I just finished a lighting class with the Mentor Series in Chicago, and a common question came up. What is the difference between an umbrella and a soft box? Here is a quick list of pros and cons.
-lightweight, easy to set up
-produces nice soft light
-can’t control light spill easily
-light not as even as coming through a soft box with two diffusion panels
-a little slower in setting up
-may need more than one speedlight to get enough power
-beautiful soft light
-easy to control light feathering and spill
I use both, but more softboxes than umbrellas. Softboxes give me a lot of control where my light hits, and also shape the light more than umbrellas. This is very useful when shooting in areas where you need to control the light. On the other hand, if I am photographing a subject in the middle of a field, I don’t have to worry about light spill, so an umbrella would be great here. Softboxes produce a very even light coming from the front of the box; the interior baffle spreads the light evenly (see image at top). Umbrellas tend to be a brighter in the middle, but this can be minimized by using a diffusion cap on your speedlight.
I have a travel workshop coming up with lots of outdoor portraiture. For this trip I will be bringing a simple umbrella for soft light. Lightweight, quick to set up and a good choice when traveling.