Umbrellas vs. Softboxes: Key Differences

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  By Jennifer Berube
Umbrellas vs. Softboxes: Key Differences

Today we discus Softboxes vs Umbrellas. When you see a professional photographer setting up for a photo shoot, you probably see some weird looking lights. You may see some lights that look like they have an umbrella attached, and you may see some that look like big boxes of light. These are umbrellas and softboxes and they are vital parts of any photographer’s studio.

Studio lighting is very important and it comes down to the lighting. The question you have to ask yourself is whether or not you want softboxes or umbrellas for your lighting. They both have benefits and disadvantages, and it all depends on what exactly your needs are. Both are highly beneficial to your studio, so getting one or the other is going to improve things no matter what.

Why Choose Umbrellas?

Let’s dive into umbrellas first.

An umbrella looks exactly like an umbrella, except it is often white or opaque, and it helps spread the light around. The umbrella is highly versatile and one of the biggest benefits of it is that it will create extra light when you need it, but also create more dimness and darkness when you need that as well. You can choose translucent umbrellas because they are easier to close on a subject, or back away from a subject to create unique looks and lighting moods for your photography. You can choose reflective umbrellas though, to create a more uniform amount of light in the studio.

One of the biggest advantages to using umbrellas is the fact that they are excellent for macro photography. When you force light onto a subject in a macro setting, with light at different angles, you can get many different effects that can aid the picture you are taking. It can define the features of a subject, even if that subject is very small. It can also create a gentle light over the subject, allowing you to literally show it in a new light with your photography. Regardless of how you use the umbrella light, you are going to get some real advantages from it when you are taking macro photos.

Why Choose Softboxes?

One of the biggest advantages of something like a softbox is the fact that they are very easy to use. They can be used by nearly anyone and may be the best option if you are new to studio photography and want to learn more about lighting before you upgrade to something like an umbrella light.

Softboxes are great because they can allow you to change the direction of the light on the subject by moving the softbox around the studio. This will let you play with lighting angles, shadows and more. When using a softbox, always take test shots first to make sure you get the right lighting from the softbox when you are shooting the subject.

One advantage of the softbox is also the fact that you can take it and move it directly in front of the subject, without washing the subject out, if you want to create a softer light on the subject. If a softbox is at a distance, it can result in a strong amount of contrast on the subject, or the subject being in harsh light. That being said, if you are finding the subject’s lighting is very flat, you can move the softbox around to a different angle in order to give more definition on the subject through the use of the shadows.

Which One?

So, which one should you choose? Which one should you decide is best for you when you are starting up your new studio? It can be hard to choose but really it all comes down to your personal taste and what you need the lighting for. Are you shooting portraits? Product photography? Macro?

If you want to do lighting with more definition and you are looking to challenge yourself a bit more, then you should consider umbrella lights. They do tend to be more expensive and there is a learning curve but it is by no means too difficult to use an umbrella light. If you want something a bit simpler, and you aren’t worried about how defined a subject is, or you’re not doing macro photography, then a softbox is going to be the best option for you.

Play around with both options and see which one is going to work best for you. Test things out. You may find you like the softbox, or you may find you prefer the umbrella.

Whichever you prefer, make the lights work to your advantage, and know how to use them so that your pictures stand out with proper lighting, excellent definition and striking shadows that make people see your subject in an entirely new light. That is the power that comes from something as simple as studio lights and the filter that is in front of them.

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Before I became Editor-in-Chief of PHLEARN Magazine, I spent over five years specializing in Photography Writing and contributed articles regularly to sites like PictureCorrect, Sleeklens, and PhotoWorkout. Photography has always been a huge passion of mine; I may not be professionally trained in the art, but the knowledge and experience I have gained writing about photography techniques, interviewing some of the biggest and most inspiring photographers out there, and covering industry events has been invaluable!

Comments (1)

  1. Fabio Guest

    Thank you for writing this down, it clarifies a lot.