Studio Lighting: softbox vs umbrella vs beauty dish

Studio Lighting: softbox vs umbrella vs beauty dish

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!

About the Author:

Jes, armed with a Nikon D700, 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. 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. Visit Jessica Gwozdz online.
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75 Comments

  1. SandyTracy Jul 12 2012 at 2:10 pm - Reply

    Great Post! Thank you!

  2. Colleen Jul 12 2012 at 2:22 pm - Reply

    Wonderful tutorial and examples!!! Thank you and thank that cute son of yours!!!

  3. LCNowak Jul 12 2012 at 2:26 pm - Reply

    Great comparison! I'm enjoying my new AB800, and considering getting a second light and a softbox. Posted about the giveaway at https://www.facebook.com/linnea.nowak

  4. Jenn S Jul 12 2012 at 2:28 pm - Reply

    Giveaway shared 🙂 Thank you for your post.

  5. Ann (Anniefofanny) Jul 12 2012 at 2:33 pm - Reply

    Great tutorial, Jes! =D

  6. Aimee Jul 12 2012 at 2:34 pm - Reply

    Great article, just posted it on Facebook! I hope I win 🙂

  7. Anna Hettick Jul 12 2012 at 2:35 pm - Reply

    Love this! Always wondered what the differences where and which was better! Thanks so much!

  8. Melissa Ives Jul 12 2012 at 2:45 pm - Reply

    Wow! Great post! I learned a lot! I posted about the giveaway and this post on my FB page http://facebook.com/melissa.ives Thank you!

  9. christine Jul 12 2012 at 3:15 pm - Reply

    Great tips thanks so much!

  10. Lauren Jul 12 2012 at 3:23 pm - Reply

    Great tutorial Jes. I like seeing the different catch lights reflected on the eyes. H is just the cutest thing too! I love how fresh that lost tooth looks!

  11. Amy Roeder Jul 12 2012 at 3:28 pm - Reply

    This is great Jess! I shared on facebook!

  12. Julia Jul 12 2012 at 3:29 pm - Reply

    Absolutely FANTASTIC post, Jes!! You are so good at giving clear, concise, helpful, and useful information! (and, as you know, I'm in love with your model) 🙂

  13. Nicole Jul 12 2012 at 3:53 pm - Reply

    This was a very helpful post.

  14. Lexie Jul 12 2012 at 3:54 pm - Reply

    This is great, Jes! Thanks for showing all the close-ups of the eyes too 🙂 Would love to win a seat in your class, so posted about it on my FB!

  15. Katie Jul 12 2012 at 4:11 pm - Reply

    Great post! Link shared. Thanks!

  16. Stefanie Tolbert Jul 12 2012 at 4:49 pm - Reply

    Thanks for this! It really clears up some of the questions I've been having. Although I could really use a good course on studio lighting (wink, wink) so I've posted it on my FB page. Thanks!!

  17. Sue Jul 12 2012 at 4:56 pm - Reply

    Thx! What a great post 🙂

  18. Mallory Urquhart Jul 12 2012 at 6:05 pm - Reply

    Very helpful post, thank you. I've posted a link on my FB page. My birthday is August 13th and can't think of a better present than winning a seat to this class 🙂

  19. Esther Jul 12 2012 at 6:26 pm - Reply

    Thanks for a great post, Jes! I'd love to win a spot on your class 😉

  20. Vanessa Jul 12 2012 at 6:46 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the great info! Shared the link…would

    Be great to be able to join your class!

  21. Kim Peterson Jul 12 2012 at 7:36 pm - Reply

    I'm not ready to learn studio lights yet, but couldn't help looking at this post – cutest little boy face ever!!

  22. teresa Jul 12 2012 at 8:29 pm - Reply

    Link shared! Fantastic tutorial. Oh how I hope my number comes up! I would love the chance to learn more!

  23. Amy Jul 12 2012 at 9:27 pm - Reply

    What a great article, Jes! Thank you!

  24. Becky Jul 12 2012 at 9:32 pm - Reply

    I posted on my Facebook page! Would LOVE to get into studio work and would LOVE to win the free seat in this class!!!!

  25. Heather Jul 12 2012 at 10:07 pm - Reply

    wow! what a great post!

  26. sandra tracy Jul 12 2012 at 10:11 pm - Reply
  27. Rachel Potter Jul 12 2012 at 10:16 pm - Reply

    Link Done! Loved this post…if the workshop is this good, PLEASE pick me!

  28. Emily Jul 12 2012 at 10:32 pm - Reply

    Great post, I have so much to learn about studio lighting!

  29. michelle r-kim Jul 12 2012 at 10:35 pm - Reply

    Great post! I've shared link on my FB page https://www.facebook.com/myla.kim.9

  30. Dana tate Jul 12 2012 at 10:37 pm - Reply

    oh boy oh boy! what a great tut!!! I posted on my FB and I am praying I win!!!!!

  31. Tanya Jul 12 2012 at 10:45 pm - Reply

    I posted on my facebook page!! Would love to learn from Jess!!!

  32. carol Jul 12 2012 at 11:17 pm - Reply

    Great read…I want a softbox now!!!!

  33. Jen Jul 13 2012 at 1:08 am - Reply

    Such an awesome post! I definitely want to sign up for your workshop…just saving, saving, saving in order to buy all the equipment!

  34. Rich Fenton Jul 13 2012 at 6:20 am - Reply

    This is really informative! It is fascinating just how much importance is given to the lighting. I always think if you get the lighting right, the rest will follow…

  35. Nicola Healey Jul 13 2012 at 7:31 am - Reply

    I have a soft box and now know how I use it a little better thanks to this article!! Thanks Jess!

  36. Sarah Wamuhiu Jul 13 2012 at 9:03 am - Reply

    I shared on facebook….oh my this workshop would totally help me! I love playing with light but I really need some guidance.

  37. Pam Jul 13 2012 at 9:14 am - Reply

    thanks so much for this post Jes….great info!

  38. Susan Richardson Jul 13 2012 at 10:30 am - Reply

    As always, Jessica, your tutorials are great! I use all of the modifiers you have here, except the Larson (it's on my wish list!) I adore my beauty dish, but that's only because Beauty and Seniors are becoming my specialty, so that lends itself to the genre, but I have used it when shooting kids. This was very helpful to see the difference and also to clarify that you can use all of these tools for just about any situation. Thank you for taking the time to set this up and share the individual photos in this way!! It helps us learn!

  39. Bevin Meadows Jul 13 2012 at 11:26 am - Reply

    I shared @ http://www.facebook.com/bevinjoy. 🙂

    I noticed that you're using Flashpoint strobes in these images. I've also read your review of them, but you recommend Alien Bees in the gear least. When do you use which ones? Thanks!

    • Jes Gwozdz Jul 13 2012 at 11:52 am - Reply

      I recommend the Bees on the gear list because they seem to be a bit more universal. You are not limited to only using Alien Bees softboxes on the Bees. You can choose another softbox brand and buy it with an Alien Bees speedring. The Flashpoints are great lights, however as far as I know the connection is so unique that you can only use Flashpoint softboxes with Flashpoint lights. Someone from Adorama might be able to chime in here and correct me if I am wrong about that. I have the Flashpoint 320M and Beauty Dish combo, but my softboxes won't work on the Flashpoint. That is why you see me switching around in this tutorial.

  40. Garry Jul 13 2012 at 1:29 pm - Reply

    I posted on my Facebook page. What a great post and can only imagine how good the seminar would be.

  41. Mark Nolte Jul 13 2012 at 1:43 pm - Reply

    Great post still not sure what lights to use but this does help give more insight into lighting.

  42. Mark Nolte Jul 13 2012 at 1:44 pm - Reply

    Posted to my facebook page also

  43. Rachel Jul 13 2012 at 1:58 pm - Reply

    I posted on my facebook page! I'd love to win a seat in this class to expand my limited knowledge of studio lights! I'm adding another light to my set up soon and would love to learn more about…everything!

  44. Julie Jul 13 2012 at 3:13 pm - Reply

    Lights scare the living crap out of me – I need to learn to make them my friend.
    If I win, then I guess that means time to pull my head out 😆

  45. Paula Jul 14 2012 at 12:23 am - Reply

    Love this article. Posted on my FB page.

  46. Helene Tobler Jul 14 2012 at 1:47 am - Reply

    Great tutorial. Many thanks for this Jes and also for your great course I took last spring.

  47. jen r Jul 14 2012 at 2:08 am - Reply

    Posted!! Fantastic article!

  48. Paula Jul 14 2012 at 8:17 am - Reply

    Shared on my Facebook page (facebook.com/photoschoolformoms). Would love to win a seat in the class!

  49. Donna ashdown Jul 14 2012 at 11:48 am - Reply

    Found this at the perfect time. I just ordered all my back drops and have been stuck on what to buy for lights. so many choices out there.

  50. Rach Jul 14 2012 at 1:58 pm - Reply

    I had my first studio product shoot this week and spent most of the days before reading your tips, thanks so much. I've gone from only natural light to studio lighting addict in a week. And would LOVE to take your class. Posted blog to my FB page.

  51. Cara4562 Jul 14 2012 at 2:14 pm - Reply

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

  52. Daniele Jul 14 2012 at 10:09 pm - Reply

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

  53. Cathy Jul 15 2012 at 10:44 am - Reply

    Awesome post – super detailed! Thanks much!

  54. Juliana Jul 15 2012 at 8:44 pm - Reply

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

  55. Wendy Jul 16 2012 at 12:41 am - Reply

    Posted! https://www.facebook.com/wendygregoryphotography
    Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

  56. Aimee S Jul 16 2012 at 2:08 pm - Reply

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

  57. Michelle Jul 16 2012 at 7:16 pm - Reply

    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!

  58. Serena Jul 16 2012 at 8:41 pm - Reply

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

  59. kim Jul 18 2012 at 2:15 am - Reply

    great tutorial & examples Jessica

  60. lisaanacker Jul 18 2012 at 2:51 am - Reply

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

  61. Lisa Parnell Jul 18 2012 at 1:31 pm - Reply

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

  62. Jaime P Jul 18 2012 at 7:15 pm - Reply

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

  63. heidikay Jul 21 2012 at 10:37 pm - Reply

    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!

  64. Carroll Silano Oct 13 2012 at 7:06 pm - Reply

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

  65. Elias Doderer Oct 15 2012 at 11:51 pm - Reply

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

  66. Sandra Magnone Oct 26 2012 at 10:26 am - Reply

    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.

  67. John Dec 15 2012 at 12:47 pm - Reply

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

  68. Jes Gwozdz Dec 16 2012 at 10:30 am - Reply

    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.
    http://www.clickinmoms.com/cmu/archives/listing/lighting-101-studio-lighting-for-beginners

  69. Tony Stuart Jan 26 2013 at 1:51 pm - Reply

    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.

  70. Joel Brand Feb 08 2013 at 5:21 pm - Reply

    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.

  71. Aja Nov 23 2013 at 6:51 pm - Reply

    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!

  72. Rachna Apr 11 2015 at 4:30 pm - Reply

    Hi!
    I was searching “softbox vs. umbrella” for window curtain photography and came across your blog! I want to photograph curtains you see on our website. These curtains would be hanging on the windows with light coming in (unless we take them when it is dark outside) – what would be the best equipment to use to take good pictures without any shadows. This is a 12×12 room with only 2 windows.
    Thank you
    Rachna

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