This is a question that people ask all the time, so we thought it might be helpful to explain the advantages/disadvantages of each…
Both softboxes and umbrellas are available in a range of different designs and sizes, and softboxes are also available in a range of different shapes, so to keep it simple, we’re going to compare a 95cm softbox with various 100cm umbrellas – because, when it comes to light shaping tools, size really does matter! And, despite the apparent small difference in size, the effective sizes are a very close match, simply because the light shining into or through an umbrella doesn’t quite reach its edges.
And, for the purpose of comparing them, we’re also going to assume that they are being used at a distance of 1 metre from the subject, distance is every bit as important as size, and you might want to use your light shaping tools at different distances, but because of the way that a reflective umbrella works, with the flash head positioned between the umbrella and the subject, we couldn’t get any closer.
Simple? Maybe – but neither all umbrellas nor all softboxes are created equal, so if you don’t have a Lencarta one you may not get the same results.
Umbrellas vary a bit, some are deeper than others and so the effects that they create can vary. Some are sold as “Parabolic” which, if actually true, would produce a lot of variation from the more standard design, but in nearly all cases, “Parabolic” isn’t parabolic at all.
And softboxes vary even more. Going back into ancient history, softboxes used to be made from sheet steel and frosted glass, they were extremely heavy (and expensive) and could only be used when permanently fixed in position, using a pulley system to adjust their position – impracticable? Yes, but at least they were properly designed from good materials. Then a firm started making them from fabric, this firm did a good job, using the right designs and the right materials, and their new approach made softboxes much more versatile, affordable and practical.
BUT making cheap and nasty ones is easy and requires very little in terms of either knowledge or technology, and because of this the vast majority of softboxes are just a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy… and each copy is worse than the last, and the materials become worse, and the design becomes whatever is easiest to make rather than whatever actually works. Typically, all softboxes except the very cheapest have twin diffusers, but this in itself doesn’t mean a lot when the diffusers are too close together and/or are too flimsy, they just don’t diffuse the light properly. We’re going to ignore these cheapies, and will only compare our own softboxes with our own umbrellas.
Let’s start with the umbrella.
There are two main types, shoot through and reflective. And reflective ones are available with both white and silver reflective material, and we compare both. Come to that, they are also available with a gold reflective material, and some firms also make stripey ones, with alternate segments in white and silver, but we’ll forget about those:) The white ones produce softer light than the silver ones, the silver ones though are excellent for when a more specular, “punchy” image is needed.
Shoot through first – As the name suggests, the light from the flash head passes through the umbrella, and the big advantage of this type is that the umbrella can be positioned as close as you like to the subject. And the closer the light, the softer the light will be, simply because distance matters and at a close distance, the umbrella may well be bigger than the subject and so light from it will strike the subject from multiple angles and may light the sides as well as the front of the subject, creating “wraparound” lighting.
But there are disadvantages too, and a major disadvantage of the shoot through umbrella is that about 60% of the light goes through the umbrella and directly lights the subject, the other 40% bounces out of the back and goes everywhere. Some people, and especially the people who care only about the quantity of the light and not the quality, may think that that’s a good thing because this uncontrolled light will bounce off of the ceiling and any nearby walls, and create very flat lighting. This doesn’t matter at all if you’re shooting outdoors or in a massive building (think aircraft hanger) where none of the spilled light can reflect on to the subject, but it matters a lot if your studio is in your home, with a low ceiling and walls that are close enough for the light to reflect from them. And it gets even worse if the walls have colour, because that colour will of course reflect on to your subject too.
Another disadvantage is that the front of a shoot through umbrella is convex, which means that the centre of the umbrella is much closer to your subject than the edges, therefore the centre is much brighter. The opposite is true of reflective umbrellas. Again, distance matters and although the convex (shoot through) or concave (refective) shape will make a big difference to the lighting effect when used close, the inverse square law means that the difference in lighting effect will reduce to a quarter if you double the distance, and at a long distance it will make no real difference at all.
OK, let’s move on to reflective umbrellas.
Very similar to a shoot through except that the material reflects the light, which doesn’t pass through it, and they are used the opposite way round, so that the flash head is facing away from your subject, the light from the flash head is reflected off the inside of the umbrella, which is directed towards your subject.
The big advantage of reflective umbrellas is that there is far less unwanted, spilled light sloshing around, so less will be bounced off of the walls and ceiling. The main disadvantage though, is that the length of the flash head and the length of the umbrella shaft that fits into it forces the reflective umbrella to be quite a long way away from your subject, and this means that you can’t achieve soft lighting, which of course is fine if you don’t want the lighting to be soft…
The main advantage of properly-designed softboxes is that they combine the advantages of both shoot through umbrellas (which can produce soft lighting because they can be positioned very close to your subject) and reflective umbrellas, which spill less light. And the front diffuser is flat, not curved as with an umbrella.
And well-designed softboxes can be fitted with honeycomb grids too, which can be used to restrict the spread of light, umbrellas can’t.
But there are disadvantages too:
Umbrellas are as cheap as chips, softboxes cost several times as much.
Umbrellas are very light and portable, our ProFold softboxes are very portable too, and take just a few seconds to make ready and put away, but umbrellas are still faster. Non-folding softboxes can be a bit of a pain, as it takes time and effort to get them ready for use and to take them down again.
And not all flashes are equal either.
Studio lighting is used with a reflector when an umbrella is fitted to them, this fills the umbrella very well. Hotshoe flashguns work just as well with umbrellas as with studio flash, as long as it fills the umbrella with light.
But, there are important differences when softboxes are used, because (with a very few notable exceptions) hotshoe flashguns have a built in, fixed reflector. This is a major disadvantage because the reflector forces all of the light forward, where it hits the inner diffuser, and that light then passes through to the outer diffuser – none of the light bounces off of the inner walls of the softbox, and this always produces a hotspot, which means that there is much more light in the centre of the softbox than at the edges.
How serious a problem is this? Well, it depends largely on the size of the softbox. A small softbox, say 60cm across, is generally pretty much OK, but the bigger the softbox, the bigger the problem of poor diffusion and uneven lighting.
Conversely, studio flashes (except the very cheap and nasty ones) have removable reflectors, and the softbox fits to the flash head in place of the reflector. The light from the flash goes in all directions except backwards, it bounces off of the inner walls of the softbox and gets properly mixed up before reaching the front diffuser, resulting in a very high and even quality of light.
And now for the comparisons
You really need to do these comparison tests yourself, in the studio or shooting environments that are available to you, and the reason for this is that the environment can make a very big difference to the end result. Each of these shots, which are straight out of camera with no PP work done on them, were taken in the Lencarta studio, which has an area of over 4,000 sq ft, black walls and a high ceiling. This minimises the amount of unwanted light spill, which would be much more significant in a small room with a white ceiling and light coloured walls.
We used an (unlit) white background for these tests, and you will see that there is variation in the amount of light reaching the background varies in the shots below, when used with different light shaping tools. If you would like to know more about the reasons for the falloff of light, please read our tutorial “The Magic of Distance”.
My “Model” Louisa, is perfect for this type of shot because she keeps still and doesn’t complain, which means that the differences you see between shots is entirely due to the difference in the light shaper used. But her plastic skin doesn’t reflect light in exactly the same way as a real person does, and the catchlights in her eyes are painted, so you’re not seeing the actual catchlights produced by the various light shaping tools.
For these comparison shots, I used a classic key light position, from above my subject and in front of where ‘her’ face is pointing. This position creates light and shadow that produces modelling on the face. Obviously, in a real-world shoot I might add fill from another light or reflector, but not for this tutorial.
The things to look for in these comparison shots are
- The size and hardness of the specular reflections (reflections of the light source) on the face, forehead, lips and body. As we move from the left to the right photos, these become increasingly more obvious.
- The speed with which the light falls off over distance.
- The depth of the shadows. If anything is “right” then it’s the softbox. There is a degree of unplanned fill light in the shot with the shoot through umbrella, because SOME unwanted light has bounced around in the studio. However, as I mentioned earlier, it’s a very large studio, the result would be MUCH more pronounced in an average-size room.
- The shots with the white reflective and the silver reflective umbrella are similar to each other, which is to be expected as they are of identical design. However, the shot with the white reflective umbrella is “softer” than the shot with the silver reflective umbrella – this is neither good nor bad, in photographic lighting we need to be able to create all types of light.
And here are larger versions, for more detailed information.