Growing up I used to think it was so funny to see umbrellas used in studio lighting, and I admit that I never really understood the importance of using an umbrella vs softbox until we got in to photography ourselves.
In product photography, intentional lighting can make all the difference to how your images turn out. Lighting is more important then the camera you’re using, the lens you have, or the software you use to edit the images.
It will bring out the color and details of the product to make it visually appealing, or it can make the product appear moody and mysterious. All of which has a part in how the product is perceived by the intended audience to influence their purchasing decisions.
There are two most common forms of artificial lighting for product photography: umbrella lighting and softbox lighting. So which one is better for product photography?
Softboxes, specifically strip boxes, are better for product photography because you have much more control of your light. Umbrellas are better for covering a large area, but tend to spill light in unwanted places. However, there are a few use cases for both.
So if you’re having trouble on deciding between the two, below are some of the pros and cons of each type of lighting.
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What’s The Difference Between A Softbox vs Umbrella?
The main difference between a softbox vs umbrella is that softboxes produce a much more controlled, directional light. Umbrellas are much less expensive, but produce diffused light everywhere.
Even though softboxes are generally best suited for product photography, let’s compare the differences between softboxes vs umbrellas to refine our understanding.
Before getting into the differences, though, let’s quickly recap the similarities. Both softboxes and umbrellas are used to:
- Soften/diffuse a lighting source
- Enlarge the light footprint as perceived by the subject
If that’s all you’re trying to do, then you don’t really need to worry about the subtle differences here. But the best photographers are the ones with an eye for detail, so let’s dig into the details.
|Lighting Tool||Construction||How It Works||Resulting Effect||Relative Cost|
|Softbox||Rectangular box with a white-ish screen in front of the bulb.||The semi-transparent screen captures light from the bulb and refracts it evenly in one direction.||A soft, targeted source of light.||More expensive|
|Umbrella||Looks just like an umbrella for rain. Either a reflective surface or a white-ish screen in front of the bulb.||The umbrella shape diffuses the light in many directions. Either by reflection or refraction, depending on the type of umbrella.||A soft, room-filling source of light.||Less expensive|
One of the most common comparisons between softboxes and umbrellas is this;
- Umbrellas mimic outdoor lighting conditions
- Softboxes mimic light coming through a window
Either condition could be beneficial to a product photographer, but the light from a softbox will tend to be more versatile for a product photographer.
However, it really comes down to the artist’s preference and composition. That, and the highest quality product photos, rarely ever use only one light source. Remember, no one is saying you must use one or the other!
Let’s briefly discuss how each tool works and why photographers even use them.
Why Do Photographers Use Softboxes?
The main answer lies right in the name of the tool. To soften a light source. Soft light is a studio photographer’s best friend. Photographers use softboxes to diffuse light to “fill” shadows on the subject with light.
The other answer is that softboxes offer more control over where the light goes, but that control is typically limited to a specific use based on the size and shape of the softbox. Using softboxes, a photographer has control over these effects:
- Light fall off (i.e., how far the light travels)
- Light diffusion (i.e., the area of coverage)
- Light spill (area of coverage can be modified with a grid)
There are a lot of knobs to turn when it comes to modifying the parameters above, but the thing is that softboxes are not adjustable in their size. Some sizes are more versatile than others, but in order to reap the benefits of the variety of effects you can create with softboxes, you’ll need to invest in different shapes and sizes.
In my opinion, strip boxes offer the most versatility in product photography because the shape can be used to control the shape and size of reflections.
Each type of lighting has their use, and like any tool in your toolbox you’ll want to be able to recognize when it’s appropriate to use either one.
As a product photographer, I have found that having more control over how my light hits the product is more important then how much light fills the room, and I often use them both at the same time for different purposes.
Softboxes Diffuse Light But Maintain Direction
When light leaves a bulb, it wants to go in every direction. Place that bulb in a softbox and it will reflect off the walls in every which way. This is how a softbox enlarges a light source. All the light essentially “fills” the box and is directed out of the one open side facing the subject.
The “open” side is actually a translucent sheet that evens out the tone of the light across the entire surface and directs it out of the box. What you end up with is a large target area covered by even light.
By evening out the light, a softbox does exactly what it’s intended to do, soften shadows and edges. This is why softboxes are popular in portrait photography… they remove harsh shadows from a subject’s face.
In product photography, you want as much detail in your shot as possible. A softbox will enhance the texture of a product by creating deeper shadows, whereas an umbrella will fill in the shadows and make your product appear flat.
5 Pros of Using Softbox Lighting
Similarly to umbrella lighting, softbox lighting has its share of advantages:
- Causes Very Little Glare – Unlike an umbrella, softboxes can be used without creating harsh reflections on glass. By diverting the softbox slightly from the glass surface, glare can be avoided altogether.
- Less Light for the Same Brightness – Because the light is more directed and is shooting through one panel rather than reflecting broadly, a softbox requires less intense light to create the same brightness level as an umbrella.
- Limited Shadows – Because the light from a softbox is so directional, with the light coming from one direction out of the light source, you don’t need to worry about shadows coming off of products unpredictably or in ways that are difficult to control.
- Offers Control of Light Tone and Color – Because light hits the subject directly rather than reflecting off walls, a softbox is a clear choice in a room with colored surfaces, unless the intended effect is colored light.
- The light from a softbox, unlike that from an umbrella, won’t pick up any of the colors from the walls. In this way, softboxes offer much better control of the light in a photo.
- Good for Outdoor Use – As mentioned earlier, an umbrella on a stand is not the best shape for using in the wind. For this reason, a softbox is more reliable for outdoor use, as it is much less likely to blow over or pivot when hit by a gust of wind.
5 Cons of Using Softbox Lighting
Like with other types of lighting, softbox lighting has its set of cons as well.
- Can Be Bulky and Hard to Transport – Since softboxes both bounce and diffuse light, they contain more material than an umbrella. They are usually set up like a tent with poles that give them structure & shape. So for that reason, a large softbox can be larger, heavier, and more difficult to transport than an umbrella of comparable size. However, if a small light will serve your purpose, small, foldable softboxes on the market (like these) are more easily portable.
- Longer Setup Time – While there are some simpler, more foldable options, in general, a softbox is more complicated than an umbrella to set up. Non-folding softboxes, in particular, can take a while to get ready to use and disassemble, as opposed to umbrellas, which offer nearly instant setup and take-down.
- Cost – While smaller softboxes are usually comparable in price to umbrellas of the same size, if you need a larger light source, then a softbox quickly becomes much less affordable, often costing several times as much as a comparable umbrella.
- Less Forgiving – While an umbrella offers a diffused light that does not require quite as intentional a setup, the control that a softbox offers can also lead to difficulty for the beginner who does not understand all aspects of lighting. This is why modeling lights on strobes are so useful.
- Less Detail Close Up – Because of the directionality of a softbox’s light, more harsh shadows and less detail will appear when macro photos are taken of objects.
Umbrella Lighting for Product Photography
An umbrella is one of the most common light modifiers on the market; it’s portable, inexpensive, and easy to use. Shaped like a classic umbrella, it has either a reflective surface on the inside, which bounces light onto an object, or a translucent surface, which diffuses the light before hitting the object.
Umbrellas produce a very soft, diffused light directed throughout a vast area around the light source. This light source is less controlled and is gentler, mimicking natural daylight. But it also throws light everywhere, so it may be more useful as a fill light.
Why Do Photographers Use Umbrellas?
Again, the main reason is to diffuse and soften a light source. Umbrellas are an effective way of increasing the apparent size of a light source. The larger a light source to the subject, the softer the light will land on that subject.
Another reason photographers use them is simplicity. They are an easy, effective way to soften a light source and fill a large space with light. They can act as a key light and a fill light all in one, whereas it might take multiple softboxes to produce as much light coverage as one umbrella.
Umbrellas Fill More Space With light
Umbrellas work a bit differently than softboxes in that there is no flat screen to redirect the light. Depending on the type (we’ll describe the two in a moment), umbrellas either reflect or refract light about a parabolic shape.
This is why softboxes only cover a certain area while umbrellas tend to fill more space with light. While it may sound counterintuitive, this is why umbrellas produce more apparent directionality in your photos. This is how you can achieve slightly sharper shadows.
There are generally two types of umbrellas, and both are equally effective as fill light for product photography. These are:
- Shoot through umbrellas
- Reflective umbrellas
We won’t describe the difference between the two in depth here, but the basic difference is this. A shoot through umbrella is one made of similar fabric as the translucent sheet of a softbox. The convex side of the umbrella is placed facing the subject, and the light is placed behind the screen.
This works to diffuse the light by refracting it as it passes through the umbrella.
A reflective umbrella works in the opposite direction. Made of an opaque material, usually black, with a silver or gold reflective surface on the inside. The concave, reflective side of the umbrella is placed towards the subject, and light is reflected off of the parabolic surface. This diffuses the light in a similar fashion.
For the sake of product photography, each type of umbrella will achieve the same detailed shadows that highlight the product’s details. The thing to keep in mind here is the power setting to your bulb.
Shine through umbrellas will soften the light and “lose” quite a bit of that light to the area behind the umbrella. Reflective umbrellas redirect pretty much all the light from the source to the subject. So if you have a lower powered strobe light and can’t afford to lose precious light, go with a reflective umbrella.
5 Pros of Using Umbrella Lighting
There are a variety of benefits that come with using umbrella lighting for product photography:
- Very Portable – Umbrellas are lightweight, easy to put up and take down, and very simple & straightforward to transport. The upper portion folds down like a traditional umbrella and detaches from the stand below, which can also fold up easily into a compact form. For this reason, even large lighting umbrellas can easily be packed and brought along with you on a shoot.
- Affordable – In general, umbrella lighting is relatively inexpensive when compared to softbox lighting. Especially if you need a more extensive lighting setup. The price difference is significant, with large umbrellas typically running for half the price of large softboxes.
- Great for Macro Photos – The gentle light that an umbrella creates is “undirected” compared to a softbox. Therefore, it can highlight more details on an object, such as when taking a macro photo of a small object. Small items lit by an umbrella will appear defined while being lit with a gentle and diffused, rather than harsh, light.
- Replicates Natural, Outdoor Light – Because the light from an umbrella is so soft and diffused, it has a similar look to outdoor light on a cloudy day; this makes it ideal for replicating natural light in a photo that is actually taken indoors.
- Easy to Point – Because they are less precise than softboxes and offer a broader, more diffused light, umbrellas do not require quite the same precision as softboxes when pointing. In this sense, they are slightly more manageable and more forgiving to use.
5 Cons of Using Umbrella Lighting
Certain features of umbrella lighting may deter you from using it for product photography, however. Some of the reasons why you may not want to use an umbrella would be:
- Harsh Reflections – If photographing an object or in a room with glass surfaces—such as windows or picture frames—umbrellas can cause reflections that can be distracting to the image. Bottles, for instance, could cast a large hot spot.
- Tricky Shadows – While umbrella lighting offers diffused and gentle light, it can sometimes cause unpredictable and inconvenient shadows that will require some adjustment to work with; this is especially true when taking a photo from farther away rather than a macro shot. Sometimes, the dramatic shadows that an umbrella can create provide a kind of dramatic definition that is desirable.
- Uncontrolled Light – If you are shooting in a small, confined space, the lack of control and direction of an umbrella’s lighting may cause problems for you, especially if the space has colored walls or a colored ceiling. In both types of umbrellas (shoot-through/reflective), only a portion of the light source ends up falling directly on the object you are photographing.
- While most of the light will land on the item, another part of it will travel around the room, hitting the walls and ceiling, or other objects in the room, before reflecting onto the object. Thus the quality of the light can be affected and altered.
- Uneven Brightness – Because of the umbrella’s shape, it can cause uneven lighting when shooting an object up close. The inside of the umbrella will be closer to (or further away from, depending on the type of umbrella light) the object being photographed. Therefore, the middle part of the object may appear brighter and more intensely lit than the object’s outer edges.
- While this could well be the intended look in a particular image, it may be an unwelcome factor that cannot be easily controlled with an umbrella.
- Wind – If you are shooting an outdoors scene and there is wind, an umbrella can be nearly impossible to keep upright due to its shape. Even if you secure the umbrella’s base firmly to the ground, the wind may make it challenging to keep your umbrella pointed in the intended direction – and may even fly away like Marry Poppins.
Reflectors Are Useful In Product Photography, Too
This is especially true if you are only working with one light source. It’s helpful to imagine light flowing through the studio because, well, that’s physically what it does. A diffuser like an umbrella sends it off in multiple directions, and so something like a reflector (Amazon) can be used to redirect it and essentially recycle light.
Reflectors work best as “rim lights” to fill in the edges of a product against a dark background, or as a fill light to maintain some of your shadows.
In product photography, they can be placed opposite the main light source and bounce some of that light back to fill in the shadow side of the subject. This is a low cost way to produce pretty high quality backlighting.
It doesn’t even need to be that fancy either. Even a white board placed close enough to your product will produce the desired rim lighting effect. Here’s a video we made on how we used only 1 light (with reflectors) to create a product image:
So, which light is best to use for product photography? The answer depends on all the above variables and you’ll likely want to have both options in your studio.
I like to use softboxes to create lighting gradients and use umbrellas to fill in other areas that need to be brighter.
In general, if you are interested in macro photography or are looking for a more inexpensive, portable, and easier to use option, you might want to go with an umbrella. If you are looking for more control over the light in your shot and want to reduce glare or color distortion, or plan to shoot outside where it will be windy, you may want to go with a softbox. Or you can invest in both, and get the advantages of each!