Softbox vs Umbrella? Take Your Pick

by | Aug 7, 2018

Today’s Post  by Joe Farace

Whether shooting portraits with speedlights, pack & head systems or monolights, one of the best ways to improve the quality of their light is with an umbrella or a softbox.

Each device has their advantages and disadvantages and the choice between which one is best for you being governed by one important rule: The closer the light is to the subject the softer it is; the further away a light source is the harder it becomes.

Umbrellas provide a round, broad and soft source of lighting that could, for simplicity’s sake, be considered to emulate natural outdoor lighting. Softboxes are rectangular, square or octagonal and mimic the kind of soft, directional lighting produced by windows. (I have an octagonal window in my home’s master bedroom.)

Because umbrellas create broad lighting, they’re easier to use. You just point an umbrella at a portrait subject and bang, zoom nice soft lighting! You use two of them and you’ll think you’re a lighting genius. And because rain and sun versions have been around for 4,000 years, umbrellas are simple to construct and less expensive to purchase making them perfect for photographer new to using portrait lighting equipment. You can buy an umbrella, like the 45-inch Photoflex White Satin Umbrella for 20 bucks, as I write this. So they’re cheap, easy to use and produce nice light.

Softboxes are more controllable and are available in large sizes that when placed close to a subject produce soft, yet directional light.  There are also lots of accessories for softboxes, including grids or louvers, that make the lighting even across the plane of light. What’s the downside? Typically softboxes are not inexpensive but I found a32-inch Neewer octagonal softbox for $26.69, as I write this.

Unlike umbrellas that are forgiving, softboxes require balancing the main versus fill light (that could even come from an umbrella) that’s often expressed as  lighting ratio.

Ultimately there is no “one size fits all” solution to portrait lighting. Just as you will select the right lens and ISO setting for a natural light photograph, when it comes to working with artificial light you need to select the right tool for the project at hand.

How I made the above image: Camera was a Canon EOS 60D with EF 85mm f/1.8 USM lens. Lighting was created by a monolight with 36 x 36-inch octagonal soft box at camera right and a 32-inch reflector at camera left. Background is Savage’s Widetone Seamless Background Paper (#57 Gray Tint.) Exposure was 1/125 sec at f/10 and ISO 100.

If you’re interested in learning how I shoot portraits and how I use cameras, lenses and lighting in my in-home studio and on location, please pick up a copy of Studio Lighting Anywhere which is available new from for $13.98 or used starting at the giveaway price of $6.94, as I write this. The Kindle version is $13.94 for those preferring a digital format.