Best Studio Light Modifier: Softbox, Umbrella or Beauty Dish? Portrait Lighting Tutorial

Softboxes, Umbrellas, Brolly Boxes, Parabolic Reflectors, Beauty Dishes… which light modifier should I use? Is it better to get silver or white? Which one should I buy first? In this article I’ll help you answer all those questions and more.


I get lots of questions about lighting, and one of the most asked questions is what kind of light modifier works best. In this article I am going to break down the differences in modifiers so that you can understand HOW to pick the right one. I am also going to show you the different kinds of light each produces.  I’ll also help your bank account by showing you that you don’t need to own all of them. Plus, I’ll even teach you a cool little trick for testing catchlights before you shoot.

The first thing you need to understand about light modifiers is that equipment manufacturers work very hard to come up with cool new designs and names to encourage you to get the latest and greatest. So we wind up with Rice Bowls and Para Boxes and Halos and Softlighters and… well the list goes on.  Now don’t get me wrong -I’m not dissing the manufactures, they need to sell product to stay in business – but don’t be fooled into thinking that a new shape or design is necessarily “better light.”

The primary goal of ALL of these light modifiers is to broaden the light source so that you don’t get the harsh shadows that are created by direct flash.  Remember that in general, the bigger the light source, the softer the light.

Also remember that there is no “one size fits all” solution to lighting.

This is a good time for me to point out that all of these light modifiers can also be used with speedlights. Since speedlights tend to be less powerful than monolights, you would potentially move your light slightly closer to your subject or double up on the Speedlight with a bracket like LumoPro’s Double Flash Bracket Speed Ring.

So let’s dig into the different options.

Umbrellas

Most photographers who are starting on a budget begin their exploration of lighting modifiers with an umbrella.

There are two main types of umbrellas. A reflective umbrella is one that you fire the flash into and it reflects the light back onto your subject. These umbrellas usually have a dark backing so that light doesn’t pass through the umbrella. The result is a very broad light which is much softer than direct flash. Reflective umbrellas are also available in colors, such as silver or gold, to brighten or warm the light.

The other type is a shoot-through umbrella. In this case, the umbrella sits between your light source and your subject and it acts as a diffuser that broadens and softens the light. The shoot through umbrellas are made with a translucent white fabric.

Umbrellas are available in sizes from 20in to over 6ft. Remember that the larger the umbrella, the more light you will need to fill it. So bigger isn’t necessarily better unless you need to light a very large area. For portraits or even full length shots 27″ to 34″ umbrellas are usually more than adequate.

Brolly Boxes

Basically a brolly box is a translucent shoot-through umbrella that has a cover on the back of it so that light can’t escape. Because of its design, you can place a brolly box closer to your subject for a nice broad light source without as much risk of lens flare. For my taste, a 30″ to 45″ brolly box is a great size to work with.

Softboxes

Softboxes are used to create a broader light source, but with a few notable differences…

A softbox will control the shape and the direction of the light, much more than an umbrella or brolly box. Softboxes are generally rectangular or square in shape, but do also come as octoboxes and several other multi-sided shapes. Because of the box-like design, they prevent light spill, and the rectangular ones are great for replicating window light.

Softboxes are my modifier of choice when I want a soft directional light and I want to be able to control how much of that light is going to fall on my background. I can use a medium-sized softbox to shoot a great portrait or even a full-length shot with just a little light falloff from the shins to the feet.

Most softboxes also have a removable inner diffuser that is designed to achieve an even light across the front of the box. You can also get softboxes with a white or silver interior, which provides brighter light and can be very helpful if you are using speedlights with your softbox.

A medium-sized or larger softbox can also double as a bright white background for portraits and headshots.

You can find softboxes from as small as 12″ to 72″ or even larger. Softboxes are generally much more expensive than umbrellas and require a separate adapter to mount to your studio strobe or speedlight.

Beauty Dish

Last but not least is the beauty dish. A beauty dish is a modifier shaped like a parabolic reflector that will give you light that is softer than direct flash but not quite as soft as a softbox. The light tends to have a bit more contrast which creates a bit more drama. Plus, it is usually a little bit brighter in the center. Beauty dishes are frequently used by fashion and advertising photographers. It is a really good idea to work with a makeup artist if you are using a beauty dish as they tend to be very unforgiving to flaws.

Beauty dishes can be found in sizes from 16″to 30″ and are also available with a white or silver finish.

Examples of different light modifiers

Let’s start with the reason why we like light modifiers… here is a studio strobe aimed directly at my subject with just a 7″ silver reflector and no modifier. The light is harsh and the shadows are very distinct.

Model in front of dark background with no light modifiers

For all of these samples my subject is seated 3 feet from the background. The direct flash is placed four feet from the subject at a height of 5 and a half feet.

If I switch to a 33″ white umbrella with a black backing at the same distance and height, you can see that I now get more light on my background and much softer shadows on the face. This is a huge improvement over the direct flash.

setup with 33" white umbrella with a black backing

If we move up to a 43″ version of the white with black backing umbrella, we get even softer shadows.

setup with 43" version of the white with black backing umbrella as light modifier

Here is a 43″ Optical White umbrella that is actually designed to be used as a shoot-through umbrella. I’ve set it up as a reflective umbrella and I am able to shoot at f/5.6 with this result.

setup with 43" Optical White umbrella as light modifier

When I flip it and aim the light through the umbrella, my exposure changes to f/6.3 and I get this:

setup with 43" Optical White umbrella as shoot through light modifier

BTW.. this is a $21.00 umbrella. I hope you are starting to see how the differences in the subject are subtle and that the equipment doesn’t need to cost a ton of money. Don’t buy your lighting gear based on how cool it looks.

Here is a similar example with an $50.00 Adorama Glow 60″ Parabolic White Umbrella. In this case I have it set up as a reflective umbrella.

setup with Adorama Glow 60" Parabolic White Umbrella as light modifierAnd here you can see it being used as a shoot-through umbrella.

setup with Adorama Glow 60" Parabolic White Umbrella shoot-through as light modifier

Keep in mind this thing is almost 5 ft in diameter – you can see in this situation with a 7.5ft ceiling that you are not going to get it above your subject.

Here you can see a Cowboy Studio 43″ White Studio Brolly Box that gives me this result:

setup wiht Cowboy Studio 43" White Studio Brolly Box as light modifier

When I switch to the medium softbox, which is 24″ x 32″, I get light that looks like this:

setup with medium softbox as light modifier

Remember that bigger is better when you want soft light.

Here is a small 12″ x 16″ Photoflex softbox that I have moved closer to my subject to keep the light source as big as possible in relationship to my model’s face.

setup with 12" x 16" Photoflex softbox as light modifier

I mentioned beauty dishes as an option. Here is a 22″ Glow White Beauty dish from Adorama. You can see that this light does have a pop in contrast and it does bring back some of the shadows, just not as harsh as the direct flash.

setup with 22" Glow White Beauty dish as light modifier

So how do you decide which light modifier is best for you?

Budget is a huge deciding factor. Umbrellas and Brolly boxes are very inexpensive and they are portable and quick to set up and take down. Softboxes are awesome lighting tools that give a little more control, but also tend to cost more and require more time and effort to set up and take apart. Beauty dishes are generally reserved for studio shooting because of their weight and the fact that they can be easily dented.

If you paid close attention, the real key to using light modifiers is not which one you have, but how you use it. In other words, you still have to learn to “see light.”

Catchlights

One of the deciding factors for you might be catchlights. I have found over the years that photographers seem to have very strong opinions on what makes a good or bad catchlight. Some people love the vertical catchlights that my LED strip lights leave in the eye and others simply hate them.

Umbrellas and brolly boxes will give you a round catchlight. Softboxes show up as squares or rectangles. A beauty dish will show up as a round light with a dark spot in the middle. If this matters to you, it will influence your choice of light modifier.

If you are just beginning your quest to become a master at lighting, then be sure to study the catchlights when you look at other photographer’s images. it will tell you what type of modifiers they were using.

Tog Tip

Bottom line: there are no rules. You don’t need tons of different light modifiers to make great images – but you do need to know how to use them. So practice, experiment and…

Oh- I promised you a cool little trick for figuring out how the catchlights will look when you are setting up your lighting. Assuming that you are setting up your lights before you put your subject in front of your camera, you can hold a marble in your hand and see exactly what your catchlight will look like and where it will appear in the eye.

marble in hand

So if the shape and location of catchlights are a big priority to you, try it! You’ll like it!

Okay, now go practice! Create some cool images because your best shot is your next shot. So keep learning, keep thinking, and keep shooting. – Adios!

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