Studio Lighting Equipment: Umbrellas vs Light Boxes

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Portrait photography is usually all about making someone look better than they actually look. In rare instances people want to bring out a trait that is strong and defines them like a wrinkled old man to show the years of weathering. But generally a portrait is supposed to make people look great. Look at a painting by some of the old masters. They generally are smooth and show little to no skin imperfections. That is because people even back them wanted a painting to show them looking great. Portrait photography is an extension of that thought process.

So if you are a starting photographer or even a more advanced one then you might be asking yourself how you can achieve a great photo that makes the subject look his or her best and not break your budget in the process.

Light Boxes, Soft Boxes and Umbrellas

The main differences are pretty easy to define.

Many photographers are familiar with flash. In fact we all use it at some time. You have direct flash and bounce flash and most of us know the difference and we know that flash lighting generally is not the best thing in portrait photography. It can cause ugly detailing and red eyes and shadow and all sorts of things we don’t want. Hence we have box lights and umbrellas.

A light box makes the light very, very soft and diffused. It will give you very little to no bleed through by illuminating the backgrounds and it makes the face and the skin tones of the portrait subject look better.

Umbrellas are made in a parabolic shape or some variation thereof and these, while much better than direct lighting, still lag way behind the soft box for giving desired results. Most portrait shooters will use the umbrellas when they are on location shoots with models where they need control and the bounce shadows won’t be too distracting or problematic.

A lot pf people that do this for a living will very often use the soft box or box light as the main illumination source and then they will use an umbrella to bounce the fill flash for some added texture and / or depth. The biggest problem with any type of bounce, especially ones that are centered on a strobe head, is that you have to figure out the amount of light hitting you model. That generally requires an assistant at the model with a light meter that can measure the amount of light bouncing in and then allowing you to adjust the power of the strobe and try the show. Even if you have this correct it would not hurt to bracket the exposure to see what gives the best results for you.

I am not a huge fan of strobes. I have the strobe heads and the infra red distribution for it so that I can sync and fire them all together to give great illumination. I just hate the harshness that a strobe gives and the amount of unflattering detail that it brings out on the model’s skin. Pretty much any defect of any kind can and usually does show up looking much worse than you want and then you have to either re-shoot the shot or spend some Photoshop editing the image to make it work
When I use an umbrella as a bounce device I prefer to use one of my Smith Victor lighting cans with a color corrected bulb in it bouncing off the reflector and on to the subject. The advantages, at least in my mind (and I know a lot of professionals out there swill argue this point with me) are that the lighting is constant and predictable so the novice model doesn’t blink when the strobe goes off and I get more useable shots with eyes open. The fluorescent color balanced bulbs run cool so unlike older tungsten bulbs it won’t heat up the studio and for those of you just getting set up, the system is relatively inexpensive as far as setting up a light system is concerned.

The constant bulb lighting also allows you, as the photographer to work alone if needed and you can make adjustments in the lighting and see the results right away so you can move the reflector as you watch the scene and once the correct illumination is achieved you can see it right away and stop moving the reflector and get back to shooting. I personally find all of this to be a winning system for the way that I operate and it works well for me and I use it about 90 percent of the time that I shoot.

As I mentioned there is a huge cost savings using umbrellas over a soft box. That is a good reason for new portrait photographers to gravitate to them. Even a very inexpensively made soft box can easily be several times the cost of a top of the line umbrella. So with the umbrella you will get a better quality product for less of a money outlay. In other words, better bang for the buck.

The other side of the coin is that a light box will typically last much longer under a similar use pattern than your average umbrella system will. So over a period of time they tend to bring the cost gap a little closer.

Deciding where you are doing your shooting will also help you make the decision. IF you are constantly moving for shoots (either from one location to another or maybe you need to tear down your “studio” so that the guest room or den can actually be used for its intended purpose when you are not shooting portraits) then the umbrella system will win hands down.

So as you can see there are valid reasons for going either way, or for having both systems. They both have good points and they both have bad points. Deciding which is better for your style is a question that only you can answer. But at least you have some solid thoughts on which to base your decision.

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