If you’re a portrait photographer who has become interested in lighting and light modification, one of the big questions you’ll ask is, “what’s the difference between a softbox and an umbrella?”

This is indeed a very good, important question! The short answer is, they are both light modifiers that help you to turn a small, bright light source (a strobe, for example) into a big, soft, semi-directional light source.

The key difference when comparing softbox light vs umbrella light, 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 and softboxes, and how either one of them can help you achieve the lighting setup you’re trying to accomplish.

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

What Is A Flash/Strobe Lighting Umbrella?

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

Some photography lighting umbrellas are all opaque white, so that light can pass through them in a diffused manner, while other lighting umbrellas are black on the outside, (the side rain would hit, if you used it for that!) …and either a soft white or silver color on the inside.

How Do You Use A Photography Lighting Umbrella?

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!

Of course, the two main types of lighting umbrellas are used in slightly different ways, so let’s talk about the difference between a “shoot-through” umbrella and a “bounce” (or box) type umbrella…

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, the photographer, and especially if you merely want to soften your light source, but not actually direct it.

portrait lighting umbrella fiberglass ribs
PRO TIP: Always buy umbrellas that have fiberglass ribs, NOT cheap flimsy aluminum!

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?

(Click here to watch Sue Bryce simulate natural light with large softbox-umbrellas)

If an umbrella is described as, indeed, an umbrella, then a softbox could be described as, a tent, maybe? 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

Indeed, lighting modifiers abound for softboxes. 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 dramatic, with highlights and shadows, and yet still be incredibly soft.

It is these types of light 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.

The bottom line? If you’re a truly serious portrait photographer who wants to use strobe lighting, either in a studio or on-location, then a softbox with a grid is basically a holy grail.

What About The “Umbrella-Box” Hybrid?

Westcott Softbox Rapidbox Umbrellabox folded
Some Softboxes operate very similarly to umbrellas interms of setup and breakdown… (Pictured: Westcott Rapid Box)

Of course, it would be simple to say that there are just these two basic types of lighting modifiers, softboxes and umbrellas. In reality, there are also various types of hybrid

Beauty Dish VS Softbox?

We haven’t mentioned the other holy grail of lighting modifiers yet, however, the “beauty dish” is indeed another popular one. It would take a whole new article to talk about the advantages and disadvantages of this other lighting modifier!

Suffice it to say, a beauty dish is basically a metal dish that acts much like a softbox, in that it creates soft, highly directional light. There are a few added benefits, and some drawbacks, regarding the exact quality of light that a beauty dish creates, and of course since it is quite literally a metal dish, it isn’t going to collapse and be portable at all, compared to either a softbox or umbrella. But, again, that’s another topic for another day! We’ve already spent enough time doing a softbox vs umbrella comparison.

Softbox VS Umbrella | Conclusion | Learn More

Learn advanced lighting with our Lighting 201 Workshop on SLRLoungeWorkshops.com

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, and more, see the links below…

Learn More: Softbox vs Reflector vs Umbrella
How (and when) should use one or more of these three primary lighting modifiers?

Learn More: Off-Camera Flash Basics | How And When To Use An Umbrella
Umbrellas come in many shapes and sizes; this article goes in-depth with the dos and don’ts of using one on-location.

Inspiration: 15 Photographers Take On The Dramatic Light Challenge
Using umbrellas, softboxes, and other diffusers or even bare strobes, these photographers demonstrate how to create unique portraits with creative lighting, regardless of your budget!

Inspiration: Three Portrait Lighting Styles Using Two-Light Setups In Four Minutes
Watch SLR Lounge team up with Fstoppers to demonstrate quick and easy lighting setups for studio portraiture using various lighting modifiers.