Among the array of tools a photographer uses to shape light, softboxes and umbrellas stand out as two of the most commonly used lighting modifiers. Each offers unique advantages and characteristics, influencing the quality and direction of light in distinct ways. In this article, we’ll discuss the common topic of “softbox vs umbrella” and compare their functionalities, effects on the final image, and suitability for various photographic scenarios.

Softbox vs Umbella

What’s the difference between a softbox and an umbrella? The short answer is, they are both light modifiers that help you to turn a small, bright light source into a big, soft, semi-directional light source. The key difference between a softbox vs an umbrella, though, is that umbrellas usually just “spill light everywhere”, with only a little bit of directionality, while softboxes usually provide very directional, controlled light.

Is that all there is, though? Actually, there are many other things to know about umbrellas vs softboxes, and how either one of them can help you achieve the lighting setup you’re trying to accomplish.

What Is An Umbrella in Photography?

What is an “umbrella”, besides a thing that keeps you out of the rain? In fact, an umbrella in photography is exactly what it sounds like – it’s literally an umbrella, one that is made of a material which makes it useful to photographers.

An umbrella makes a very simple, easy-to-use lighting modifier because its setup is usually very straightforward. Just open it and attach it to your strobe or flash, and watch the umbrella turn your hard, bright flash/strobe into a soft, diffused light source!

Shoot-Through Umbrella Vs Bounce Umbrella

portrait lighting umbrella bounce vs shoot throughIf an umbrella is all made of opaque white material, then its intended use is for light to pass through it, and this is called a shoot-through umbrella. You attach a shoot-through umbrella in between the flash/strobe and the subject, so that it can soften the light, while letting light “spill” in the general direction of the subject.

If an umbrella has a black outside, and a white or silver inside, then you actually turn the whole strobe+umbrella setup around, so the strobe is pointed directly away from the subject, and then is bounced off that white or silver surface before it returns towards the subject.

Why would you want to use one type of light modifier or the other? The simple answer is, a shoot-through umbrella is just fine for many types of conditions, as long as the lights are next to or behind you and especially if you merely want to soften your light source, but not actually direct it. 

A bounce umbrella, on the other hand, adds a few benefits: Since it is black on one side, it doesn’t spill light in that direction, it only throws its light in the general direction of the subject. This is very useful for when you’re shooting a larger scene from a distance, and a bright white umbrella might create a flare in your lens if it gets too close to being in the frame.

The main benefit, though, is definitely the added level of control of the direction of light. Of course, when it comes to controlling the direction of light, instead of an umbrella you might want to consider a softbox.

What Is A Softbox?

If an umbrella is described as, indeed, an umbrella, then a softbox could be described as a tent.  At least, that’s what many softboxes look like. They are usually square, hexagonal, or octagonal shaped domes, with a structure that is indeed quite similar to a small tent. That is, instead of opening in one easy motion like with an umbrella, they are usually pieced together using 4, 6, or 8 individual ribs that go into a main central bracket.

This design allows the lighting modifier to be attached directly to a flash, and create a big, soft, directional light source, with the added bonus of having the flash actually pointed at the subject, instead of reversed like with a bounce-style umbrella.

In short, softboxes take a few extra seconds to set up, however the benefits are significant: you usually get a bright, directional, and highly modify-able light source.

Lighting Modifiers For A Softbox

softbox with grid without

Adding a simple grid of black criss-cross pattern material gives very directional control over your light, resulting in very little “spilled light”, and a final look that can be very controlled and dramatic and yet still be incredibly soft.

It is these types of lighting setups that allow you to create dramatic portraits in which light seems to be very selectively falling on a subject’s face, as if they are being hit by a spotlight, and yet still be very beautifully diffused and generally flattering.

Softbox vs Umbrella | Other Key Differences

Here’s a quick summary of the key differences between softboxes and umbrellas.


  • Directional Control: Provides more directional control of light, leading to a more focused and precise illumination.
  • Quality of Light: Produces a softer, more even light spread due to its enclosed design and diffusion material.
  • Shape: Available in various shapes (rectangular, square, octagonal) which can affect the catchlights in a subject’s eyes.
  • Setup Time: Generally takes longer to set up and disassemble compared to umbrellas.
  • Portability: Less portable than umbrellas, as they are bulkier and more rigid in structure.
  • Spill Control: Better at controlling light spill due to its enclosed design.
  • Versatility: Often preferred in studio settings for portrait, product photography, and controlled lighting scenarios.
  • Cost: Typically more expensive than umbrellas.


  • Directional Control: Offers less directional control; light spreads more widely and diffusely.
  • Quality of Light: Can produce a softer light than a softbox, but with more potential for hotspots and less uniformity.
  • Shape: Mainly circular in shape, influencing the catchlights differently than softboxes.
  • Setup Time: Quick and easy to set up and break down, ideal for on-the-go photographers.
  • Portability: Highly portable due to their lightweight and collapsible design.
  • Spill Control: Less efficient at controlling light spill; light can scatter more broadly.
  • Versatility: Great for a more general spread of light, useful in event photography and when a natural look is desired.
  • Cost: Generally more affordable than softboxes, making them a popular choice for photographers on a budget.


Learn advanced lighting with our Lighting 201 Workshop on

Are you still curious for more information about lighting modifiers, and how to use them? To see lots of examples, real-world demonstrations, and useful tips on how to actually use softboxes, umbrellas, visit SLR Lounge Premium.  Want to learn everything there is to know about all types of lighting modifiers? Be sure to check out: Complete Guide To Lighting Modifiers & When To Use Them