Photography / Buying Guide

A Guide to Choosing Umbrellas and Softboxes

         

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 a number of 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 of these 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.

Umbrellas

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

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

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. Generally speaking, 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

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 general 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 rectangularsquareoctagonal, or long, thin strips. Less common shapes are hexagonalparabolic 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.

For more information about umbrellas and softboxes, speak to a sales professional at B&H, in our New York SuperStore, over the phone at 1-800-606-6969 or online via Live Chat.

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I have never used artificial light before. I am shooting a wedding on the beach in the middle of the day and have no idea what I need. Also, the reception is a very small dinner indoors. What lighting equipment is needed. I was planning on buying the yn685 but I'm unsure if that's what I should go with. Do I need umbrellas or soft boxes? How many? What can be used for a small intimate space indoors? 

The middle of the day is a very tough time to get great pictures. Without a flash and/or reflector, the bright sun will cause bright highlights and dark shadows. To get great and flattering photos, it ia necessary to use some sort of help with the light. Even an assistant with a reflector will help, but a difused flash from one or more soft boxes or umbrellas will be very helpful if the situation can tolerate the setup and posing. An assistant with a reflector is often helpful.

The response would depend on your setup and how far the flashes will be from the people you wish to illuminate.  The main issue is you will be fighting with the sun; the output power of most flashes outdoors will mainly be filling in shadows on the subject.  If you want the flashes to be main light sources, then they will have to have higher output to compete with the ambient light produced by the sun.  The secondary issues would be if you use an umbrella or softbox, this will also reduce the light output by the flash unit; also, battery power would need to be considered, as you will need replacement batteries to power you through the entire wedding (most hot shoe flashes output about 100-150 flashes at full output per charge, more if used at lower output).

If you will be using the flash as an on-camera light for fill-flash purposes, then the Yongnuo YN685 TTL flash you list will work for your needs.  If you wish to use the flashes off-camera as additional lighting, then power may be an issue, depending on how close you may place your lights/light stands to your subject without them interfering with the wedding.  The Yongnuo would be the most economical option (and the only one having TTL capabilities), but would have the least amount of output power.   With the Yongnuo flash, the Impact Umbrella Bracket with Adjustable Shoe, B&H # IMUB, would allow you to connect the flash to a light stand and to use an umbrella.   The Impact Convertible Umbrella - White Satin with Removable Black Backing - 45", B&H # IMU45BW, would be a good umbrella option, while the Raya EFS-30 Easy Fold Softbox Set (30 x 30"), B&H # RAEFS30, would be a decent softbox for your needs. 

The second option would be to consider the Bolt VB-22 Bare-Bulb Flash Kit with Cyclone PP-400DR Power Pack, B&H # BOVB22K, which is a manual flash, but which has more than 3x the flash output power of the Yongnuo flash.  The Impact Convertible Umbrella - White Satin with Removable Black Backing - 45",  B&H # IMU45BW, would still be recommended, though the Bolt Umbrella Mounting Kit for VB-Series Bare-Bulb Flashes, B&H # BOVBUMK, would be the adapter to connect umbrellas to the flash.  You would also need a different softbox (and speedring) to use a softbox on this flash.   The The Impact Speed Ring for Bolt VB, Quantum Q & Lumedyne Series Flashes, B&H # IMSRBOLT, and the Impact Luxbanx Medium Rectangular Softbox (24 x 32"), B&H # IMLBRM, would be a softbox option for your needs.

The strongest option I would recommend while still trying to be economical would be the Dynalite Baja B4 Battery Powered 2-Monolight Kit with Case, B&H # DYBK42200B.  It may use the same umbrellas and softboxes listed for the Bolt flash, but it would need a different speedring.  The Impact Speed Ring for Impact, Bowens S, Westcott, B&H # IMSRIMP, would work for your needs.  For further assistance, or if you are looking for different alternatives, it may be easier to contact our Lighting Department directly by e-mailing stagelighting@bhphotovideo.com.

Whatever you do, make sure you do NOT show up with a bunch if equipment that you have never used. Practice practice practice as much as you can. That said I would get a 70-200mm lens and try and get images that differ from the likely hundreds that the guests will be gettign with there phones. Photography is a lot of things, but in a setting lke you describe it is about timing and lighting consideration to tell your story. I have shot weddings in the middle of the day on a beach where people sitting right up front get amaizng images with their phones, and since strobing on the run outside is pretty difficult most shooters end up shooting mostly with ambient light. The way to make your phtoos stand out is by getting creative with your compositions and your timing. The light might be harsh so plan to control that during the posed photos with strobes or reflectors or both. I can count the number of times I used an Umbrella outdoors at the beach on one hand because the wind makes it imposible so get a softbox, I like the rapid boxes from westcott, fast setup. 

If I am taking apparel product photos, using a mannequin and whitish back drop but need a little more light, which would be the better choice? The Softbox or the umbrella?

I would likely go with a softbox.  They control the directionality of light as well as soften it, which can be a benefit for product photography.  For recommendations, I would suggest sending us an email letting us know what lights you are using.  AskPhoto@bhphoto.com

Great article indeed, i have learned alot on both umbrella and softboxes and also the difference.  How do these two apply towards product photography?  I too am new to this and I'm trying to gather information to make a proper decision as to which of these two would be good for product photography with more of a natural day lighting for cloth products no bigger than 12".  Is there another article or can someone give me more guidance?

Softboxes control spill and are generally preferred for product photography, unless you are looking for the flattest light possible (or are on a real tight budget).  I personally would go for a softbox.  If you would like suggestions, I would suggest sending us an email letting us know what lights you are using, and any other information you think might be pertinent.  AskPhoto@bhphoto.com

How do you know which size umbrella to buy?

The first consideration should be quality of light, the larger the umbrella, the softer light. Second consideration should be regarding how much of the subject you intent to light. For head shots the 32” range is popular, for half shots/full body you would want to be around 45” or larger. Note that the larger you go, the more powerful you’ll light will have to be. 

Thank you, as always B&H hits it out of the park informative article. 

Lighting is a little intimidating to me.  Since I am basically learning on my own, this information is invaluable to me.  I did purchase a 7' parabolic umbrella and the results that I have gotten at the event that I shot were beautiful as I was expecting.  What I learned reading this article was that the umbrella extra panels makes the light more panels which produces a focal point of light. . . which has distinctive wrapping quality that can appear more matual thanlight from other umbrella shpaes.   Also, regarding softboxes which was a mystery to me was the benefit of having the same size soft box as your subject.  That was a tremendous help because I didn't know what size to get.   Thank you so much for this informative lesson.

Janice Kendricks

An excellent article, very useful in explaining the specific techniques and reasons for using the equipment.

Accuracy of language is always important, especially in a technical article.

"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."

Obviously no light is transmitted through an opaque silver lining.  The light output is GREATER because of the higher reflectivity of the silver vs the translucent or opaque white lining.  Is there an implication that a silver lining imparts a color cast to the subject that the white lining does not?

Thank you for contributing to the science of the photographic arts.

Lots of useful information on light modifiers. This article would be perfect if we can see a comparison of white vs silver umbrellas and softboxes.  

Sergey Zh

excellent indepth information with absolute clarity

thankyou

what is missing is a series of images, side by side, of the same object, photographed with the diferenet lightings; a few softbox shapes and sizes and a few umbrellas. there is a limit on how text can help in explaining in these cases.

Can't say enough about the importance to protect your modifier from Wind.  Sand Bags are important, but an assitant is better.
Anything to make you look better, work easier and have more fun doing what you love to do for a living. 

Thanks Bjorn for the update article,
Chris Lo Bue
CLB Photography
www.clbphoto.com

Great....Short overview..
Thanks

Very interesting. In a few sentences you describe something that was not clear to me.

Thanks.

Nice article, helps to clarify concepts and purposes such as the how/when/why, etc. each should be used. Next, please add beauty dishes: tie them into the whole scheme of things so that we can understand how/when/why they should be used, or not used. Thanks, Bjorn!

Thanks for the great information.

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