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.

softbox vs umbrella vs beauty dish by Jessica Gwozdz

softbox vs umbrella vs beauty dish by Jessica Gwozdz

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.

softbox vs umbrella vs beauty dish by Jessica Gwozdz

softbox vs umbrella vs beauty dish by Jessica Gwozdz

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.

softbox vs umbrella vs beauty dish by Jessica Gwozdz

softbox vs umbrella vs beauty dish by Jessica Gwozdz

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.

softbox vs umbrella vs beauty dish by Jessica Gwozdz

softbox vs umbrella vs beauty dish by Jessica Gwozdz

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.

softbox vs umbrella vs beauty dish by Jessica Gwozdz

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.

softbox vs umbrella vs beauty dish by Jessica Gwozdz

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

softbox vs umbrella vs beauty dish by Jessica Gwozdz

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:

softbox vs umbrella vs beauty dish by Jessica Gwozdz

With a grid spot on the background behind the subject:

softbox vs umbrella vs beauty dish by Jessica Gwozdz

With a yellow gel on the background light:

softbox vs umbrella vs beauty dish by Jessica Gwozdz

With a blue gel on the background light:

softbox vs umbrella vs beauty dish by Jessica Gwozdz

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

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