowing the diffused light to become the largest is possibly can, relative to the subject, making for the softest light possible that almost wraps around the subject, leaving very pleasant, light, gradational shadows.

translucent shoot through umbrella light modifier

Unfortunately, because of the curved surface of the umbrella and its open back end, it is not a very directionally controllable light source.  When you use a shoot through umbrella, light spills out everywhere, which can be a challenge for technically precise lighting situations.  When you use this as a light source, you will light up everything in the room.

Some umbrellas are sold as a convertible reflective/shoot through umbrella.  The outer black cover can be removed to allow the umbrella to be used as a shoot through type.  Some reflective efficiency is lost with this type of umbrella, but that is more than made up for by versatility.

Soft boxes

A soft box attempts to harness the advantages of the umbrella and do away with the disadvantages.  It is literally a reflectively lined box covered on the large open end with a diffuse fabric.  The light source is placed inside the other end of the box and mounted on a light stand using a special bracket .  The soft box gives a controlled, extremely soft, diffused lighting that can be very precisely directed without any major light spillage.  The soft box can be placed extremely close to the subject or pointed to “feather” the light just across the edge of the subject.

Soft box light modifier gives a directionally controllable, soft light.

It is a versatile light source that is very popular among professional photographers for all of the advantages it brings.  Its disadvantage is mostly that is costs quite a bit more than the simple umbrella and that a special bracket must be used that is designed to fit your particular type of light source.  There are a limited number of models that can be used with speed lights.

Which is a better choice?

Which light modifier is the better choice?  That largely depends on you, your style of shooting and your budget.  As a beginner, the least expensive option might be to pick up a simple umbrella or convertible umbrella kit, which should include the flash bracket and light stand.  When funds allow and your experience is greater, add an appropriate soft box to your kit. Many excellent photographers take amazing photographs using a single reflective umbrella.

In the end, it is up to the photographer to use the equipment available.  Having a large light modifier is an important step to take your flash photography to another level by giving you more choices in how to light a scene.

Just a warning, however:  accumulating lighting modifiers can become an expensive addiction once you get started.  Try to learn how to use each one to maximum effect before you buy your next one.  Your bank account (and perhaps your spouse) will appreciate it.

Tell us your experiences with light modifiers

What is your favourite type of lighting modifier?  Do you use lighting modifiers?  Why or why not?  Point us to some of your images on flickr or Facebook.

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