When working with flash lighting, it is rarely the case that bare-bulb flash is the ideal choice for lighting subjects, especially when those subjects are wedding participants and your objective is to create inviting, flattering light. Flash can be modified in several ways, which all effectively diffuse and redirect the initial light source into a broader, more aesthetically pleasing source that is ideally suited for creating interesting and controllable illumination.
Softboxes and umbrellas are two of the most frequently used light modifiers, and both work to soften and diffuse light by spreading the initial beam to create a larger light source. Both modification tools are generally portable solutions that can be adapted to a range of light types, from external camera flashes to the most powerful studio flash packs.
An umbrella is one of the most simple and straightforward flash modifiers and, as such, it is one of the most versatile. There are two basic styles: the reflective umbrella, in which the inside of the umbrella is directed at the subject, and the shoot-through umbrella, which is made from translucent white fabric and whose outside is pointed toward the subject. Both umbrellas have their benefits, depending on the type and quality of lighting desired and the distance of the subject from the light source.
Reflective umbrellas are designed to have the flash fire into them, reflect, and then bounce the light onto the subject. The umbrella expands the size of the light source, and the resulting light has a broader, softer quality compared to a bare flash. Reflective umbrellas have an opaque covering on the outside to prevent light from passing through and escaping. This ability to contain the light makes it a more efficient light source than a plain white, translucent umbrella through which light passes. Reflective umbrellas can also have colored interiors, such as silver or gold, to brighten or warm the light to better suit the subject.
For shooting weddings, a gold-lined umbrella will help warm skin tones and give people a healthier look, but may also affect the color of the wedding dress itself. Silver-lined umbrellas will help intensify the quality of light with little or no color cast. A plain white umbrella with a black backing will offer the most neutral color of light, but compared to the metallic-lined umbrellas, tends to diffuse a bit more and reflect a bit less.
Shoot-through umbrellas work to broaden and soften the light source and create a more pleasing overall quality of light than the bare flash itself. They work in the opposite way that reflective umbrellas do. Shoot-through umbrellas are constructed from translucent white fabric through which the flash passes to produce soft, seamless light. The benefit of working with a shoot-through type of umbrella is that you can place it closer to your subject—the ability to place your light source closer to your subject produces a softer light, which is especially well-suited to wedding photography and portraiture.
Umbrella Shapes and Sizes
In addition to the choice between reflective or shoot-through umbrellas, size and shape are determining factors. The larger the umbrella, the softer the quality of the light it will reflect, but at the expense of requiring a more powerful light to fill it. Then again, you might not need a 7-foot umbrella for single or couples portraits. Conversely, however, if you're working with larger groups of people, then larger and multiple umbrellas are the most suitable choice for modifying your flash output.
The final consideration when choosing an umbrella is its shape: either regular, parabolic, or a combination of a softbox and an umbrella. Regular umbrellas, true to their name, feature a standard convex shape made of triangular panels, fold up compactly, and are available in a wide range of sizes from 20" to more than 7'. A parabolic umbrella resembles a traditional umbrella, but has a more rounded profile. These umbrellas, which are typically larger than regular umbrellas, are designed with more panels that produce a focal point of light. In turn, the light produced by a parabolic umbrella has a distinctive wraparound quality that can appear more natural than light from other umbrella shapes. The umbrella/softbox configuration is a hybrid between a softbox and an umbrella, and blends the characteristics of both types of light modifiers together. They exhibit the traditional shape and form factor of an umbrella, but have a front diffusion panel to fine-tune control of light output.
Softboxes are also used for softening and increasing the size of a smaller light source, and diffuse light sources not unlike umbrellas—with a few notable differences. A softbox controls the shape and direction of light more than an umbrella and prevents more light-spill from occurring. Softboxes, since they are generally rectangular, also have the advantage of being able to produce natural-looking light by mimicking the shape of a window.
Just as with umbrellas, softboxes are available in a variety of different shapes and sizes and can all be employed to suit the subject matter. A larger softbox will produce softer light, but will also require greater light output to sufficiently fill the entire softbox. If you're shooting with a handheld camera at a wedding, with a flash on- or just off-camera, a smaller softbox makes an ideal companion for easily diffusing light on single subjects at a closer range. With groups or full-body shots, larger softboxes or multiple softboxes are a more viable option for accomplishing soft, even lighting. As a rule of thumb, the size of a softbox should be approximately the same size as your subject; meaning a head shot or half shot could require softboxes in the range of about 18 to 24", whereas full-body shots could require multiple softboxes in the 48" or larger range.
Aside from different sizes of softboxes, different shapes also allow one to alter the quality of light. This can be especially apparent when photographing people from closer range, since the shape of the light source used can often be seen in the reflections in their eyes (called “catch” lights). Softboxes are available in a variety of shapes such as rectangular, square, octagonal, or long, thin strips. Less common shapes are hexagonal, parabolic and round. The effects of each of these shapes can be applied to the specific subject, and can be used in combination to develop a well-rounded image that reaps the benefits of such. Additionally, similar to umbrellas, different interior surface types are available—silver or white—and will alter the quality of the light output. A silver lining will give a more specular appearance with greater contrast and light transmission, while a white lining is ideal for maintaining neutral colors.
Umbrellas versus Softboxes
Both umbrellas and softboxes are a viable means of softening the quality of light from a bare bulb or unadulterated flash source, and both can be used quite effectively for producing flattering light that is well suited for capturing wedding events. When deciding between the two types of light modifiers, certain considerations should be taken to choose the best option. Umbrellas are typically the more portable option of the two, since they can break down to a small, thin size fast, but softboxes are great for replicating window light. Both can be unwieldy to use in windy conditions without sand-bagging your light stands. The light quality from umbrellas and softboxes is also somewhat different, even though they both work to soften and broaden the light overall. Due to their inherent forms, a softbox will produce a wider, flatter, and more even type of light that lessens the intensity of shadow edges and has less directionality than umbrella light. An umbrella’s curved shape will produce light with more apparent directionality and more pop to the edges of the shadows.
Becoming familiar with both types of modifiers will increase your options for creativity, and being able to pair one or the other to the specific subject matter will result in the most effective solution for transforming the quality of light from a standard flash. A combination of the two is sometimes the best option to show versatility and to pair the flash light source with the existing ambient light.
Which do you prefer for most lighting scenarios? Are you a fan of umbrellas or a fan of softboxes? Let us know in the Comments section, below.