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Softbox vs Umbrella vs Brollybox vs Silver Bounce Umbrella vs Others

Posted in Advice, Blog | 4 comments

I sold my car! My 1963 Chrysler Valiant Regal with a Torqueflight transmission, 2000RPM stall converter and a bored out slant six engine with triple SU carburetors. She was fast, beautiful and rusty. I didn’t want to sell, but when I moved we couldn’t take the car (no parking in the city) and she went to a good home who wanted to restore her to brand new which is better than her rusting away in my parents shed. Also I got $2,600 for her, so that means new photo gear!

I already had some flashes, now I needed some light modifiers. I had a tough time deciding which ones would be right for me because while there are plenty for sale, there are VERY few examples of what they do. So I decided to buy them all. Well, I decided to buy them all, but I couldn’t afford them all. I couldn’t get my hands on a beauty dish cheap enough, which is a shame because that is a major one to look at and I didn’t do a ringflash because…I forgot to. A ringflash is all front on and mine doesn’t work with the lens I was using, so it wouldn’t have been comparable to the other light modifiers anyway. If you want to have a look at what a ringflash produces then check out my DIY article HERE. After they were all here, I set them all up and took the same photo so that you guys might have a bit easier time deciding which gear is right for you.

When comparing anything the most important thing to do is eliminate as many variables as you can. So all these photos have the same:

  • Shutterspeed: 1/200s
  • ISO: 100
  • Aperture: f/3.5
  • Focal length: 50mm
  • Distance from subject: 90cm/35”
  • Angle from subject: About 45 degrees to camera left
  • White balance: Preset Manual
  • Flash power: Set to 1/4 power (unless otherwise stated)
  • Camera height/distance from model: Used a tripod

The set up:













All these shots were taken with a Nikon D60 with the AF-S Nikkor 50mm 1:1.4G lens and a Nikon SB600 Flash. The thing about this lens at these apertures is that whatever is in focus is absolutely pin sharp, whatever isn’t in focus is REALLY out of focus. This isn’t a real big problem for moderately professional cameras that have good auto-focusing systems, but the D60 only has 3 AF points and they are so large that even though I always focused on the point where Violet’s eyes met her nose, the focusing results vary quite a bit.

There are 4 things you should really look at in these photos.

  1. The colour of the light –  The light temperature of a flash varies from flash to flash, but generally they are pretty blue. That’s why if you set your cameras white balance to “flash” and it doesn’t go off your picture will look a bit orange. When the flash goes through a modifier it can change the colour of the light. While this isn’t a huge deal for most, if you are mixing light modifiers then it’s going to be harder to get a good white balance.
  2. The shadow on the grey backdrop – Normally you wouldn’t shoot so close to the backdrop but I wanted a shadow there so you could see the intensity of the light.
  3. The light fall off on Violet’s skin – Particularly on her arm and around her nose and cheek. The harsher the light, the sharper these shadows will be. When it’s a nice diffused light there will be a wider,smoother gradient from light to dark.
  4. The catchlight in Violet’s eyes – when you use Softboxes these will be squarish and umbrellas will be rounder obviously, but you can actually tell a lot about how shots are set up by looking at catchlights. While neither is better than the other, it’s just a matter of personal preference.

At this point I would like to point out that for portraits you normally wouldn’t JUST use one light, you’d use a light and a reflector or a few lights, and the composition would be better, these aren’t supposed to be pretty photos, just consistent photos.


To compare light modifiers simply right click the picture and open in a new tab or window. Images are 3872×2592 so they might take a while to load.

Bare Flash 1/4 Power

Obviously this is blown out and over exposed, but I wanted to show you what 1/4th power is like when there is nothing in between the flash and your subject. notice the harsh shadows on her cheek and the backdrop.











Bare flash 1/16th Power

This is a bit more the level of light in the modified images. It would seem that when you put a modifier in front of your flash you loose about 2 stops of power. Again, really hard shadows.












60 cm collapsible Softbox

This one is probably my favorite of all the light modifiers in this test. Perfect exposure and the light looks great. Soft shadows, but kept most of the contrast. The best part is that this particular model from Protog folds up to be just a few inches wide in its own little pouch and comes with a mounting ring and ball head mount for your light stand. You can pick up a 50″ model with mount and lightstand for under 100 bucks! Check out their range HERE.










34″ Silver Bounce Umbrella

This one was interesting. It’s the only one that doesn’t really have a diffuser since it’s just the flash firing into a silver umbrella, which makes the light a bit too intense for this power level. Good to know though because it’s still a nice wide beam of light, which would make these umbrellas better suited to lighting groups of people instead of just individuals. For those who want to know, this isn’t one of the umbrellas with an extra black backing, it’s just a cheap silver one off eBay.










35″ Shoot-through white umbrella

Similar to the softbox, but MUCH easier to set up. Comes together in literally seconds. If you have a look at the shadow behind her you’ll notice it’s nice and soft. This is because while the umbrella throws light forward, through the white fabric, it also causes some of the light to be bounced backwards and that bounces around the room.










34″ White Bounce Umbrella

To show you just how much light is thrown backwards I turned the umbrella around and took a quick snap. This is terrible light and shows up almost every imperfection. You can get silver backs that clip onto white umbrellas so that you can use flashes this way, but I don’t know how well they work.











36″ Brolly-Box Umbrella

A “brolly-box” is an umbrella/softbox hybrid. There are two kinds, the kind that is a white shoot through umbrella with a silver back that closes around the flash unit and the kind that is a sliver bounce umbrella with a white nylon cover that closes around the flash unit. I chose the bounce kind because with the shoot through kind it’s going to have a bit of a hot spot in the middle where as the bounce one spreads the light evenly over everything. This comes together as easy as an umbrella and is nearly as efficient as a softbox. Best of both worlds!











For those who are contemplating getting one of these, here is the result. sharp-ish shadows, but it’s a VERY compact diffuser. Also, this isn’t really the way you’re supposed to use it. If you want more info on this one, check out my review of the Jue Ying Lambency Flash diffuser here.











DIY Shoe-box Softbox

If you can’t afford a softbox, you can try making one. This one was pretty simple, I just coated the inside with foil and then cut up one of those throw away plastic tablecloths and taped it to the front. Then I used rubber bands to keep the shoebox attached to the flash. The rubber bands are taped to the back. Simple and this does actually work quite well when it’s up close to the subject.











So that’s about it. If anyone out there feels like sending me a beauty dish to chuck into the review, please free to get in touch! Stay tuned for a more specific review of the backdrop and softbox from Protog.


  1. I would like to thank you for taking the time to share your results. You helped me make some important purchasing decisions.

  2. No worries! =)

  3. Great job on your comparisons of light modifiers…I use brollies a lot and I use a simple trick for the shoot thru type to soften the light a bit…I just stretch a bit of white panty hose inside near the light…works like a charm…

  4. Great tip! Gotta try that next time I have it out!

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