softbox vs shoot-through umbrella vs bounce umbrella

comparison between a softbox, a white shoot-through umbrella and a bounce umbrella

I’ve had several requests from readers of the Tangents blog about how the light from a softbox would differ from the light from an umbrella. Spurred on by that, and by my own curiosity, I met up a while ago with my favorite model, Anelisa, specifically to do comparison shots.

And here it is …

Click on the photo above to see the side-by-side comparison.

There is an on-location (ie, non-scientific) comparison (from left to right) between :
a 24×24 softbox with a double baffle,
a 42” white shoot-through umbrella,
a 42” bounce umbrella with a black backing.

It is tough making a finer judgment on which light modifier give the best results. While what would count as ‘best result’ is open to interpretation, I do prefer softer light. This test isn’t super controlled, and small differences do creep in. But I did try to keep everything as equal as possible in this comparison There are some slight changes in how Anelisa held her head, and I really did try and set up the softbox and umbrellas fast enough that the available light remains the same. I also kept the position of the light-source the same distance from her … which meant moving the light-stand slightly forward for the shot with the reflective umbrella.

Yet, I can barely tell a difference between these three light modifiers when used under these typical situation when shooting outside. So ultimately it perhaps comes just down to personal preference, and to which one is more easy to assemble, carry and set up.

Using direct (un-diffused) flash off-camera is common practice and can give dramatic results. The smaller light source does give a harder more contrasty light. Using a large diffuser or modifier such as a softbox or an umbrella will generally create softer shadows. Even a medium sized softbox is quite a forgiving light source in comparison to the light from a direct flash.

Sometimes the simple option of a direct speedlight is easier to move around with on location, or when you need to a lot of light from your flash to match the bright sun. My preference is to use a softbox until the point where I can’t get enough light from my speedlight in the softbox.

An umbrella is the most convenient light modifier to carry around. It folds closed into a relatively compact size, and is supremely easy to assemble and disassemble.

A softbox gives you more control though. It gives a more focused swathe of light, and depending on how your softbox is baffled, the softbox can give you more light than an umbrella. You also have more control in how the light spills onto the background. However, this isn’t usually a problem when working outdoors and using a simple lighting setup.

Where it makes a difference, is that softbox is easier to handle outdoors where you have a bit of wind. An umbrella tends to scoop the wind, and leave you at the mercy of how the wind blows.

Because an umbrella is easier and faster to set up, I prefer to use umbrellas with wedding portraits and formals. You could work with a medium sized softbox indoors when you have a small group of people. But because the spread of light is more contained with a softbox, you might be better off with two umbrellas when you’re dealing with a large group. Umbrellas aren’t expensive though, so I would suggest getting two 42” umbrellas anyway. I generally use 60” umbrellas indoors when I can.

Umbrellas can be used in two ways – (white) shoot-through umbrellas, or as a reflector. Umbrellas that are meant to be used as reflecting umbrellas can come with different materials – white, silver, gold, or a mix between silver and gold. While the silver umbrella can be more efficient, the light from a white umbrella is softer since the light is more scattered.

Therefore, as a start, a white umbrella with a black removable backing is recommended. This type of umbrella can then be used either as a shoot-through umbrella, or as a reflector.

Re the umbrellas, I mostly use bounce umbrellas with a black backing when I work indoors or outdoors. The main reason is that it minimizes the risk of getting lens flare when I stand further back than my lights. With a shoot-through umbrella, I have the risk of getting lens flare at this point.

Generally, the only time I use shoot-through umbrellas, is when I am photographing indoors and need to disperse a lot of light around. For example, I might do this when using the flashes as additional lighting at a venue.

For all that, I prefer working with a softbox on location.

31 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 2 says

    A shoot thru umbrella or a softbox is easier to bring really, really close to your subject than an umbrella in bounce mode and this might be useful in some situations. Just something to keep in mind…



  2. 3 says

    I see a pretty good difference between the shoot thru umbrella and the other two. The shoot thru umbrella has a bit more contrast to it. Doesn’t wrap the light around like the other two which is a bit surprising.

  3. 4parv says

    arnold, I was also surprised by shoot thru umbrella being contrast-ist. If I look carefully, it seems that the shut thru umbrella was further away from camera, than the bounce umbrella. The middle picture also appears to be bit more overexposed (camera right).

  4. 6forkboy1965 says

    First, and please do not think me rude or anything like that, but Anelisa is about the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. When this webpage first resolved upon my monitor I was so taken aback I couldn’t remember why I had come to this page. I simply sat there, jaw slack, thinking I had come upon perfection.

    It was truly a wow moment.

    Second, thank you Neil as I know I was one of those more recent persons who asked about just this sort of thing. Very kind of you to put this impromptu experiment together for us.

    Third, I’m so glad you explained why it was one would use a black backing on a white umbrella used as a reflector. All I could think was “What good is the black? It won’t reflect any more light so it’s no different than the light simply leaking through.” And then you tell us why. Thank you.

    Lastly, and completely subjectively, I’m torn between what I perceive to be a generally softer and more agreeable light with the softbox versus an equally intriguing look from the slightly contrasty shoot-through umbrella. I like each for different reasons and prefer either over the bounced umbrella (although I find the bounced umbrella to look almost so close to the soft box as to make no difference).

  5. 7 says

    Thanks for sharing the tips. I like the ’42” white shoot-through umbrella’ the most, not because of her smile, but I feel that this portrait has more definitions of the facial contours which give more realistic and definite feeling. The soft box photo is amazing but on the second thoughts it gives a mysterious feeling. Probably its effect will wane after looking at it again and again. It has subdued the amaszing nose and jawbones that the model has. Anyway, beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder.

  6. 9 says

    Thanks again Neil!

    I see more specular in the softbox and the relected umbrella on her cheek bones. Skin texture with the shoot-thru seems a touch better. Softbox does seem to have softer shadow edges, though there is a bit of change in shadow length on her nose between the three, they are close in positioniing. This would be a good test to do indoors with the model sitting so her position stays a bit tighter and to see if there is much more difference with less ambient in the mix.

    Thanks so much for your blogs.

  7. 10 says

    I do prefer the softer look of the 24×24 softbox here. It will look softer than the shoot-through umbrella since this softbox is double-baffled.

    I know that if I wanted an image with a bit more contrast, I’d opt for the shoot-through umbrella.

    That said, none of these are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. It really comes down to personal preference, and what gear you have available.

    Another way to look at it, is that if you have to photograph someone on location, ANY of these would work. They might look subtly different, but they would all work.

    Neil vN

  8. 11Debra Wallace says

    Thanks so much for writing this! There’s tons of information out there but it’s not always from someone who is an amazing photographer. It’ nice to have it all in one place. :) I agonized over this a few months ago and had a hard time finding the information I wanted. I did end up falling in love with shoot-through though… setting up a softbox is almost a form of torture – especially when your clients are sitting there watching you because they showed up early too.


  9. 12 says

    There are some other thing I consider like actual control of the light and pattern of light scatter. A shoot thru spills light everywhere and has a distinctive patten on the ground, behind and all around your subject. You cannot really feather it either. However for very close work and inside for group shots a shoot thru is always my first choice.
    But this is just my preference nothing more…

    Cheers! And Merry Christmas everyone!


  10. 13Rory says

    Would love to see this experiment done in an interior location. And with a couple more examples to help tease out differences. I had really wanted a softbox but a shoot through umbrella makes so much more sense now as a possible option. I will likely use it for close shots indoors. Thanks!

  11. 14 says

    Rory … it would be interesting.
    It would be even more interesting to shoot in a studio or large space with white walls … and in a studio with black walls.
    I’m quite sure the amount of spill from a shoot-through umbrella will give it a different characteristic in each of those places.

    Neil vN

  12. 15 says

    If I use two Lastolite 24″x24″ softboxes and direct them towards a small group of people (8-12 people), would I get sufficient light spread? I have one Lastolite, and I am thinking of a second one. Thanks.

  13. 17 says

    The comparison with softbox v umbrellas is slightly unfair because of differing dimensions and baffling in my view. The comparison between umbrellas is more intriguing.

    I decided a while ago to standardise on white reflective umbrellas as my standard setup. Especially in small rooms, I found he amount of side and back spill using shoot thru was a major headache. I also fitted clip-on diffusing screens to the front of reflective umbrellas set up.

    To mimic a smaller softbox or reduce spill even further, I close down the reflective umbrella’s diameter in a partially open manner.

    The interesting issue in the comparisons above is the degree of light fall-off with distance, which gives rise to rendition of form. The closer the light the greater should be the fall-off as it wraps around the face, by design or accident. The middle shot appears to me to have the greatest degree of fall-off. But why I wonder?

  14. 18 says

    Barry .. it is difficult (if not impossible) to make the bounce umbrella and shoot-through umbrella and softbox exactly the same. In fact, that’s why we use different light modifiers – for their different qualities.

    In that sense then, this test might actually be a fair test – now you see how a double-baffled softbox differs from a shoot-through umbrella. And you can also see how little (or much) it differs.

    Neil vN

  15. 19trev says

    Just my 2c regarding the differences, laws of physics with light falloff.

    The softbox is a flat surface, ergo, the light is travelling equal distance to the subject from the centre, sides, top, bottom.

    With a ‘shoot thru’ you are shooting into a ‘concave’ cone shape, and the light is being shot thru to a convex [bulging out] shape, and if you think about it, the light from the edges of the umbrella has further to travel than the centre part which is closer to subject therefore more light on centre of subject but with the outside of the brella you will have more fall off.

    Just look at an ice-cream cone to think about it, light concentrated more in the end of the cone [which is closest to the subject], with more fall-off from the wide opening edges [closest part to the photographer but furtherest to the subject].

    When shooting into the bounce umbrella, the light comes out almost equally, not quite since it has to reflect/bounce inside to come back onto the subject, there will still be fall-off to a degree, but certainly not as much as a shoot-thru.

    Well, that’s my take on it anyway.


  16. 20 says

    Looking at them, the white shoot through appears to give more contrast, there are greater highlights and shadows in the hair. I think the softbox looks most natural and the bounce umbrella has a slight “studio” feel to it.

  17. 21chris says

    hi im just setting up and its interesting to see the differences on the images, i have spent most of last night looking into this and found very little real help until i landed on your site, thank you so much I intend to “soft box it up”

  18. 22 says

    thank you for all these explanations. Great idea to put all three images next to each other. It’s easier to make a comparision between these 3 different light sources.
    On a daily basis I use an umbrella (white, thru). Because of the light spill in indoors I was considering a softbox – as you mentioned you have more control over the light. Once again thank you for a very informative article.

  19. 25ONUR ARIK says

    Hi Neil,

    I have read your article of softbox or through umbrella or bounced umbrella and here comes my question ;

    which is better for outdoor lightening for the below softbox diagrams ?

    1) Bouncing from the reflective surface or ( but of course the diffuser fabric (cloth) is closed )

    2) Directly to the diffuser from backside of a soft box such as Lastolite Ezybox etc. ?

    If you prefer or advise one of the above what is the difference?

    Thanks and best regards,

  20. 26santhosh says

    Hi Neil,
    I’m one of regular follower of the tangents and when I visit this site,each time I’m learning something new. If I use the tupperware with the flash while using shoot thru umbrella ,will it helps to make the light softer and looks more natural?

  21. 27 says

    Hi Neil,

    Many thanks for this great article. I already have a softbox (can’t remember the size of it). But I am thinking of getting one of those multi-function umbrellas for when I do group shots indoors at weddings. I did find that using the BFT firing my flash to behind me to light the groups worked, but I think my flash was working too hard and wasn’t getting the recycling times I wanted.

    So, would a softbox plus a brolly help lighting groups.

    Many thanks for your hard work in educating us :)


  22. 29KurtB says

    Neil, do you remember how far you placed the softbox from the model when you took these pictures? I just bought an Impact 24×24 quickbox and find that in order to get the softest light spread possible (especially in the studio), I need to keep my soft box a fair distance further (about 4 feet) from my subject than I’d need to keep my 45 inch shoot through umbrella. Needing to keep the softbox further seems counter-intuitive to me, but if I place it close my subject’s face, it really blows out one side of the face and leaves the other in shadow that requires too powerful a fill light. I’ve played with various power levels on my speedlight but nothing seems to work quite as well as moving the softbox further back. My primary concern is avoiding hot spots on the face of my subject while retaining a soft gradient from light to dark. Thank you

    • 29.1Hugh J says

      What you’re seeing here is simply the inverse square law. Light will fall off a lot quicker the closer your light source is to the subject. This is why moving your source further back gives you a slower falloff (you just need more power to get the same exposure at the subject). If you use a bigger light source, at the same distance, the effect isn’t as pronounced because of light wrap. Also, the effect of the spill coming from the shoot-thru umbrella will bounce around the room (as you said, you notice the difference most in the studio) and fill the shadows. I think all these factors contribute to what you’re seeing.

  23. 30 says

    Are the front surfaces of the softbox and the umbrella the same distance from your subject?

    Also, are they both diffusing the light about the same amount? And how is your flash-head zoomed?

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