Softboxes vs umbrellas – what’s the difference?

28 February 2018

Lighting tools explained with the help of Profoto’s expertise

Profoto’s line of Softboxes and Umbrellas are two segments of Light Shaping Tools (LST’s) that Profoto offers to photographers. Apart from offering diffusion, they also serve as light shapers, enabling the photographer to control the amount of light spill that falls onto a scene. The question though is which one to choose, and why?

Before that question can be answered, it’s important to define the two types of light characteristics:

• Hard Light. This type of lighting is defined by harsh shadows and a high level of contrast in the scene.
• Soft Light: This type of lighting is defined by softer “wrap-around” light with lower contrast and softer shadows.

The type of lighting is determined by how big or small the surface area of the light shaper is, and also how close the light source is to the subject. The larger the surface area of the light shaper, the softer the light will be, but only when the light source is close to the subject. If the same large light shaper is placed far away from the subject, the effective “surface area” of the light becomes much smaller in relation to the subject, resulting in harsh and “contrasty” light as defined above.

Oscar Falk

© Oscar Falk

Profoto Umbrellas explained

Profoto umbrellas are available in 4 different sizes, with 2 variants, and in 3 different fabrics.

The two variants are:

Deep Umbrellas: Produces less spill light with higher contrast
• Shallow Umbrellas: Produces more spill light with lower contrast

Umbrellas are available in the following fabrics:

• White: Produces lower contrast with softer tones and more neutral colour rendition
• Silver: Increases light-output by up to 1.5 Stops of light. Produces more contrast and colour-rich images
• Translucent: Produces neutral colour and contrast pallet with loads of spill for even lighting and fill.

Size options vary from 85cm to 1.65m across with a large surface area for softer wrap-around light. All of Profoto’s umbrellas also offer the option to diffuse the light even more by adding a diffuser sheet that can be easily pulled over the back end of the umbrella.

Softboxes explained

Softboxes, on the other hand, come in 3 different variants:

Square Softboxes
Rectangular Softboxes
Octagonal Softboxes

There are many different size options depending on the look and feel the photographer wants to create. Whether it’s hard or soft light, a small or large softbox depending on the required coverage needed to light up a subject or object.

Iain Crawford

© Iain Crawford

Softboxes- The advantage of grid accessories

Softboxes also offer the added advantage of grid-accessories, which help to reduce light spill significantly. The more spill the photographer is able to control, the more precise the subject can be lit. Softboxes require the use of a speedring to mount onto a Profoto flash head. (also available for non-Profoto brand lights)

This brings us back to the question of which one is best? There is no right or wrong answer. It’s all about preference. Many photographers opt for umbrellas because they are cost-effective and easy to travel with. They don’t offer the same amount of light shaping capability, but the ease of use and travel advantages make this one of Profoto’s most popular light shaping tools. When used correctly, umbrellas will produce soft and even light and is ideal for situations where contrast and shadow detail need to be reduced.

Photographers that require more defined light shaping capability and more size options tend to opt for the range of softboxes. These offer a variety of light shaping capabilities when used with the grid-accessories, but they’re a bit harder to build up and break down. The best way to decide on which option will work best for you is to rent these products and conduct your own testing.

About the Author:

The Outdoorphoto Team

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