Digital Photo Academy

Learn How To Use Your Digital Camera

Softboxes and Umbrellas

Studio lighting can range from simple to elaborate. What you purchase depends on the needs of your clients, the size of your studio, the size of your bank account, and the effects you want to create. Very pleasing results can be achieved with a basic set up of one diffused light and a reflector. Diffusion can be created via the use of a soft box, a flash bounced into an umbrella, or a flash bounced off a white ceiling or wall. Additional lights broaden the potential to illuminate a backdrop, to create separation from the background by rim lighting the subject from behind, or as an accent light. This light can come from a different angle other than the main light or snooted to funnel the light to a given location to highlight a specific detail.

softboxes umbrellas 01
© 2008 Russ Burden

UMBRELLAS: Incorporating the use of an umbrella is the means by which most photographers begin their endeavor into studio lighting as they are inexpensive and easy to use. They create a nice wrap around effect producing evenly lit subjects. Placing the umbrella forty five degrees to the subject, it’s used as the main light. In that the side closest to the umbrella receives more light than the shadow side, a reflector can be placed close to the darker side to fill in the shadows and soften the light even more from what the soft light of the umbrella creates.

softboxes umbrellas 02
© 2008 Russ Burden

SOFTBOXES: The light created from a softbox has similarities to that of an umbrella but it’s much more efficient. When you bounce a light into an umbrella, some of it gets lost as it’s a bounced source and some of the output of the strobe goes out the other side of the umbrella. The constant is the soft quality of light. Think of what the light from a bright overcast sky looks like. It’s ideal for photographing people. The light is even, it doesn’t make people squint, dark shadows under the nose and chin are softened and the eyes of people with deep eye sockets don’t get lost in a black void.

softboxes umbrellas 03
© 2008 Russ Burden

The hardness and / or color of the light in a softbox can be modified depending on the  material inside. White creates the softest, silver creates more of an “edge” to the light and gold produces a lot of warmth. They come in many shapes and sizes and allow you to  shoot everything from macros to full size automobiles. A makeshift softbox can be rigged using PVC and diffusion material draped over it. Although a bit crude, it can be used to produce professional looking images.

softboxes umbrellas 04
© 2008 Russ Burden

In the world of studio photography, a topic that often comes up is whether to use a continuous light source in the form of photo floods or flash. Both have advantages. Listed here are the pros and cons. Based on your current and future needs, a choice can be made. a) Photo floods are cheaper but need to be replaced more often than flash heads. b) The light you see when you turn them on is the light you get in the photo. In that you can’t preview the end result with flash, there’s some guess work as to how the photo will look. Digital photography has solved this problem to a large degree as the image can be reviewed on the LCD of the camera. c) Photo floods run HOT. Unless you’re in a well ventilated or air conditioned room, your models will get warm very quickly. Food for thought – what if your “model” happens to be a bowl of ice cream or other perishable product that will be negatively impacted by heat?  d) Some photo floods run at a low kelvin temperature necessitating the use of filters to correct for the shift. Once again, digital photography comes to the rescue as you can set the proper color temperature. e) Photo floods can be used with umbrellas, but placing them in a softbox gets tricky. The heat they put off coupled with the fact the box doesn’t breath creates a lot of warmth in a confined space.

To learn more about this topic, join me on one of my Photographic Nature Tours. Visit and click on the NATURE TOURS button for more information. Also, pick up a copy of my new book, Amphoto’s Complete Book of Photography. You can purchase a signed copy directly from me or visit your local book store or Amazon. Contact me at to order your signed copy.


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