Softbox vs Umbrella vs Beauty Dish

Softbox Vs Umbrella Vs Beauty Dish

Is studio lighting using a softbox better than an umbrella or a beauty dish? Today I would like to talk about these 3 different studio light modifiers and share some example photos.

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Softbox, Umbrella, and Beauty Dish Differences

So what are some of the main differences between softboxes, umbrellas and beauty dishes? 

  • Umbrellas are usually less expensive, more portable, and quicker to setup than softboxes.
  • Softboxes require a speedring to be able to attach to the face of the light, although lately there are some umbrella-ish softboxes on the market that do not require a speedring. Softboxes offer much more directional control of your light (less spill) than umbrellas. They also allow you to have rectangular catchlights in the eye versus round catchlights. Lots of photographers prefer rectangular catchlights because they look more like the natural light coming from a window. This is not indicating that there is anything wrong with round catchlights. It's just simply a preference thing, so you can choose what you prefer.
  • Because there is a lot of discussion lately about beauty dishes, I also incorporated my beauty dish into this test. The beauty dish is a lot smaller than the umbrella or softbox I used for these shots. With all modifiers, the bigger the modifier the softer the light. Hopefully you can visually discern this difference in my example shots below.
  • There are also modifiers called brolly boxes. A brolly box is often called "the poor man's softbox" and is somewhat of a hybrid between a softbox and an umbrella.  A brolly box is basically a shoot thru umbrella with black backing added to help control spill a little bit. You won't get as much directional control with a brolly as you would with a softbox, but you get more control that with just a basic umbrella. I did not test a brolly box for this tutorial but thought it was worth mentioning in case someone wants to research them further.

For each studio light setup I will include both a portrait and a pullback. For all cases but one I used the light modifier (ie: softbox, umbrella, or beauty dish) camera left and a giant free-standing reflector camera right. 

An important thing to notice is the variation in the amount of spill on the background. Unless otherwise specified, a background light was not used so any light you see on the background is only spill. I used a kicker behind the subject and camera right to help provide separation in the situations where the background became very dark. All images were shot with a Nikon D700, 24-120 f4 lens at ISO 200, 1/200, f 4.5.

1. Umbrella Lighting Example

I started with a Calumet 60 inch white-interior bounce umbrella.

Umbrella vs Softbox

umbrella softbox

2. Shoot-Thru Umbrella Lighting Example

Next I used a shoot thru umbrella. This is the same exact umbrella I used above, however, here I removed the black cover and turned the light around to face my son. This position gives a much cleaner catchlight because you can no longer see the light unit itself reflected in his eyes. You can see what I am talking about later in this tutorial when I share closeups of my son's eyes.

Softbox or Umbrella

Umbrella Lighting vs Softbox

3. Beauty Dish Lighting

Next I pulled out my Flashpoint 16 inch beauty dish.  First I positioned it feathered to the side as I would with a larger modifier like an umbrella or softbox.

Beauty Dish vs Softbox

Beauty Dish Lighting Setup

Then I moved it into a more typical glamour position that is used with a beauty dish - high and frontal - just above the camera position.

Beauty Dish Lighting

Beauty Dish vs Umbrella

Look at the difference in the background spill when I skim the beauty dish at the subject from the side versus hitting him with the light head-on. Also notice the difference in the shadow pattern on his face.

4. Softbox Lighting Example

Finally let's look at a large softbox, my FAVORITE modifier to work with. These were shot with the Larson 4x6 foot softbox.

Softbox vs Umbrella

Softbox Light vs Umbrella

Now let's look at the difference in the catchlights in the eyes for each scenario.

Softbox vs Umbrella vs Beauty Dish Catchlight Comparison

Softbox, Umbrella or Beauty Dish: Which is Better?

So is any one of these modifiers really "better" than another? 

No, I don't think so.  They are all tools that can be used effectively to provide different results based on the photographer's creative vision. These modifiers also have different convenience features to consider.  I photograph mainly kids and families and I prefer to work with a softbox as my main light.  I don't often use a light for fill but when I do, I would choose an umbrella for fill.

I also like having directional control of my main light because I like to light my background separately from my subject. This allows me to do things like underexpose or overexpose for various effects, or even add a colored gel to the background light to completely change the color of the background.  If I have too much spill from my main onto my background, it becomes very challenging to vary the look of my background. 

I can actually share some example shots of this concept below. The following examples were all shot on the same background as the ones above using the softbox as my main - but I have now added an additional light into the setup: a dedicated light onto the background.

Background purposefully overexposed:

Softbox lighting with overexposed background

With a grid spot on the background behind the subject:

Softbox lighting with grid spot on background

With a yellow gel on the background light:

Softbox lighting setup

With a blue gel on the background light:

Softbox Lighting

I hope this tutorial has given you some insight into various studio lighting modifiers.  Thanks for reading!

If you're looking for some fantastic and easy to use Photoshop Actions for "Clean Editing" of your portrait studio images I highly recommend Pretty Actions Pure Color Workflow.  Its an AMAZING collection!

Do you have any questions or comments about Softboxes, Umbrellas or Beauty Dishes?  Leave me a comment below - I would love to hear from you!  And please share this tutorial using the social sharing buttons - we really appreciate it!

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Jessica Gwozdz Pretty Forum Mentor

Jessica Gwozdz

Jessica Gwozdz ran a successful portrait business in Chicago for 10 years before relocating to Bellingham, Washington.  When not spending time doing photography, Jes likes to relax with her husband, their two children, and their new rescue dog.

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