Most professional photo studio photographers ask themselves if they should use an umbrella or softbox when looking for a light modifier with flash photography. Since both umbrellas and softboxes have their uses, it really depends on the type of lighting effect you’re hoping to achieve.
When shooting through an umbrella you’re apt to get softer light, while a reflective umbrella allows you to control the lighting by giving it more direction. Just remember that the light will be harder when a source is further away from the subject and softer the closer it is to the subject.
A softbox lets you change the lighting’s direction, so you may want to move it around the subject to find the most effective angle. You can do this by setting your aperture for the shoot to find the depth of field you want and then move the softbox while taking test photos from different angles. If the images show uneven, harsh lighting on your subject or strong contrast you should move the softbox to make sure the light is in front of the subject instead of at an angle. But if the lighting appears to be too flat you should consider giving it more of an angle.
When it comes to umbrellas, they’re relatively inexpensive and quite easy to use and there are two basic types: the shoot-through and the reflective version. These devices, which are available in various sizes and shapes, can produce a soft and broad light source which is similar to outdoor lighting.
If an umbrella is used in its traditional position it will offer indirect, bounced light which could require a greater flash output from the light source. Beginners usually find a white translucent shoot-through umbrella easy to work with since it produces broad lighting. A shoot-through umbrella just needs to be positioned between the flash and the subject and in general, larger umbrellas produce softer light.
Silver Reflective Umbrella
This type of umbrella functions when you point the flash away from the subject and the umbrella will bounce the light back onto the person. They’re ideal for shooting groups of people as they provide simple and even lighting. Another type of fashionable umbrella is the parabolic umbrella. This device can create high specularity in the light as the umbrellas can focus the flash pattern.
Most softboxes are rectangular in shape, but you can also find square and octagonal versions. They emulate window light, which means it’s soft and directional, with the key being directional. The flash is fired directly through a softbox which produces direct lighting, even if a diffusion panel is used to soften the flash. Since you don’t have to rely on reflected light, the flash uses less power than when an umbrella is used.
Softboxes come in a variety of sizes and you’ll find numerous accessories can be used, such as louvers and grids which even the lighting across the plane of light. However, you may need to know how to balance the main light and fill light when using a softbox if you don’t want too much contrast. This means a softbox may be a little more complicated to use. The type of light modifier you use—an umbrella or softbox—should really depend on the type of portrait you want.
Each device can create different lighting effects. The shape of a softbox can affect the quality of the lighting. For example, long and thin softboxes are often known as striplights and can emulate stage footlights since they result in dramatic lighting. Octagonal softboxes produce direct, wraparound sources of light with even light spreads.
Umbrellas vs Softboxes
Umbrellas are more portable, but softboxes are better for emulating window light in a professional photo studio. A softbox offers less directionality than an umbrella but can provide flatter, wider and more even light, which reduces the intensity of shadow edges.
The curved shape of an umbrella offers more apparent directionality in the light with more intensity to shadow edges. It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with both types of light modifiers as this will give you more creative options in the studio. In fact, the best option is to sometimes combine an umbrella and softbox, it just depends on your creative eye!
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