It doesn’t matter whether you’re working with speedlights or monolights, one of the best ways to improve the quality of the light is by using an umbrella or a lightbank and each one has advantages and disadvantages. Your decision should be governed by one important rule: The closer the light is to the subject the softer it is; the further away a light source is the harder it becomes.
Umbrellas provide a round, broad and soft source of lighting that could be considered to emulate natural outdoor lighting. Lightbanks are rectangular, square or sometimes octagonal and emulate the kind of soft, directional lighting produced by a window. Because umbrellas create broad lighting, they’re easier to use. You just point an umbrella at a portrait subject and bang, zoom nice soft lighting! And because rain versions have been around for 4,000 years umbrellas are simpler to construct and less expensive to purchase making them perfect for photographer new to using lighting: They’re cheap (you can buy an umbrella for less than 10 bucks); easy to use, and produce nice lighting.
Lightbanks are the kind of light modifiers that all the big time photographers use so naturally that’s what some photographers want to use. Lightbanks are controllable and available in large sizes that when placed close to a subject produce soft, yet directional light. There are lots of accessories, which as grids or louvers, that make the lighting even across the plane of light. What’s the downside? Even an inexpensive lightbank, ain’t cheap so that directionality comes with a price. And then there’s your welcome to the world of lighting ratios. Unlike umbrellas, lightbanks require a little knowledge of keeping a balance of main versus fill light that won’t produce too contrasty lighting—unless of course that’s what you want to produce.
There is no “one size fits all” solution to lighting. Just as you will select the right lens and ISO for a natural light photograph, when it comes to working with artificial light you need to select the right tool for the job at hand.
There is still time to sign up for Joe’s workshop “The Magic of Umbrellas.” The workshop is limited to eight participants so everybody gets to do some photography.