This is a question often asked by beginning (and sometimes established) photographers: should I use softboxes or umbrellas for light modification? There is a lot of debate amongst professional photographers on this topic, and for good reason. If you’ve read about this on the internet before, you’ll be familiar with why.
With the right training, a good photographer can use either of these devices to obtain the results they desire. For a beginner, a basic understanding of how light works should be obtained before tackling the subject.
This entry aims to address the pros and cons of softboxes, umbrellas, and brolly boxes, and assumes prior knowledge of working with basic photography lighting.
When it comes to lighting, softboxes can offer you the most (and best) control and most uniform lighting. Multiple shapes are available, ranging from your standard rectangular or square to octagonal. They are double diffused, producing softer light than your other lighting options. Softboxes are more effective at reducing shadows, and can be used with brighter lighting (unlike with other methods, where too much light can wash out your photos).
However, softboxes are the most expensive option. In most cases, they are also hard to setup (especially when compared to umbrellas and brolly boxes), making use of them on location difficult. Quick setup softboxes are available, but the standard assembly softboxes offer you more versatility.
There are two different types of umbrellas that you can use for photography: reflective and shoot through. Either option you choose, there are two large incentives for using umbrellas: they are the cheapest lighting modification option, and extremely easy to transport and setup. They produce a soft look, and the light falls nicely onto your background.
Umbrellas are also the most difficult to control and produce the most spill. If you use too much light with them, unlike with softboxes, you will wash out some elements of your photos. Also, if you are not extremely careful, you will get a small black center in the catch light in your subject’s eyes.
A newcomer to the market is the brolly box. This item combines the quick assembly of the umbrella with some of the advantages of a softbox. A typical brolly box will have an outer white lining for shoot through lighting, with an inner black lining that fits around the head of your light to contain and eliminate spill. Used correctly, they can produce results similar to a softbox of the same size. Additionally, brolly boxes are as easy and convenient to setup and breakdown as an umbrella, and only slightly more expensive.
Brolly boxes generally have more light output than softboxes, but are not as robust as they offer less diffusion and cannot handle as much lighting. If used too far away from your subject, your light fall off will greatly diminish.
If you are a beginning photographer, we recommend becoming familiar with basic lighting before you begin to use modifiers. Once you have a basic knowledge, you should be determine what your needs are for your particular style of shooting.