Flash lighting is necessary for lighting the subjects of your portraits, so you can cast a flattering and inviting light. After all, our job, as photographers is to make them look their best? The ambience you create with lighting goes further than anything. Ask any woman that has had her makeup and hair perfectly styled for a wedding or any other special occasion and she can name at least 10 instances off the top of her head where bad lighting was less than flattering.
So, with the lighting that you provide, you’ve got to effectively diffuse it, so it lends an aesthetically-pleasing appeal to it, lest you incur the wrath of your models. Photography umbrellas and softboxes are the most commonly used light modifiers. Each of them softens and diffuses light by creating a larger light source from spreading the initial beam of it.
When out in the field, you’ll want portable light modification tools along for the job, but how do you know which umbrella or softbox to choose? In this post, I’m going to tell you more about them and how you can pick the right one for each shoot. You can also check out my other post about reflectors and how to pick the right color for your shot.
What are photography umbrellas?
A photography umbrella isn’t like the kind of umbrella you use to keep rain away. These are made with different material that help make the most of your lighting. Having a photography umbrella is one of the simplest of flash modifiers and is very versatile for just about any shoot.
Photography umbrellas come in two styles. One is reflective, where the inside of it is directed toward the subject. The other is a shoot-through umbrella which has translucent white fabric. For this one, the outside is pointed in the direction of the subject. They’re both quite handy but it really depends on the quality of lighting desired and how far your subject is from the light source to decide which one you should use.
I’m providing further details about these photography umbrellas, so keep reading to discover more about them.
With reflective umbrellas, the flash fires into them and reflects, bouncing light onto your subject. Because it opens up the light source, it casts a broader, softer light which is far more flattering than a bare flash. On the outside, they have an opaque covering to keep your light from simply passing through. Because it contains your light, it’s a much more efficient modifier than a white translucent umbrella.
Reflective umbrellas are also available with colored interiors like gold or silver which can add warmth to your portraits and cast your subject in a more favorable light. I always recommend testing these out with willing friends or family members because testing your equipment is the only way to know how to make it a success in the field. You’d never want to just get a colored reflective umbrella and bring it along without knowing how to make the most of it.
These are fantastic for wedding portraits because they add perfect warmth to skin tones and make for a healthier, fresh-faced look, but sometimes, it can alter the color of the wedding dress so you’ll need to be careful. With silver-lined umbrellas, the quality of the light is intensified and you get little to no color cast. For more neutral color of light, I suggest the plain white photography umbrella with the black backing, though they diffuse the light more and reflect less than the metallic-lined umbrellas. Again, experimenting is crucial to getting the lights to work in your favor to create your perfect portraits.
With shoot-through umbrellas, you get broader, softer light you also get a more aesthetically-pleasing quality of light over just the flash itself, however, they’re a bit opposite than that of reflective umbrellas. With these, the flash passes through the translucent white fabric and gives you a really soft and seamless light. This type of photography umbrella is best when you put it closer to your subject. Lighting like this is just gorgeous for all kinds of portraits, particularly those for weddings.
One of the latest and greatest photography tools is the parabolic umbrella, made popular by Paul C. Buff. It focuses the flash pattern and gives you an incredibly high quality of light. It’s a bit more expensive, but it’s worth the investment, particularly if you’re doing fashion and beauty photography.
Parabolic umbrellas have a focusing rod and while they look similar to a photography umbrella to the untrained eye, the key distinction is that they can throw stunning light a long way because of their unique parabolic shape. The focusing rod works like fresnels along with the flood and spot function to give you numerous lighting options.
The light source itself is mounted onto the focusing rod and creates a sublimely smooth gradation from the reflected light. The higher-end the brand, the more reflected panels these have, the advantage of that being that you get a more circular source and a true parabolic effect.
I’ve created some truly stunning portraits using my parabolic umbrella. It allows for more freedom of artistic expression in your work thanks to the focusing rod and the way you can manipulate the light. It gently bathes your subjects in the most flattering light, allowing you to capture their beauty.
Photography Umbrella Shapes and Sizes
Of course, it’s not as simple as choosing one of the umbrellas I’ve outlined above and calling it a day. You also need to take size and shape into consideration. In most cases, the larger your photography umbrella is, the softer the light quality reflected. The caveat here is that you’ll need a more powerful light to fill a larger umbrella.
Consider how you’ll be using an umbrella for your portraits. If you’re merely sticking to taking portraits of portrait or couples’ photography, those jumbo umbrellas aren’t the best choice for you. However, if you’ll be regularly shooting larger groups of people, it’s worth choosing a larger 7-foot umbrella to best modify your flash output and make the entire group look fantastic.
What are Softboxes?
Your other solid choice for modifying your light source are softboxes. These are great for use with a smaller light source and also diffuse the light, much like photography umbrellas. However, there are some differences that are worth noting. For one, a softbox can control the direction of the light as well as the shape of it better than an umbrella. For another, they also can keep light-spill from occurring. Since they’re usually rectangular in shape, they bring another distinctive advantage to your shoots because they replicate natural-looking light like you’d get from a window, only with much more control.
Softboxes are also available in many shapes and sizes, just as photography umbrellas are. Choosing a larger softbox means you’ll get much softer light, but just like choosing a larger umbrella, you’ll need a higher light output to fill it properly. Smaller softboxes are great if you’re shooting with a handheld camera, perfect for diffusing the light on individual subjects at a much closer range.
But for groups, the larger the softbox, the better. Sometimes even using several of them at once is ideal for casting that soft, even lighting over everyone in the group. Generally speaking, you should use a softbox that is about 18 to 24 inches for head shots or half shots and for full-body shots, choose multiple softboxes that are 48 inches or larger.
Now, let’s get to the shapes of softboxes. There are many different ones to choose besides rectangular. They come in square, octagonal or even long, thing strips. You may also find them shaped like hexagons or as parabolic or even round. These shapes can bring a different focus to your portraits and you may even find that using different ones together can create the effect you’re looking for. Playing is always encouraged to discover the benefits each has before you take it out in the field for a professional shoot.
But that’s not all, in fact, far from it. Softboxes are also like umbrellas in that they feature different interior surfaces, silver or white, that will also change the quality of your light output. Silver creates a more specular appearance, giving you greater contrast and transmission of light. If you want to maintain neutral colors though, white is your best choice.
Umbrellas Vs. Softboxes: Which One You Should Use?
And so now we get down to the real issue at hand…which one should you use? Photography umbrellas or softboxes? Both are perfectly portable and flattering ways to soften light quality from your light source, flash or otherwise, and they can both be used for making your subjects look their best. They both have many different options within each category that can help you make your portraits more distinctive.
There are a few things that may help you decide between them though I have several options of each. I’ll tell you exactly why…because there are certain times when I favor one over the other. While both are portable, umbrellas are much more so, because they can break down into a small and thin size, and quickly too. Softboxes can’t be folded up like your umbrella can, but they do a beautiful job of replicating window light. It often depends what kind of shoot I’m going to for which one I’ll favor.
Unfortunately though, neither of these is ideal in windy conditions, at least not without adding sandbags to your light stands. I highly recommend doing this or you’ll be chasing your modifiers down the shore at a beach wedding with amused wedding guests looking on while sipping their champagne.
Wind aside, both are ideal companions for your shoots, though working with them and getting familiar with their capabilities for modifying your light sources is encouraged because you can test your limits and know what these are capable of. Softboxes give you a wider and more even type of light, lessening the edges of shadows, but they have less direction than umbrellas. Umbrellas have that curve that adds direction so you get more distinction on shadows.
Sometimes though, using both together can create some truly brilliant results. Trying out your options can make for interesting portraits that will give you your own distinctive style. It all comes down to how you intend to go through your shoot, who you’re shooting, and how many people in each portrait to make a wise choice, and each time, you may choose something different or make use of them beautifully together.
A good photographer should have at least one of each of these light modifiers. If money is tight, try choosing one of each that allows you more versatility so you can accomplish more styles with fewer accessories. You may even want to pull out your reflectors for use with either of these to help. I’ve posted about reflectors before so you can read up on that as well.
I’ve said it dozens of times, but it’s so important, which is why I keep repeating it: practice. Friends and family will love the chance to be photographed so set up a portrait shoot with your umbrella and your softbox and find your groove with each of them. Then try them together. Let your inner artist speak and use that creativity. See what works and what doesn’t. It will only make you a better photographer by experimenting with your equipment. You may even find something unique that works for you. Some photographers swear by umbrellas while others prefer their softboxes. Because there are so many factors that can affect your choice, I say go with what works best in the scenes you’re working with. No doubt, you’ll likely have your favorites, but whichever one you favor, you’ll be glad to have the versatility of both these modifiers on your side any time you need them