SoftBox vs Umbrella for Portraits: How to Make the Choice

SoftBox vs Umbrella for Portraits: How to Make the Choice

Making the choice between a softbox and an umbrella can be extremely overwhelming, especially for first-time photographers.

To understand whether you should choose a softbox or an umbrella you need to:

  • Determine your budget for equipment.
  • Find out what each piece of equipment can offer you.
  • Compare each of these to your artistic goals to make sure it will satisfy your needs.

This article will tell you everything there is to know about each piece of equipment, how to navigate the wonderful world of photography, and how to confidently choose the correct item to use for your portraits.

How Do You Use a SoftBox and an Umbrella?

A softbox and umbrella are quite similar in the materials that they are made from but they both have different capabilities.

For instance, a softbox is a deep-set cloth box. In the middle of it there is a place to screw in the light bulb. To use it, you just aim it whichever way you prefer for your shoot; the light reflects off of the nylon that is surrounding it.

To use an umbrella, you clamp the handle to a tripod or put it in the umbrella holder if it has one. A bare-bulb is then placed under the umbrella. From there, you aim the light as you see fit by moving the umbrella to brighten surfaces, or cast shadows, depending on what your goal is for the picture in question.

Reasons to Use a Softbox Instead of an Umbrella

A softbox is used for several different reasons whether it be an improvement of appearance (such as hiding a blemish) or to capture the light a certain way in order to enhance a particular emotion.

 Here are a few other reasons to use a SoftBox instead of an umbrella:

  • It can fully cover acne
  • Smooths fine lines and wrinkles
  • Blends hair with excessive texture
  • Blurs the background
  • Smooths out shadows
  • Allows room for shadow control
  • Efficiently bounce your light
  • If you want more control in the focus of your lighting

Essentially, a softbox is a tool that does what an umbrella can, but more powerfully. They are also great for windy conditions as they’re a lot more sturdy than an umbrella which, due to the way it is shaped, will catch the wind and a free ride!

Reasons to Use an Umbrella Instead of a Softbox

Similar to a softbox, the umbrella is meant to capture softer lighting. However, if you're wanting full light control an umbrella may not be a great choice.

If you want to disperse the light in a general direction but you’re looking for a more uncontrolled feel to your photo, then an umbrella would be perfect!

Here are a few other reasons you would want to use an umbrella as opposed to a softbox:

  • Budget is tight (umbrellas are very cheap)
  • You want the outcome to be edgy
  • Generally directed light without focus
  • You want to soften blemishes but not omit them entirely
  • Portable and light
  • You can use several different methods of photography with an umbrella to achieve a different outcome (Such as shoot-through)

If you are just getting into photography, an umbrella would be great for a first-time purchase because it will help you learn how to divert light. It will also allow you to play around with light modifications without putting too much money into something you’re exploring.

How Do You Use a Softbox and an Umbrella Together?

What you choose may also depend upon other factors such as how easy it is to set up and take down. This is why it is a good idea to have both a softbox and an umbrella on hand.

There are sets that you can purchase that include both of these items or even two of each! Below are a couple of different examples of sets that you can purchase.

ShowMaven Lighting Kit

Some of the ShowMaven Lighting KitOpens in a new tab. items included in this kit:

  • 2 Silver and black umbrellas
  • 1 Golden black umbrella
  • 2 Softboxes
  • A Fabric Backdrop
  • 5-in1 reflector

This set up would be perfect for any occasion such as:

  • A group photo
  • An event
  • A studio setup
  • Classic style portrait

What stands out about this brand, in particular, is that everything is made from durable material. You’re getting the same type of high-quality photo at an affordable price.

Neewer 700W Professional Softbox

The Neewer 700W Professional SoftboxOpens in a new tab. kit includes:

  • 2 Softboxes
  • 2 85 w bulbs
  • And 2 durable, heavy-duty stands.

What differs between the ShowMaven and Neewer is the quality. The Neewer is a professional grade softbox. This set is typically used by professional photographers for:

  • Advertisement photos
  • Art
  • Industrial photos.

Neewer Softbox Umbrella

The Neewer Softbox UmbrellaOpens in a new tab. comes only with the umbrella, although again, it would be good to have on hand in the case that you need it. It is a little pricier than other umbrellas, but this is because of its durability. There are many uses for it:

  • Soften light
  • Diffuse light
  • Balance light
  • Set it on a stand or tripod
  • Freehand

All the while it is convenient, portable and it comes with its own little bag for storage.

No matter which tool you purchase, you should keep in mind that there is a wide range of sizes. What fits best for one photo may not for another.

Purchasing the Neewer softbox along with the Neewer umbrella gives you the products you need to have a great baseline set. You will have the umbrella if you need it, and you will have a higher quality softbox.

The Four Different Types of Light

In order to understand why you should use a light modifier, you need to understand the four different types of light:

  •  Hard
  •  Soft
  •  Diffuse
  •  Specular

Hard Light

Hard light is defined as “Directed light, especially light whose beams are relatively parallel, producing distinct shadows and a harsher modeling effect on the subject.”

Source: Dictionary.comOpens in a new tab.

While this is generally something that does not affect most photos, it may cast an unwanted shadow. The problem with that is that it takes away from the main effect that the photographer is trying to obtain.

The shadows may become especially problematic when someone is shooting portraits or any photo in which your goal is to make a person’s face your primary focal point.

If you were to do a portrait in hard light without the correct positioning it would cast bold shadows upon the model’s face, as well as in the background. This is not always a bad thing as it can create some awesome images! Although, if that’s not your goal, different lighting would be ideal.

If the goal of the outcome is to have a more dramatic feel, hard light would be the right choice for you. To use hard light, you simply shoot without a softbox or an umbrella.

Soft Light

When a photo is taken in soft light, it softens the hard edges. Instead of having distinct lines around the object or person, it blurs or softens them, creating a beautiful elegance of sorts.

Maybe you've seen a golden hour photoOpens in a new tab.. That is a perfect example of soft light.

Soft light adds a natural type of lighting to your photo. The shadows are not as harsh. Soft light also brightens the subject’s face which allows it to be the primary focus of the photo.

Diffused Light

Diffused light is a type of soft light that is directly focused upon the person. The beam of light is distributed evenly on the subject with no shadows overwhelming the photo.

Imagine soft light with no shadow. Now imagine that light has a warmer tone; this is the best explanation of diffused light.

This type of lighting allows for more dramatic photos with a softer edge, allowing for some mystery. This is perfect if your intention is to spark curiosity and bring people in.

Specular Light

Chances are you have probably used a filter at some point in time called a vignette. If so, this is the perfect example of what specular light is. It blends a shadow from the background of an image to the object or person. Creating a narrow focus with soft edges.

Specular light is very popular in wedding photos, as well as anything you are wanting to capture for a sort of ‘precious moments’ theme.

How to Choose the Correct Size of Equipment for Your Needs

A general rule when it comes to choosing a softbox or umbrella is to choose a size depending on what your needs are for a particular shoot. If you are going to do a full-body portrait then it is a good idea to have one available that is going to cover the full length of the individual.

 Why Should You Use a Small Softbox?

A reason someone may choose a small softbox is because of their budget. Since this piece of equipment can range from $25 to around $300, photographers may choose to purchase one that is smaller.

This allows them to manipulate the positioning in order to get the same lighting as you would from a larger softbox.

While this is not ideal, it does work, especially if you bounce the light with a reflective umbrella.

Pros of Using a Large Softbox

A large softbox is better for a group of people or any occasion where you want to expand light over a wide area.

Although, the downfall of a large softbox is that they often can be hard to direct light with which is why people usually choose small to medium sizes.

The Differences Between Using a Small Umbrella and a Large Umbrella

Of course, like softboxes, umbrellas come in many different sizes as well. These have been known to expand up to seven feet!

The only real difference between a small and a large umbrella is that the smaller ones are easier to direct light, while the larger ones tend to bounce or diffuse light more effectively. The size you choose depends solely upon your needs.

Need a More Budget-Friendly Option for a Set? No problem!

Of course, not everyone has the means to splurge on photography equipment. Professional photographers typically spend an upwards of $1,000 – $2,000 on their studio set up. The good news is that you can get the same effect even if you’re on a tight budget! Although, you may have to get creative with positioning.

Here is a great budget-friendly setup, that will cost you under $100:

Godox 24” X 24” Portable/Collapsible SoftBox Kit

A softbox that has a reflective internal-facingOpens in a new tab.. It is also collapsible which makes portability easy! This, however, does not come with the bracket or the stand.

LimoStudio 2 X 33 Studio Lighting Umbrellas

This kit comes with two white umbrellasOpens in a new tab. which are great to reflect light, eliminate glare, and diffuse light.

These umbrellas are white, and because it comes with two, you’re better able to modify the light output from the softbox. You would just need to pay attention to the positioning of this equipment to make it work for you.

LimoStudio Heavy Duty Metal Clamp Clip Holder Light Stand Mount Bracket

The clamp has an umbrella slotOpens in a new tab., so you could utilize the clamp while it is holding the umbrella. It's almost like a two-in-one piece of equipment. In addition, this bracket is universal and can be used on any stand.

BEIYANG 6.5 Feet Photography Light Stands

This stand can be used with an umbrella as well as a softboxOpens in a new tab.. It’s durable, locks in place, folds down into a compact size that is easy to transport and is said to have a long service life. You can’t get any better than that!

The great part about this setup is that it’s portable, as well as affordable.

The Importance of Positioning Your Photography Equipment

You can buy any piece of equipment you want whether it be top of the line or a more budget-friendly option but none of that will matter if you are not familiar with the type of positioning you need in order to capture the light correctly.

The positioning of a softbox versus the positioning of an umbrella is vastly different in technique due to the way they both emit or reflect light.

Softbox Positioning for Portraits

There are several choices when it comes to placement for a portrait. You can place the softbox in front of the individual, to the side of them, or even behind them.

Positioning in Front of the Subject

First, you want to decide which side of the face you want to illuminate and then set the softbox according to that. The most basic is to the front left side of the individual. This results in a classic look; the most common type of portrait.

To the Side of the Subject

If you’re wanting to highlight the background just a little bit in order to make a distinction between the outline of their body and the background, this would be a great position! Bring the softbox to the side, and line up the side of it to the back of the person’s head in order to illuminate the background and their face.

Behind the Subject

This technique is ideal if you’re wanting to cast a bit of mystery upon the subject. Think of the documentaries that you’ve seen where you can barely see the person’s face before the big reveal. This is done with the softbox behind them. It’s great for a dramatic feel as well.

Different Umbrella Positions for Portraits

The positioning of the umbrella is similar to the softbox, but of course, you won’t have as great an illumination. In addition to the front, side, and back positions, you can tilt the umbrella. For instance, if you’re wanting to capture a jawline you’ll want to tilt the umbrella so that it’s parallel to their face.

However, if you want to highlight the eyes, you’ll want the umbrella tilted at an angle to where the light is shining down on them, rather than at them.

Positioning Your Softbox and Umbrella for a Shoot

As we mentioned earlier, you can use a softbox and an umbrella together. Again, the positioning of the equipment depends on your specific needs.

One great option would be to put the softbox in the front of your model, and the umbrella behind them. The umbrella should be in a position to lift the light behind them. If it is low and angled upward, this will produce a beautiful halo behind them.

Another option is to have the softbox behind the model, and the umbrella in front of them to bounce the light and illuminate a bit more of their face.

You could ask a friend to sit for you so that you can play with the positioning to find something that satisfies your particular taste.

Make a Choice That Encompasses Your Needs

So, how do you make the choice between a softbox and an umbrella? It all depends on what your goals are for the photo. No single choice encompasses everyone’s needs, which is why it is important to know what yours are.

Roy Davis

Roy Davis is the founder of YourPhotoAdvisor. He is a hobbyist photographer that loves the business side of things. He blogs about IT, cybersecurity, business, and more at BestofRoy.com. Follow him on social media at Twitter | Instagram.

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