Umbrellas vs Lightbanks: Which is the Better Choice?

You can bounce light into an umbrella to create soft diffuse lighting or with certain white umbrellas (that don’t have any kind of backing) you can shoot through them, as I am doing here. Booth Photographic’s white umbrella is used here in shoot-through mode. For photographs of Colleen in her gold dress only two lights were used. A 75-inch umbrella was used  in shoot-through mode but a small lightbank was used as a hair light. ©2010 Mary Farace

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 for less than 10 bucks); easy to use, and produce nice lighting. What more do you want?

© Joe FaraceLightbanks are the kind of light modifiers that all the big time photographers use so naturally that’s what some photographers aspire to as well. Lightbanks are controllable and are 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, available that make the lighting even across the plane of light. What’s the downside? Even an inexpensive lightbank, ain’t cheap so all that directionality comes with a price. And then there’s your welcome to the world of lighting ratios. 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.

That’s why this whole discussion is about. 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.” Click Here to register. The workshop is limited to eight participants so everybody gets to do some photography. If more than eight people register, we will look at adding another session.

Author: Joe Farace

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