studio lighting | softbox vs umbrella vs beauty dish

by Jessica Gwozdz

Is a softbox better than an umbrella? What about a beauty dish? Today I would like to talk about various light modifiers and share some example photos.

So what are some of the main differences between softboxes and umbrellas? 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.

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 than 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.

Because there is a lot of talk lately within the forums about beauty dishes, I also incorporated my beauty dish into this test. It’s 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 the following sample shots.

Fortunately my 6-year-old was willing to model for me. His sister recently kicked a ball at him while they were playing, prematurely knocking out his front tooth. Those of you who know me also know that my favorite time to photograph kids is when they are missing teeth so what a perfect time for my son to model for one of my tutorials!

For each scenario I will include both a portrait and a pullback. For all cases but one I used the 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.

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

studio lighting | softbox vs umbrella vs beauty dish photo

studio lighting | softbox vs umbrella vs beauty dish photo

Next I used a shoot thru umbrella. This is the same exact umbrella I used above, but 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 the eye. You can see what I am talking about later in this tutorial when I share closeups of my son’s eyes.

studio lighting | softbox vs umbrella vs beauty dish photo

studio lighting | softbox vs umbrella vs beauty dish photo

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.

studio lighting | softbox vs umbrella vs beauty dish photo

studio lighting | softbox vs umbrella vs beauty dish photo

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.

studio lighting | softbox vs umbrella vs beauty dish photo

studio lighting | softbox vs umbrella vs beauty dish photo

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.

Finally, let’s look at a large softbox, my favorite modifier to work with. These were shot with the Larson 4×6 foot softbox.

studio lighting | softbox vs umbrella vs beauty dish photo

He’s a good sport but was getting a little tired of this exercise by the time we got to the softbox, as can be seen in the softbox pullback.

studio lighting | softbox vs umbrella vs beauty dish photo

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

studio lighting | softbox vs umbrella vs beauty dish photo

So are 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 because my son perked up again when I told him he was in charge of picking the gel colors and attaching them to the background light. These following examples were all shot on the same background as the shots above using the softbox as my main but now I have added an additional light into the setup – a dedicated light onto the background.

Background purposefully overexposed:

studio lighting | softbox vs umbrella vs beauty dish photo

With a grid spot on the background behind the subject:

studio lighting | softbox vs umbrella vs beauty dish photo

With a yellow gel on the background light:

studio lighting | softbox vs umbrella vs beauty dish photo

With a blue gel on the background light:

studio lighting | softbox vs umbrella vs beauty dish photo

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

studio lighting | softbox vs umbrella vs beauty dish photoJessica Gwozdz, CPP, Illinois
website | blog | facebook
Jes, armed with a Nikon D700, is our resident studio photography expert. She has always loved photography and received her first camera, a 126 film camera to be exact, when she was 6 but ended up working as an engineer after college. The birth of her oldest child, she says, was “the catalyst for me to turn my photographic passion into a business so I could do something I loved but set my work hours around my family.” When not spending time doing photography, Jes likes to relax with her husband, aka MacGyver, and their two children, go spinning or read a book, preferably a vampire novel. She loves getting plenty of sleep, comfy shoes, the Kindle, iPhone, and an occasional peanut butter and bacon sandwich.

Read all photography tutorials by Jessica Gwozdz.

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79 Responses to “studio lighting | softbox vs umbrella vs beauty dish”

  1. Cara4562
    Jul 14 2012 at 2:14 pm #

    I shared the link!! I would love love love this!

  2. Daniele
    Jul 14 2012 at 10:09 pm #

    Great post! You really made it easy to learn the difference in studio lighting. Thank you!

  3. Jul 15 2012 at 10:44 am #

    Awesome post – super detailed! Thanks much!

  4. Juliana
    Jul 15 2012 at 8:44 pm #

    This was some timely for me, Been really wanting to learn about different lighting

  5. Jul 16 2012 at 12:41 am #

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

  6. Aimee S
    Jul 16 2012 at 2:08 pm #

    Just left a post on my FB page. Hope I win!

  7. Jul 16 2012 at 7:16 pm #

    Thanks! I loved seeing the different examples! I usually use a shoot through and reflector. I must play with gels more I think though, so fun!

  8. Serena
    Jul 16 2012 at 8:41 pm #

    Love the tutorial will be sharing on my fb page. Thanks!

  9. Jul 18 2012 at 2:15 am #

    great tutorial & examples Jessica

  10. lisaanacker
    Jul 18 2012 at 2:51 am #

    Loads of great info! Thank you!! Your model is a cutie!

  11. Lisa Parnell
    Jul 18 2012 at 1:31 pm #

    Great article. I would love to learn about studio lighting.

  12. Jul 18 2012 at 7:15 pm #

    This is fascinating!! I dont know very much about studio lighting, but these comparisons really make me want to give it a try!!

  13. heidikay
    Jul 21 2012 at 10:37 pm #

    Thank you – your example shots demonstrating the different lighting really exposed what you were saying and the difference in each source. It was very helpful!

  14. Aug 20 2012 at 6:55 pm #

    Hi there, just wanted to say, I enjoyed this article.
    It was practical. Keep on posting!

  15. Oct 13 2012 at 7:06 pm #

    HI i loved your blog it was perfect, Now let me share a secert with you ..

  16. Oct 15 2012 at 11:51 pm #

    Greetings! Very helpful advice within this article! It’s the little changes that produce the most important changes. Thanks a lot for sharing!

  17. Sandra Magnone
    Oct 26 2012 at 10:26 am #

    So glad I found this! I was wondering what lighting to purchase for my photo major daughter for Christmas and this blog has helped me tremendously!
    Thank you.

  18. John
    Dec 15 2012 at 12:47 pm #

    How did you determine the exposure for these shots? My photos always (always!) come out over- or under- exposed…thanks!

  19. Dec 16 2012 at 10:30 am #

    John, I set my exposures in studio by using a handheld light meter. If you are interested in learning more about the process, registration is currently open for my studio lighting for beginners workshop.

  20. Tony Stuart
    Jan 26 2013 at 1:51 pm #

    You did a fantastic job illustrating the use and effects of these modifiers! Thank you so much for sheding some light on this difficult art. As with many others, I struggling to choose modifiers for my own setup (on a shoestring). Your expertise has helped a lot.

  21. Feb 08 2013 at 5:21 pm #

    THANK YOU!! I was actually going to do this experiment to see which lighting style I like best. I recently got a 22 inch beauty dish, and I was wondering how it compared to my softbox. Now I know.

  22. Mar 22 2013 at 1:27 pm #

    Great informative Blog ,cute kid too . I have been in the Photography Field for many years . My wife bought me my first SLR camera , a Nikon FG, you know that ancient process where you used “Film”. I am another self taught photographer, which doesn’t bother me at all other for the fact that I spent literally thousands of dollars over the years (in the beginning) , books , tapes, magazines,Seminars , you name it , and tens of thousands of photos , trial and error. Unfortunately I went into collage and became a Physical Therapist , instead of following my heart…Photography. I always wanted to be a commercial artist , I never felt I was that good enough as an artist , but as you know they come a dime a dozen, I was an “OK” artist but no where in the caliber of others . I now shoot Weddings , Seniors , Sports teams primarily. But , my artistic brain side helped me surpass a lot of other photographers even early (Tooting my own horn ….lol). I have always been the type that if I don’t have to buy ,lets say a $300.00 softbox , and I can make it for $50.00 it is a no brainer for me, and I am very anal about how good it looks , so everything I have made could not look generic,especially if my customers see it . So , thank God , the internet came around, although I did learn many tricks from all the photo magazines I have subscribed to over the years before the digital age ,nylon stockings over lenses, homemade flash bounce cards, Center-spot UV filters with vasoline, ect. But even till this day I still don’t feel completely confident using studio lighting , even though I do get good results , . I shoot a lot of my Seniors at parks ,ect, off camera flash, Reflectors, Window light , I love the Ambient look so much better, but just me I guess , I am rambling so I will end now , once again thank you for your Article Jessica and God Bless you and your family and your career. I have two sites if you would like to see my work… and JB Photography-pgh…..Facebook

  23. Jul 14 2013 at 10:51 pm #

    Hurrah, that’s what I was exploring for, what a data! present here at this web site, thanks admin of this web site.

  24. Aja
    Nov 23 2013 at 6:51 pm #

    How did you get the colored backgrounds and how do I go about trying it myself? I know they’re gels but how do you set it all up? These might be better than paper backdrops like I use – and cheaper, too! :)

    Thanks and great tutorial!


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