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


softboxes Brawley boxes parabolic reflectors beauty dishes umbrellas there are so many choices which one should I use is it better to get silver or white which one should I buy first after the break I’ll help you answer all of those questions and more stay tuned hey gang I get lots of questions about lighting and one of the most asked questions is what kind of modifier works best in this video I’m going to break down the differences in the modifiers so that you can understand how to pick the right one I’m also going to show you the different kind of light that they each produce and I’ll help your bank account by showing you that you don’t need to own every one of them be sure to stay tuned until the very end and I’ll teach you a cool little trick for testing the catch lights 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 spot lighters and well you know the list goes on now don’t get me wrong I’m not dissing the manufacturers 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 also remember that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to lighting now this is a good time for me to also point out that all of these modifier options can also be used with speed lights since speed lights tend to be less powerful than mono lights you would potentially move your light slightly closer to your subject or double up on the speed lights with a bracket like luma pros double flash bracket speed ring 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 the 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 now 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 20 inches to over 6 feet remember that the larger the umbrella the more light that you’ll need to fill it so bigger isn’t necessarily better unless you need to light a very large area basically a Brawley box is a translucent shoot through umbrella that has a cover on the back so that the light can’t escape because of its design you can place a Brawley box closer to your subject for a nice broad light source without as much risk of lens flare for my taste a 30-inch the 45 inch Brawley box is a great size to work with soft boxes are used to create a broader light source but with a few noticeable differences a softbox will control the shape and the direction of the light much more than an umbrella or a Brawley box soft boxes are generally rectangular or square in shape but also do come as octa boxes and even 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 soft boxes are my modifier choice when I want a soft directional light and I want to be able to control how much of that light is going to follow 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 fall-off from the shins to the feet most softbox is also have a removable inner diffuser that is designed to achieve a very even light across the front of the box you can also get soft boxes with a white or silver interior which provides a brighter light this can be very helpful if you’re using speed lights with your soft boxes a medium-sized or larger softbox can also double as a bright white background for portraits and headshots you can find soft boxes from as small as 12 inches the 72 inches or even bigger soft boxes are generally much more expensive than umbrellas and require a separate adapter to mount your studio strobe or speed light a beauty dish is a modifier shaped like a parabolic reflector that will give you light that is softer than a direct flash but not quite as soft as a softbox the light tends to have a bit more contrast which means it creates a bit more drama and it’s usually a slight 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’re using a beauty dish is they tend to be very unforgiving to flaws beauty dishes can be found in sizes from 16 inches to 30 inches and are also available with a white or silver finish let’s start with the reason we like modifiers here is a studio strobe aimed directly at my subject with just a 7-inch silver reflector and no modifier the light is harsh and the shadows are very distinct for all of these samples my subject is seated three feet from the background the direct flash is placed four feet from the subject and at a height of five and a half feet now if I switch to a 33 inch 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 if we move up to a 43 inch version of the white with black backing umbrella we get even softer shadows just to show you another variation here is a 43 inch optical white umbrella from Westcott that is actually designed to be used as a shoot through umbrella I set it up as a reflective umbrella and I’m able to shoot at 5.6 with this result when I flip it and aim the light through the umbrella my exposure chain the f 6.3 and I get this by the way this is a $21 umbrella I hope you’re 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’s a similar example with a $50 a dorama glow 60-inch parabolic white umbrella in this case I have it set up as a reflective umbrella and here you can see it being used as a shoot through umbrella keep in mind this thing is almost 5 feet in diameter you can see in this situation that with a seven-and-a-half foot ceiling you are not going to be able to get this above your subject here you can see a cowboy studio 43 inch white studio Brawley box that gives me this result when I switch to the medium softbox which is 24 inches by 32 inches I get like that looks like this remember that bigger is better when you want soft light here is a small 12 inch by 16 inch Photoflex softbox that I’ve moved closer to my subject to keep the light source as big as possible in relationship to my models face now I mentioned beauty dishes as an option here is a 22 inch glow white beauty dish from Adorama you can see that this light does have a popping contrast and it does bring back some of the shadows just not as harsh as with a direct flash so how do you decide which is best for you budget is a huge deciding factor umbrellas and Brawley boxes can be had very inexpensively and they’re very portable and quick to set up and take down soft boxes are awesome lighting tools that give you a little more control but they also tend to cost more and they require more time and effort to set up and take apart beauty dishes are generally reserved for the studio because of their weight and the fact that they can be easily dented one of the deciding factors for you might be catch light I found over the years that photographers seem to have very strong opinions on what makes good or bad catch lights some people love the vertical catch lights that might LED strip lights leave in the eye and others simply hate them umbrellas and Brawley boxes will give you a round catch light soft boxes show up as squares or rectangles a beauty dish will show up is a round light with a dark spot in the middle so if this matters to you it will influence your choice of modifier now if you’re just beginning your quest to become a master at lighting when you look at other photographers images study the catch lights it will tell you what type of modifiers they were using bottom line here there are no rules you don’t need tons of different 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 catch lights will look when you’re setting up your lighting assuming that you’re setting up your lights before you put your subject in front of the camera you can hold a marble in your hand like this and see exactly how your catch lights will look and where it will appear in the eye so if the shape and the location of catch lights are a big priority to you try it you’ll like it okay so go go and practice create some cool images because your next shot is your best shot so keep learning keep thinking and keep shooting adios thanks for watching if you find these videos helpful please give them a thumbs up and subscribe so that you don’t miss a single episode and if you’ve got a question that you’d like answered post it in the comments section below your question could be my next video

100 Replies to “Best Studio Light Modifier: Softbox, Umbrella or Beauty Dish? Portrait Lighting Tutorial”

  1. Finaly this is what i was looking. This will make it more easy for me to start building what i need to shoot . Very well done. Quick question for a softbox, since there are so many makers of this tool, what should i be looking for at the begening for continiuous light and using a speedlight, i mean what makes a softbox better than another one (always in the same sishpe and size) is it the depth, white or silver inside…

  2. What?!?
    You NEED a 500$ Ultraparamegabox Pro XL to shoot portraits!1!!

    Just kidding, great roundup 🙂

  3. I recently started using a bed sheet hung on a pole with cloths pins and a bare speedlight 4 or 5 feet back and it by far the widest (& cheapest) modifier I have ever used.

  4. I love all your tutorial and i know you can help me with this Lol ,I´m a new in photography and I love taking babys photos and family photos all most indoor photos. I´m planing to invest in a good lighting studio light.. which modifier lighting should go for ..i hope you understand what i am try to say…..Thx

  5. The few things I have learnt in my not nearly anywhere as long time as you have been doing this. Catchlights = personal preference like you say, I love: Octabox, Beauty Dish and Verticals.

    Mistake I made was buying the cheaper soft boxes that don't collapse. Such a mission to transport them, you either need to spend an hour (not really but feels like it) to break down and set up, or you need to buy a bigger car to be able to transport them already set up. Because I find myself going to locations more and more lately, for corporate headshots etc. And wanting the catchlights I want means I need the softboxes not umbrellas.

    But I do have 3 x shoot thru umbrellas and a silver and gold reflective as well.

  6. Perfect video series. Great concise information about modifiers.
    I have one question regarding Parabolic reflectors. How does the light compare to other modifiers?

  7. Does "Bigger is better" apply to beauty dishes? I just recently ordered a 40 inch beauty dish I plan on using on fitness shoots for the whole body. My idea is to capture muscles with soft shadows. Or would the size make the shadows too soft and less contrasty?

  8. Thank you for your complete instruction. Very much appreciated. I am a beginner, so this is very helpful.

  9. I just spent over an hour watching your useful and easy understand tutorials! Thank you for the great tips and knowledge.

  10. Joe, I love your style, your videos, your helpful tips. Thanks for sharing your knowledge. It's also great to see a fellow Nikon shooter.

    I just upgraded my lighting. Previously, all I had was a Yongnuo flash and a set of three inexpensive unbranded strobes that I'd purchased used on eBay. I was looking for something more powerful and portable with TTL, and ultimately decided on the Flashpoint 600 (aka Godox AD600) and a C-stand. I have a set of smaller umbrellas and a basic softbox that came with the strobes. But I really want something incredible to practice with on my new monolight. I have a $300 budget. I was halfway tempted to blow my budget on an Elinchrom parabolic until I realized I'd also have to buy a Bowens adapter.

    I'd love to hear your suggestions.

    Here's a couple of other things: I don't have a studio and I'm really interested in location shoots where I fight the sun and capture environmental details in addition to the model. (And yes, I know: fill the frame).

    Thanks again. Adios.

  11. Saludos y gracias por compartir todos tus conocimientos en tus vídeos… tengo flashes profoto , ¿has probado los Glow de adorama con estos flash o es mejor ir por la marca del fabricante?

  12. Great video! Had examples of all the light boxes. Now I know I don't need the most expensive box because they do the same as all others. Except for beauty and some others but, I am going to use it for portraits and family shots. You think two soft boxes will do the job?

  13. I stumbled upon your channel today and I have to say, I can't believe I have gone this long without your tutorials! You are well spoken and easy to understand. You also don't waste a ton of time getting into the videos and describing what you have listed in your description. You have earned a fan. Thank you for your help

  14. Joe, I often come back to your videos and watch them over and over again. I like your refined approach (cutting the fat) and providing a clear and proven knowledge, style, and techniques in all of your video. I also appreciate you have the budget minded photographers in mind and such approach is humbling; gears are important, but experience through practice and dedication can't be substituted. Keep up the good work Joe!

  15. Thanks for making this video! I find it way easier to understand than reading a blog post or an article.

  16. Can't wait for USA to swap to metric system.
    As always, many thanks for the time and effort on making these videos; they are very helpful.

  17. arrgh…what's with the loud, startling sound? It's like slamming prison doors. I love your channel, Joe, and I wear earbuds to catch everything you say. But that sound is a poor editing choice, imo, especially with earphones users. Still, thanks for your very educational and inspiring videos.

  18. Thank you so much for this very informative video! I would love it if you could give us a tour of your studio, you seem to have some really great unobtrusive support for your lights, ceiling supports? Rails on the walls? And arms which fold and extend out? Tripods are so cumbersome and quite often a trip hazard in a small space.
    Pardon, if you've already made a video covering this, if so, can you direct me to it.
    Much appreciation, Lory x

  19. Here's a tip for viewers: Expand the video to fill the screen. Then for each example given, such as at 5:36, 5:55, 6:05, 6:19, 6:27, 6:49, 6:58, 7:12, 7:19, 7:36, 7:49, pause and stake a screen shot (Hit the PrintScreen key) and paste it into a program such as Photoshop as a layer named as the time code. Do that for each example and you will be able to click between the view layers to examine the differences and pick the one you like easier.
    In particular, note how just increasing the size of the light (relative to the subject) from the bare 5:36 to the softbox 7:19 which is still very directional softens the transition from shadow to lit area and reduces the glare spot on the forehead. The umbrellas act the same as their size is adjusted but since they spill a lot of the light onto the white ceilings and walls, they also reduce the contrast by lighting the shadowed parts of the model's face. With a softbox, (or outdoors where there is no reflecting surfaces nearby, you would need to add a separate fill light source to achieve that reduction in contrast.
    Thanks for putting this presentation together Joe. I know the effort that was required.

  20. I just bought my first strobe and light modifiers and I am so happy I found your channel. You give great info and advice and make it all seem so simple! I can't wait to practice with your techniques. Thanks Joe!

  21. Thanks for this video Joe. I like that you are not pushing expensive modifiers. I am getting a collapsible beauty dish very soon and look forward to having fun with it! I think it cost me $50 US.

  22. So just to make sure it got it iv been asked to do a family shoot (4 adults and one young child) for a friend of mine at there home witch is not a huge shooting space and next to no natural light and I have a speed light so should a mid size shoot through umbrella with a reflector work?

  23. You just answered questions that I had and questions I didn't KNOW I had! Thank you SO much for making this video. 😘

  24. Hi Joe, What is the recommended distance of the umbrella from the strobe/monolight? I noticed in this video you had the umbrella as far as possible from the monolight. I'm using a Flashpoint 320M. Do you leave the silver dish on or off? Thank you

  25. This video was very helpful! Thank you Joe!

    I notice that in this video your glasses never catch the lights. Do you have any tips for lighting video subjects wearing glasses?

  26. Great video. I don't think this topic gets talked about enough. It took me a while before I narrowed down my favorites. For example, I like silver reflective umbrellas, but I don't like shoot through umbrellas as they usually show the umbrella's ribs in the catch lights.

  27. Subscribed just because of that fact that I can watch your videos at 1.5x and still understand all your saying. Considering your content is already straigh to the point and therefore short… With the speedboost I'm devouring content.

  28. Hi Joe it is so refreshing to have someone that is down to earth about light modifiers. As most so called professional photographers try and convince us that the well over priced parabolic reflectors are the way to go. I like many other photographers use the normal softboxes and umbrellas with great effect as you have said in this video you do not need to spend large amounts of money to achieve the same effect. I look forward to all of your videos.

  29. Just a thought Joe… Given they are the same distance from the subject, would a 24 inch x 36 inch softbox give softer light than a 24 inch square softbox? Or would there just be greater coverage of the subject with the larger box???

  30. Great overall summary of modifiets. Joe, I love your tutorials…so much fun. I had a teacher that would say that light doesn't know or care if it is coming out of a $5K light or an inexpensive Buff one. Light is light. I photograph dogs and animals, so sturdy and widespread is my goal as they tend to move around a lot. Lately I've been doing more work outside and nothing beats just a plain cheap umbrella for speed of setup. Just have to be careful with lots of sandbags as they tend to be like sails in the wind. LOL

  31. Very informative as usual. I guess photographers are the only people who zoom in on pics to check the catchlights. I do outdoor shoots with families, models and animals. I use a shoot through umbrella and a beauty dish on my Godox AD200 as setting up a softbox takes me too long

  32. This is the Illumination Tutorial I was looking for! Very precise,practical and clear.You won a new subscriber! Best Regards from Argentina!

  33. great vid …how do you deal with the changing sunlight shooting into the kitchen …do u just set the aperture and let the camera adjust the other things to compensate for the changing sun? …this is for my cooking youtube channel

  34. Hey Joe, love your videos so I'm in a bit of a pinch. I have a headshot client and an on location family session. I'm on a budget this is what I'm thinking…… Getting the godox 120c led panel and an 80cm umbrella softbox. My thought process is bouncing the led light into the umbrella and through the diffuser.

    I thought of this set up mainly because the panel comes with a battery pack so I can take it on location.

    What are your thoughts is it a good idea or do you recommend something else…. My budget is $100 or less. P.s. There isn't a whole for the umbrella stick to hold onto the stand I may end up taping it on or something

  35. As a beginner, I don‘t see a difference between umbrella and softbox. So I think a umbrella is a good starting point to learn 😊

  36. If you were going to photograph your shirt ant tie, which setup would you use? I feel like ties often reflect light badly, I want to focus on the tie so I'm wondering how to get a good light akin to an overcast day

  37. hi Joe i am having troubles finding a right modifier to take with me at a wedding. most of the time the party is outside so i cant use walls to bounce the flash so i try to use a soft box for that situation. But sometimes i have problems with the size. Can you help me?

  38. Hi Ed, I have a couple Flashpoint 620M Monolights that as you know use FP's proprietary mount. I've been wanting to a Wescott Rapid Box but they use the Bowens mount. Unfortunately, Adorama does not sell (nor does anyone else) a FP to Bowens adapter. Have you had this problem and if so, how did you solve it?  
    Thanks, Trapped

  39. Great video series. I really enjoy your enthusiasm and passion for your subject. I do have a questions for you (well two questions) How do you shoot boudoir with overweight women, and how do you shoot elderly women? Thanks!

  40. The marble trick!!!!! Genius!!!!!!!! Portraits are all about catchlights in my opinion (mainly because watching them is an easy way to tell if your lights are in the ballpark).
    And to think, if Tim Berners-Lee hadn’t invented the World Wide Web you wouldn’t be able to share it and I would never have learned it. Thanks Joe and Tim—nice teamwork.

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