The Better Choice? Lightbanks vs. Umbrellas

“Give light, and the darkness will disappear of itself.”—Desiderius Erasmus

Whether working 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 device has their advantages and disadvantages. The choice between either of them is 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, for simplicities’ sake, be considered to emulate natural outdoor lighting. Lightbanks are rectangular, square or sometimes octagonal and emulate the kind of soft, directional lighting produced by window light. Because umbrellas create broad lighting, they are easier to use. You just point an umbrella at a portrait subject and bang, zoom nice soft lighting! You use two of them and you’ll think you’re a lighting genius. And because rain and sun versions have been around for 4,000 years umbrellas are simpler to construct and less expensive to purchase making them the perfect trifecta for photographer new to using artificial lighting: They’re cheap (you can buy an umbrella, like the 45-inch Photoflex White Satin Umbrella for 20 bucks); easy to use, and produce nice lighting.

Lightbanks aka soft boxes are more controllable and are available in large sizes that when placed close to a subject produce soft, yet directional light. One of the main attractions is that they can produce a lighting effects that similar to natural window light. There are also lots of accessories for lightbanks, including  grids or louvers, that make the lighting even across the plane of light. What’s the downside? Typically lightbanks are not inexpensive lightbank but I found a 32-inch Neewer octagonal softbox for $25.99, as I write this. Unlike umbrellas that are forgiving, lightbanks require a little knowledge of keeping a balance of main versus fill light (that fill could even come from an umbrella) that won’t produce too contrasty lighting—unless of course that’s what you want to accomplish. And, if you care to address it, there’s your welcome to the world of lighting ratios.

But ultimately 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 project at hand.

From time to time, I present  a workshop entitles “The Magic of Umbrellas.” Click Here to find out when the next workshop will be held. The workshop is limited to eight participants so everybody gets to do some photography.

Screen Shot 2016-03-26 at 9.13.43 AMIf you’re interested in shooting portraits and how I use cameras, lenses and lighting in my in-home studio, please pick up a copy of Studio Lighting Anywhere” which is available from with, as I write this, new non Prime copies selling for $17.50 (plus shipping,) cheaper than the Prime price.

Author: Joe Farace

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