Photography umbrella vs softbox for portrait lighting

Which light modifier is better for portrait lighting – photography umbrella vs softbox lighting?

Lighting is one of the most important aspects of portrait photography and the huge advantage of flash photography is that photographers have ultimate control of light. Unlike natural light photography where you have to adapt to the lighting conditions.

To control artificial light you need a good understanding of different lighting techniques and tools of off camera flash. Two of the most popular portrait photography flash accessories are umbrellas and softboxes.

Photography umbrellas and softboxes are light modifiers designed to soften and diffuse light for softer shadows on portrait subjects. At first glance, they appear to offer the same type of light, but they have different characteristics suited to different purposes.

Understanding the differences, and how they modify harsh light, will help you to decide on a softbox vs umbrella.

Photography umbrella vs softbox lighting for portraits

In this shot from left: my large reflective umbrella with diffusion panel, 3 foot octagonal softbox, 1 x 3 foot stripbox, 2 foot beauty dish with diffusion panel

Why photographers use light modifiers

Size matters in photography lighting!

For soft light, the bigger the better, which is why we use light modifiers like umbrellas and softboxes in flash photography. Attaching a light modifier to a bare flash, diffuses the light and creates a larger light source, therefore softer light.

Photography umbrella vs softbox – the differences

If you’re looking for a quick takeaway, here are the main differences between umbrellas and softboxes, before I detail which type of light modifier to use for different situations.

Large reflective umbrella and small shoot through umbrella

My large reflective umbrella and small shoot through umbrella – looking like normal umbrellas

Umbrella lighting

Photography umbrellas at first glance look no different from ordinary umbrellas, except that they don’t have a handle.

Benefits of a photography umbrella:

  • Easy to use and affordable
  • Portable and lightweight

Small shoot through umbrella on light stand

A shoot through umbrella is where most beginner photographers start with light modifiers. They’re used to diffuse the harsh light from bare flash. This is the side that points at the subject, with the flash on the inside of the umbrella

The two types of photography umbrellas are: reflective and shoot-through

  • Reflective umbrellas have a black exterior and an inner reflective material that reflects light back onto the subject. The inner material can be white, for softer light, or silver, for harder light. The inner part of the umbrella faces the subject and the light faces into the umbrella.
  • Shoot-through umbrellas are made of a white translucent material. The umbrella is placed between the light source and the subject, with the light facing into the umbrella and the exterior of the umbrella pointing towards the subject.

Different shapes and sizes photography umbrellas

My large reflective umbrella and small shoot through umbrella

Disadvantages of photography umbrellas:

  • Less control of light, resulting in light spill
  • Not advisable to use outdoors, especially on a windy day, as they catch the wind easily

Umbrella summary

Photography umbrellas are ideal for beginners as you don’t need to be as exact with light placement. Plus they’re very affordable and work with speedlights fixed to an umbrella mount.

Softbox lighting

A softbox light modifier is more advanced than a photography umbrella.

Softboxes are box-shaped structures that fit around the flash and have a white diffuser panel on the front to soften light. For even softer light you can place an extra layer of diffusion inside the softbox.

Benefits of softboxes:

  • Softboxes offer more control over the direction and spread of light, so they’re ideal for more dramatic and complex lighting setups
  • Different types of softboxes include square, rectangular, octagonal, and strip softboxes. Each has unique characteristics suited to specific lighting situations for different effects
  • Perfect for creating soft, directional lighting for portrait photography
  • Large range of softboxes available that can be easily set up and dismantled for using on location

Large octabox rear view with flash head

This large octagonal softbox was my favorite light modifier for newborn photography, because of the really soft light it produced

Disadvantages of softboxes:

  • Steeper learning curve
  • Pricier than umbrellas

Softbox summary

Softboxes are commonly used in studio settings, but are also fantastic for off camera flash outdoors. They’re ideal for portrait photographers who want more control over lighting and are willing to invest more time and money in their equipment and learning about lighting.

Softbox vs umbrella decision

Choosing between a softbox and a photography umbrella ultimately comes down to personal preference and your specific needs.

I love both types of modifiers and wouldn’t limit myself to one over the other, because the shoot determines which one is the best to use. I photograph in studios as well as outdoors and my clients are mainly women. For more mature women in a studio setting I’ll use a large softbox or my parabolic umbrella, because the soft light is more flattering on older skin.

I live in a really windy area, so using an umbrella for outdoors shoots is just too much of a hassle, even with an assistant.

Outdoor portrait with off camera flash and softbox

For this windy golden hour beach shot I used natural light and my 2 foot beauty dish as a key light

Summary of differences – photography umbrella vs softbox

  • Softboxes offer more control over the direction and spread of light, while photography umbrellas are more versatile and easier to use.
  • Softboxes are more expensive and require more setup time, while photography umbrellas are more affordable and can be set up quickly.
  • Softboxes are ideal for studio photography and outdoor photography, while the slightest breeze can blow umbrellas over in outdoor shoots.

Photography umbrella with flash head as fill light

My shallow reflective umbrella set up as a fill light. (As an aside… this is a really versatile umbrella as the black outer material is removable so this it can be used either a reflective umbrella or a shoot through umbrella)

Types of umbrellas and softboxes – the details

I’ve written detailed articles on both umbrella lighting and softbox lighting, but here’s a brief explanation of the variety available for both types of light modifiers.

The most important point is that the quality of light produced by both umbrellas and softboxes is affected by:

  • Size of modifier
  • Shape of modifier
  • Modifier material
  • Distance between light source and subject

Reflective and Translucent Umbrellas

Umbrellas produce soft, diffused light that’s flattering for portraits. However, it’s a very broad spread of light, which doesn’t suit all types of portraits. So you don’t have as much control over the direction and intensity of the light.

Photography umbrella lighting for maternity portrait

One of my favorite portrait lighting setups for maternity is a strip softbox (with grid) to camera left behind the subject and my parabolic umbrella to camera right set up as a top light to highlight the bump

The quality of light produced by umbrellas varies depending on the type of umbrella used.

When choosing an umbrella, you need to decide if you want to use a reflective or translucent umbrella. Reflective umbrellas are designed to direct reflected light at your subject, while translucent umbrellas are made from white fabric that diffuses light.

Both types of umbrellas come in different sizes – the larger the umbrella the softer the light will be. Reflective umbrellas also offer a choice of lining (the reflective surface inside the umbrella), depending on the light characteristic you want to use.

The lining affects the:

Large white photography umbrella vs softbox for soft lighting

My white parabolic umbrella on a Profoto B1X flash head

An umbrella with a white interior offers the most neutral color of light, and compared to the metallic-lined umbrellas, diffuses light more and reflects less light.

  • White lining – softest reflective umbrella lighting that doesn’t have any color cast
  • Silver lining – crispy light for more contrast in photos with a cooler color
  • Gold lining – crispy, contrasty light that’s very warm

A parabolic umbrella is deeper than a regular umbrella so the light wraps around the subject more. They produce a more focused light that’s still wide enough to cover a large group. However, they’re more expensive than regular umbrellas.

Large photography umbrella with diffusion panel

The same photography umbrella as the previous image, but this time with diffusion panel for even softer light

Photography umbrella accessories

You can add a layer of diffusion to a reflective umbrella to further soften the light, making it more like a softbox.

Different Types of Softboxes

Softboxes are known for producing the softest light possible for portrait photography. They’re designed to create a soft, directional light source.

3 foot softbox on lightstand with profoto flash head

My 3 foot octabox (octagonal softbox) with Profoto B1X strobe

The different types of softboxes available come in a variety of shapes:

  • Rectangular softboxes are the most common type of softbox and are ideal for larger subjects and full length photos. Catchlights in the subject’s eyes are rectangular so look like windows.
  • Square softboxes are similar to rectangular softboxes but are smaller so create a more focused light source and are suited to headshot photography
  • Octagonal softboxes create a round catchlight in the subject’s eyes, so are often favored as it’s similar the catchlight created by the sun. They’re the most common softbox shape for flash photography outdoors
  • Strip softboxes are long, narrow softboxes ideal for creating a narrow, directional light source for more contrast in portrait photos

Softboxes come in different shapes, different sizes and with different depths. The light from deeper softboxes wraps around the subject more than with shallower softboxes.

Stripbox with grid for studio lighting control

My 1 x 3 foot strip softbox with grid to control light direction – I use these softboxes (with grids) a lot for rim lighting, hair lighting and high contrast images with a lot of shadow

Softbox accessories

Softboxes can be further modified by fitting an extra layer of diffusion inside the softbox for even softer light.

Additionally, for even greater control of the direction of the light, you can fit a grid to the front of the softbox.

When to use each type of light modifier

Professional photographers usually have a favorite type of lighting modifier that they use more than others. However, it’s essential as a working portrait photographer to have a selection of different modifiers to create different looks.

I’m not certain, but it’s possible that I use my 1×3 foot stripboxes (strip softboxes), with grids, more than any other light modifier as key lighting indoors. For fill light indoors is use a large white reflective umbrella.

For outdoor shoots I use different softboxes as my key light with ambient light as a hair light or fill light (most of the time).

Large deep umbrella with diffusion Portrait Lighting

I prefer umbrella lighting in a photo studio when I’m photographing movement, like for this photoshoot for my article on female standing poses (check it out). Because this umbrella is so large, has a white interior and I have a diffusion panel, it’s also more flattering for older skin and blemished skin.

Umbrella for lighting large areas and fill

When I need to light a large area, I’ll use an umbrella, because they produce diffused light that spreads out over a wide area. Just remember that the further away the light source is from the subject, the harder the light will be.

I use umbrellas a lot for fill light as they’re perfect for filling in shadows.

I tend to use a white umbrella more than a silver umbrella, because I prefer the softer light quality they produce.

Rim light portrait using 2 strip softboxes on studio strobes

My favorite type of lighting – lots of contrast! For this I used two stripboxes, both fitted with grids, either side and behind the model. The disadvantage of this lighting setup is that your subject can’t move much, otherwise they won’t be properly lit

Softbox for specific light control

My photography lighting style veers more to soft lighting, but is high contrast and dramatic, with a high dynamic range between bright highlights and deep shadows. So I particularly enjoy the more specific lighting control of softbox lights.

One of the main advantages of softboxes over umbrellas is their directional control. You can create more defined shadows and highlights for depth and dimension in portraits.

Softboxes are better lighting modifiers for shooting in small rooms as the light won’t bounce around the room as much as with umbrellas.

Photography umbrella vs softbox?

In summary, both umbrellas and softboxes are useful tools for portrait photography.

Umbrellas are great for beginners or for creating a broad spread of light, while softboxes offer more directional control and are ideal for creating soft, even lighting.

Softboxes can be more difficult to set up and use than umbrellas. They require more assembly and can be more cumbersome to move around. Additionally, they’re generally more expensive than umbrellas. But the light is amazing!

Ultimately, your decision is based on your specific needs and preferences as a portrait photographer.

Studio lighting reflection of photography umbrella and softbox

I’ve included this shot as you can see the lighting setup reflected in her sunglasses. The blue circle is my umbrella that I used for fill lighting (with blue gel) and the pink octagon is my beauty dish (with a magenta gel) as key light

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I use a softbox and an umbrella together?

Yes, you can use a softbox and an umbrella together for a two light setup. For example, you can use a softbox as your key light, aka main light source, and an umbrella as a fill light to soften shadows.

Is a softbox better than an umbrella?

It depends on the effect you want to achieve. A softbox produces a softer, more directional light, while an umbrella produces a broader light. If you want to create a more dramatic look with more shadows, a softbox is the better option. If you need more light and a wider spread, an umbrella is the way to go, especially when using speedlights as they have a lower flash output than studio strobes.

Leave a comment

If you have any questions about using a photography umbrella vs a softbox for studio lighting or outdoors, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my portrait photography lighting tips have helped you with studio strobes or off camera flash for outdoor lighting, share that too.

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