AND IN THIS CORNER...In photog circles "umbrella or softbox" is almost as ubiquitous a question as the "paper or plastic" query during any trip to the grocery store. If you want to eliminate harsh or sharp shadows and emulate a more "natural" light and find yourself waking up in the middle of the night muttering: "....softbox...umbrella...no...umbrella...softbox...", here's a little something we hope will help to sweep away the cobwebs.
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Whether you're dealing with portraiture, fashion or products as subjects, addressing the relationship between shadows and light is fundamental to almost every situation and can have a huge impact on the salability of your photographs.
When you use an on-camera flash alone, harsh, unflattering shadows can result, but by adjusting the position and distance of the light source, you can mediate and manipulate the softness and length of your shadows. The size of the subject in relation to the size of the light source contributes to the harshness of shadows produced as well; in general the smaller the light the harder the shadow and the bigger the light the softer the shadow on a subject.
Both umbrellas and softboxes help to spread light, making it softer, and that makes standard portraits far more attractive.
Some pros even base their selection of softbox vs. umbrella on the shapes produced in the catchlights of their models (the catchlights reflected in the eyes, or reflective surface in the case of products). Umbrellas can sometimes produce chunky or very noticable reflections.
So what should your choice be? It really depends upon which solution is best for the particular job you're doing and THAT is best determined by your location and the amount of control you feel you need for your light source. Both options can produce a beautiful diffuse light. Here are some points to consider when you're making your determination:
- Umbrellas are usually quicker and easier to set up and take down and are a bit more portable compared to softboxes.
- Umbrellas are generally better for smallish, more cramped spaces, but are heavily utilized in fashion because they provide overall illumination even when set far back from the subject.
- If you are shooting larger groups, you will need to place light sources further back as well, whereas with intimate portraiture, being able to draw light sources much closer to the subject is generally needed. Umbrellas are great for larger groups because they spread light very well and are more omni-directional than softboxes.
- Umbrellas can be shot through if transparent enough, or, if they contain a reflective surface, can be used to bounce light off of...can be used as a reflector.
- Softboxes offer more control, via masks, grids, louvers, barn doors, etc., of the light source and therefore, of the shadows produced.
- Large softboxes can be placed much closer to a subject without spilling a lot of light onto the background, as would happen with an umbrella, allowing an exceptionally soft light to occur.
- There are many ways to modify softboxes, from lighting from within the softbox, to using gels and grids, that are unavailable (or at least not nearly as easily achievable) when using umbrellas.
And the Winner Is...
So, umbrellas are great tools not only because they are relatively inexpensive, but because they can be used both to bounce light off of their reflective lining, or used to produce a diffuse light with soft shadows. You can use bounced light to create catchlights or highlights in fashion shots.
Having access to various umbrellas with different linings will give you a bit more control...silver or gold linings will produce reflections that are sharper or "warmer", depending upon the color, and white linings will tend to soften the light. Shooting through fabric like an umbrella will disperse and soften the light, whereas bouncing it off of an umbrella's reflective surface won't really change the character of the light because there is very little dispersal.
Softboxes are great tools for controlling light, either with the use of additional grids, louvers or gels, or by controlling unwanted spill and flash. They offer more control than umbrellas but tend to be more expensive.
In general, softboxes are thought to be a bit more complicated to set up and use as opposed to umbrellas and often photographers will prefer to take advantage of the portability of umbrellas and use them on location, saving softboxes for the studio.
Most photographers have both in their arsenals, and if you haven't already, you can and should certainly experiment with using both in combination...most commonly using a softbox as your main light (because of it's more controllable directional capabilities) and using umbrellas for fill.
Experimenting with both umbrellas and softboxes and learning to use both tools to your advantage to balance light and shadows and produce the photographic results you need mean that YOU'RE the real winner.
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