Knowledge Base Photography

Softbox Vs Umbrella Lighting – Photography Comparison

Softbox Lighting Vs Umbrella Lighting

If you are just starting out in photography, you are probably already rather overwhelmed with everything people are telling you that you should and shouldn’t do. What’s the best flash for a Nikon DSLR or any other brand of camera you may have

But, one thing that stumps many people, is softbox vs umbrella photography lighting and understanding which is best. If you can’t fit your subject into a photo light box, then you need to replicate a similar lighting setup with much, much bigger lights.

Although there are many experts that see photography umbrellas as being better suited to beginners because they are easier to work with when you are just getting your head round framing shots and using artificial lighting. Softboxes are considered to be better for more experienced photographers because they offer greater control and versatility.

That being said, it is still worth knowing what is the difference between a softbox and umbrella lighting and which could potentially be better for your project before making any buying decisions.

Softbox Vs Umbrella …Which Is Best?

When it comes to lighting portraits, there are four main characteristics that are important – quality, quantity, direction, and color. When you are working with mono-lights or speed-lights, the two most common forms of lighting, and you want to get the best out of them, you need to use a modifier such like an umbrella or softbox.

Softbox Photography Lighting

While they provide very similar jobs, they both have their own distinct pros and cons. Both are ruled by the same principle – how close the subject is to the light source determines the softness or hardness of the light produced.

So if they are both providing very similar functions, what is the difference between them?

What is the Difference Between an Umbrella and Softbox?

As we have covered, they are both light diffusers/modifiers; the biggest difference is that while umbrella lights produce a softer, more diffused light; softboxes produce a more direct and controlled lighting solution which is similar to sunlight shining through the window.

To understand the differences better, let’s look at each individually.

Umbrella Lights

Photography Lighting Umbrella
A Reflective Photography Umbrella

When comparing a softbox vs umbrella lighting, umbrellas are the more popular of the two modifiers, as they are easy to use, incredibly portable and relatively cheap. When we say they are easy to use, we mean easy because if you have experience using an ordinary umbrella on a rainy day, you are already halfway there to using one with your artificial lighting setup for your photo shoots.

Photography umbrella lights provide a soft and broad source of light that simulates outdoor lighting. Compared to softboxes though, that provide you with control over the direction, umbrellas provide you with a more free-form lighting that ends up going everywhere.

You will notice that there are two kinds of photography lighting umbrellas:

  • Shoot-through umbrellas
  • Reflective umbrellas

Just as umbrellas and softboxes are very similar but have distinct differences, the same is true of shoot-through and reflective umbrellas.

Shoot-through umbrellas are made with semi-transparent, plain white material and to diffuse a light using one of them you need to position it with the outer part of it pointing at your subject and then position your flash so you can shoot it inside the umbrella’s opening. This means that the light is passed through the transparent material of the umbrella, which diffuses it and makes it softer.

The light produced using shoot-through umbrellas is a lot easier to control, compared to the light provided by reflective umbrellas.

Reflective umbrellas consist of an opaque material on the exterior and a reflective, metallic material on the interior. If you want to diffuse light using one of these umbrellas, all you have to do is set it up with the reflective interior pointing at your subject and then aim your flash at the inside of the umbrella so that it bounces back onto your subject. Because the harsher light of the flash is bounced off the material before hitting your subject, it becomes broader, more even and softer in the process.

See The Top 10 Recommended Umbrella Lights →


When your umbrellas in the standard way, they produce bounced, indirect light that could need a higher flash output from the source of light you are using. Umbrellas are easier for beginners to master because they provide a broad diffused light. You just point the umbrella at your subject and hey presto, you are shooting with soft lighting. Want to feel light a real photography lighting genius? Use two together!

What Are Speedlight Softbox Lights?

Photography Softbox Lights

The best speedlight softboxes are used to simulate directional, softer lighting that is similar to what comes through a window during the day. It diffuses and softens the light from a source that is attached and transmits through a special diffusion panel. There are a wide variety of different sizes and shapes, including octagonal, square and rectangular softboxes.

As you are shooting through the material rather than trying to create bounced or reflected light, you do not need as powerful a flash as you do with umbrellas. There is even a selection of different accessories like louvers or grids, you can use to help the softbox produce a more even and narrower light.

See The Top 10 Recommended Speedlight Softboxes →

In Summary

So, if you are looking at the different light modifiers and diffusers out there and trying to figure out which is best for you, there is actually no right or wrong choice. It is simply the one that is right for you, and often the one that is right for you at that specific time, for that specific shoot. You will find that for some shoots an umbrella is going to give you the type of lighting you need, while for others you will be better using a softbox.

Hopefully, in the above post we have provided you with enough information to make a sensible decision about umbrellas or softboxes for your studio or outdoor photography setup. In our opinion, and it is just that remember, we would always suggest that it is a good idea to have at least one or two of each as this provides you with the most versatility when it comes to lighting your subjects and shots.

The most important thing that we hope that you take away from this is the importance of having a comprehensive lighting setup in the first place. Finding the best of both worlds using softboxes and umbrellas will just be the cherry on the cake.

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Dayo February 21, 2019 at 12:46 pm

I’ve learnt a lot, thanks. But I still have a question, can both umbrella lights and softbox lights be used together?

David Willis February 23, 2019 at 3:10 pm

Hi Dayo,

The main difference is that many softboxes are used in conjunction with an external flash, and umbrella lights are normally used with ‘always on’ lighting setups. One produces more, diffused light where umbrella lights tend to be a bit ‘harsher’

If you’re still unsure, maybe check this article out which has a few example images to show the difference:

There are no rules to say you can’t use them together – if it works, it works 🙂

Hope that helps,


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