At times my friends come to see how I am setting up my lighting equipment on different photo shoots and ask why I am using a softbox and not an umbrella or vice-versa and why. They also ask things like why I sometimes use different types of umbrellas and why I sometimes point them towards the subject and other times away from the subject. As a result, I am going to try and make this a short article to quickly unravel some of the mystery.

First of all, the basic difference between a softbox and a translucent photography umbrella (a partially see through umbrella) is that a softbox has two layers of diffusion and an umbrella has only one.

On a softbox the outer layer of diffusion is the fabric seen on the front of the softbox plus there is the inner layer of fabric which is inside the softbox and can’t be visually seen from outside.

In both cases the translucent umbrella and the softbox are both used to diffuse and soften the light coming out of studio strobe lights (flashes). They are both fitted out with a white nylon type fabric which is only semi-transparent, but which is still transparent enough for light to pass through it. What is also worth noting, and contrary to what one might think, the closer you place the softbox or the umbrella to the intended subject, the softer and more even and pleasant the light will look when it hits the subject.

Now a softbox is called a softbox because it is normally in the shape of a box with a very light weight metal frame inside that attaches it to the front of a strobe light. It also creates a soft light. Thus the name soft-box.

A photography umbrella really is in the form of an umbrella so for obvious reasons it is simply called an umbrella, but remember that it only has one layer of fabric that the light passes through before it hits the subject. So the light from an umbrella does not look as soft as it does from a softbox. This means an umbrella’s light is a bit harder looking when it hits the subject and has more highlights and contrast.

In the photo of the softbox above it is actually a long and narrow type softbox. We call this style a “strip” softbox. Softboxes come in many different styles and shapes depending on the shape of the light output that is desired. If I had to refer to one style as the standard type I would say the square type softbox in a size of about 1 meter squared is more or less the standard size and style. The strip softbox pictured above is about 1.2 meters long and only about 40 centimeters wide. So it is much longer than it is wide and why it is called a “strip softbox”.

I have both types of softboxes, but I typically only use the strip type. I like this style because it is a bit longer than the standard square size. So it gives a bit more light coverage from top to bottom on portraits of people. It also is narrower. So it gives off a narrower beam, making the light more focused within a smaller area and thus making it also easier to control the area that the light emitted from the softbox covers.

Now, with umbrellas, you can shoot them in two different ways. You can shoot the light directly through the umbrella or you can reflect the light onto the subject by turning the umbrella away from the subject and bouncing the light back onto the subject. In the photo above you can see that the umbrella is set to shoot the light through the umbrella. In the photo below the umbrella is set to shoot the light away from the subject and bounce the light onto the subject instead.

With portraits of people it is best to point the umbrella away from the subject and use the bounce effect to help soften the light. With other subjects like products, where you might want a harder light with more contrast, you might point the umbrella directly at the subject and shoot the light directly through the umbrella onto the subject.

Another point worth mentioning is that with portraits of people you often will have a reflection of either the softbox or the umbrella seen in the subject’s eyes. This is known as a catchlight. If using a softbox you will see a reflection in the square shape of the softbox. If using an umbrella the catchlight will be rounder like the umbrella. To some photographers this is not a concern, but some photographers have a preference and may chose to shoot with either a softbox or an umbrella for portraits based on the desired shape of the catchlight in the eyes. I however tend to choose whether I am going to shoot with a softbox or an umbrella based on the level of softness of light I prefer and the shape of the catchlight isn’t so important to me. But to be honest a softbox, versus an umbrella with the light being bounced, produces a relatively equal level of soft light output. As I mentioned, the softbox technically gives off a bit of a softer beam of light because it has two layers of diffusion, but light bounced off a translucent umbrella and then onto the subject is quite soft too as it is indirect light.

Now there is also another form of umbrella also used in photography known as an opaque umbrella or a “bounce” umbrella.

It is opaque because the back side of the umbrella is black and light cannot pass through the umbrella like it can with translucent umbrellas. With this umbrella light can only be bounced. So light cannot be shot through the umbrella directly onto the subject. The light can only be reflected off the inside of the umbrella and shot onto the subject indirectly as a bounce. The advantage to using these types of umbrellas is that if the umbrella is placed somewhere in front of the camera than the light cannot pass through the umbrella and enter the camera’s lens directly and cause lens flare. So some photographers like to use them for this reason. Personally, I never use these umbrella’s for shooting people. I find that even though the light is hitting the subject indirectly from a bounce that the reflective surface inside the umbrella is very shiny and it causes hard, unappealing looking highlights to appear on the subject. So for this reason I prefer to avoid using them with people.

Bounce umbrellas are very good for instances though where you don’t want any light to pass through the back side of the umbrella and be lost. This way the lighting power output of the strobe can be maximized. So I often use them to light up the background area behind the subject. They are very good for this, and, since they are opaque, I don’t have to worry about light coming back into the camera and causing lens flare.

So that covers the basics of umbrellas and lightboxes, their uses, and the subtle differences. There are of course a few more styles of these two types of diffusers, but those are more for specialty uses and you won’t come across the need for the other styles on a regular basis. Therefore, if you stick to a using these 2 types of umbrellas and the 1 type of softbox you should be pretty well covered for most lighting situations.