I get asked quite a bit about the difference in using an umbrella versus a softbox so I figured it was about time to do an article about it and see if I could help clear up the mystery of these two popular light modifiers. Both are excellent modifiers and can both be used effectively in different situations.
To really understand the difference, we need to look at how the light comes out from both types of devices so we can decided when best to use which modifier.
Side by Side Comparison
It shouldn’t take too much effort to understand how an umbrella should throw light out. The spherical shape sends light in all directions. This is great for providing a large soft light source that is easy to control and manage and provides a lot of latitude in how it is positioned.
A softbox controls light a lot more keeping it from spreading out so much. Because the beam of light is a lot narrower, the light fall off is much faster so positioning is more important.
The umbrella is a standard 32″ shoot-thru umbrella while the softbox is a 24″ x 24″ Ez Softbox from Blackbelt Lighting (my own lighting products company). In both cases, a YN560 speedlite was used on 1/32 power. The camera settings were ISO 200, 1/160th second shutter, and f/5.6.
Looking at the results you should be able to easily see the difference. With the larger apparent size of the umbrella, the light wraps around the face more and creates a softer transition between the highlights and shadows. The softbox provides much more directional light with a faster fall-off. Also notice that the background is darker with the softbox because much less light is hitting it from the softbox.
Choosing the right modifier
Umbrellas are great for beginners since they are easier to use because of their forgiving nature. As you progress and want to create more dramatic images, being able to have more control over your light will become more and more important. Moving up into softboxes will help you to be able to create the look you want.
While the difference in these two images may seem subtle at first, the differences actually fairly dramatic. The umbrella image has some light on the shadow side while the softbox image goes almost completely dark at some points. Softer, light such as the umbrella shot usually make women look better while men are often shot in harsher, more dramatic light. If you are just getting started, I usually recommend starting with umbrellas and moving to softboxes as you want to create more dramatic and edgy images.