In the world of portraiture, a light is only as good as the tools used to shape it. The three most common types of modifiers used for portraits are umbrellas, softboxes, and beauty dishes. Each of these tools has strengths and weaknesses, depending on the kind of images you are trying to create. This article will help you determine which is best for your particular workflow and style.
The simplest and arguably most versatile of the three modifiers is the umbrella. Compact and lightweight, umbrellas are perfect for location work and take up next to no storage space in the studio. Another key benefit of umbrellas is their universal design. You do not need to fuss with multiple adapters to make sure your umbrella is compatible with different brands of lights. Many studio lights incorporate umbrella mounts into their build. Those that do not can easily be connected via a light stand or single adapter. Umbrella mounts come in all sorts of connections but, for most portrait jobs, a baby pin for strobes and LEDs or a cold shoe for on-camera flashes will suffice. Some mounts even incorporate multiple studs and receivers so you can use the same adapter for all of your lights. Worst case scenario: an assistant can hold a light and umbrella together—something that simply would not be possible to do with an incompatible softbox or beauty dish.
Umbrellas can either amplify or diffuse your light source, depending on whether you choose a reflective or shoot-through design. Shoot-through umbrellas are the simplest option, providing a translucent material between your light and the subject. When used in close range, shoot-through umbrellas can produce a relatively soft light with next to no setup time. For this reason, they have become a familiar presence at school picture days for generations. Blackout back panels can be added to shoot-through umbrellas to prevent backward bounce and spill.
Reflective umbrellas work by bouncing light from the interior, boosting their effect and potentially altering the color of your source. Depending on your desired look, the interior of a reflective umbrella can be white, silver, or gold, which will add neutral, cool, or warm tonality to your light, respectively. Some models feature a detachable black cover so they can be used as shoot-through or white-paneled reflective umbrellas.
One type of reflective umbrella that deserves special mention is the parabolic umbrella, which gets its name from its shape, adopting a larger and deeper design than its smaller brethren. The end result is a flattering, wraparound lighting effect beloved by portrait and fashion photographers.
Yet another benefit of umbrellas is the ease with which they can be accessorized. Diffusers can be added to produce a similar effect to a softbox without needing to bother with speed rings or rods. For a more intense effect, grids can be used to create a direct light path onto your subject.
Softboxes are studio favorites and provide more options in terms of shape, size, and diffusion than umbrellas. They also feature more durable builds—although with this attribute come potentially longer setup times. If you have space in your studio, leaving your softboxes assembled solves this problem. If you work on location regularly, consider a collapsible design or rugged build that can endure being assembled and disassembled regularly.
Softboxes also rely upon speed rings to attach snugly to whatever light you are using. Usually a separate purchase, make sure that the speed ring you select is compatible with your light and your softbox. Most softboxes include removable exterior diffusion and internal baffles so you can tweak the character of the light coming out of your modifier. Additionally, barndoors and grids are commonly attached to softboxes to manage spill and direct light.
Softboxes come in a variety of shapes and sizes for the portrait photographer to choose from. Octagonal softboxes are popular among headshot photographers because they provide flattering light and natural-looking catchlights. Parabolic softboxes are another favorite, sharing similar benefits to parabolic umbrellas. Parabolic softboxes can get really, really big with diameters reaching 70+ inches. These giants are excellent for full-body fashion or portrait work because they provide extremely flattering light over a large area. The only downside is that they take up a considerable amount of studio space. These are not modifiers you can easily take on the road.
Strip softboxes are frequently used for 3/4 and full-body portraits. When used individually, paired with a grid, they can create rather dramatic effects. For a broader spread, rectangular softboxes can also be used for general portrait purposes.
If you are looking for a more natural, ambient light effect, lantern softboxes produce omnidirectional light capable of filling an environment. These are particularly useful for adding fill light to background areas when working on a location or when trying to light a large area like a cyclorama.
While umbrellas and softboxes are fairly flexible modifiers, beauty dishes are a more niche tool used primarily for beauty, fashion, and headshot photography. A beauty dish is essentially a reflector with a circular disc positioned a few inches directly in front of the light source. When used for portraits, this design results in light that wraps around the sitter’s face, producing characteristic donut-shaped catchlights.
As the name implies, beauty dishes are popular in fashion and beauty, where they are used to add drama and accentuate the bone structure of models. If you have ever seen a photograph where a model’s cheekbones appear to be chiseled in light and shadow, you have seen the work of a beauty dish. Because of the unique characteristics of their modification, beauty dishes are rarely used for more general applications.
Beauty dishes are notoriously unforgiving modifiers and will accentuate wrinkles or blemishes on a sitter. For this reason, they are generally avoided for “normal” portraiture, since a softbox or umbrella can provide a more flattering light. For beauty, however, they are excellent. Or, if you are creating a portrait that highlights the well-worn features of an older sitter, a beauty dish may be just what you need. To achieve the most extreme effect, attach a grid to tighten your light’s path. Conversely, diffusion can be added in the form of a diffusion sock. Beauty dishes can be made of metal or adopt a collapsible frame for easier transport and storage.
Do you have a favorite modifier to use when making portraits? Tell us why in the Comments section, below.