Beginner’s Guide to Softbox Lighting Modifiers: Parabolic, Rectangle, Umbrella, Lantern, & More
Published 7th August 2020
There are so many lighting modifiers to choose from, your head is probably spinning and you are thinking “but which lighting modifier should I use?”.
Well, it’s time to stop stressing - we’re here with this beginner’s guide to softbox lighting modifiers to answer your questions. Whether you need a lantern softbox, a parabolic softbox, or a diffuser sheet, we’ll help find the right one for your needs.
What is a Rectangle Softbox?
The good old rectangle softbox lighting modifier - it’s one of the most popular choices for fashion, food, product, and e-commerce photography. The reason is that the quality of the light is soft, easily changed, and flattering. Moving the softbox to a different angle, or taking it further away from the subject changes the shadow direction and the hardness of the light.
The softbox tends to be the best lighting modifier to resemble window light due to its rectangular projection of light, and the way the shadows would closely resemble natural light through a window. A good rule of thumb to follow is the larger the softbox, the softer the shadows become. You can also add grids to the front of the softbox to give you a harder, more contrasty light, like with the Godox Softbox 60 x 90 cm Bowens Mount Rectangle Softbox with Grid.
You can team up two or more continuous lighting softboxes like with the "Illuminate Mate" Double Rectangle Softbox Lighting Kit. The lighting is continuous with these softboxes, so you can shoot with your mobile phone or any camera without having to worry about setting up strobe flashes to work with your camera.
Here’s a simple fashion/portrait shoot setup using rectangular softboxes:
What is a Parabolic Umbrella Softbox?
Parabolic umbrella softboxes are one of the simplest light modifiers both to set up and use. There are several ways to modify the quality of light from them, which makes them popular for product photography, fashion, flat lays, portraits, and food shoots.
You can use them without the front cover, where the silver lining works to give a harder, sharper light, or put a white diffuser cover on the front for soft, shadowless light. The Spectrum Pro Collapsible Deep Parabolic Softbox 70cm/27.5” (Bowens Mount) comes with a detachable grid too, so that you can modify the light even more. This range of parabolic umbrella softboxes are easily collapsible for storing and transporting, and they come in different sizes too: The Spectrum Pro Collapsible Deep Parabolic Softbox 90cm/35.4” (Bowens Mount), and the Spectrum Pro Collapsible Deep Parabolic Softbox 120cm/47.2” (Bowens Mount).
Other options include the Godox 90cm / 35.4" P90L Parabolic Softbox (Bowens Mount) or for those who have flash strobes with Godox mounts like the AD400Pro and AD300Pro there is the Godox AD-S65W 65CM Deep Parabolic White Interior Softbox with Grid (Godox Mount).
Here’s a quick idea of how you can use a parabolic softbox and light for a model shoot:
What is a Lantern Softbox?
Lantern softboxes like the 65cm Spectrum Pro Collapsible Softball Lantern softbox (Bowens Mount) or the larger 80cm Spectrum Pro Collapsible Softball Lantern softbox (Bowens Mount) are often used for portrait or ambient lighting style, and they are very useful for interior or real estate photography because they give a wide spill of smooth, even light. They give off an omnidirectional light, due to the lantern shape, and that is why they differ from the traditional softbox.
To give you an idea of how to set up a single lantern softbox and light for a model shoot, we’ve made this handy diagram:
What is a Softball Softbox?
Softball softboxes like the 50cm Jinbei softball Diffuser (Bowens Mount) are round, and the diffused light they give off is very natural looking. This makes them an excellent choice for baby and child photography, as well as general portraiture.
A good lighting setup for softball softboxes and lights for newborn photography is here:
What is an Umbrella Softbox?
Umbrellas have been around for a long time, and they are still very popular in portraiture, wedding, and fashion shoots. There are two types of umbrellas - shoot-through and reflective.
Shoot-through umbrellas are made with white diffusing fabric, and the light goes through the umbrella and onto the subject like a softbox. Reflective umbrellas are generally lined with reflective silver or gold, and the light is shot into the lining, then reflects back on the subject.
Both types of umbrella work to broaden and soften the source of the light in different ways, but you can place a flash and a shoot-through umbrella like the Hypop Large Soft Diffuser Umbrella (42"/107cm) closer to your subject, which makes the light even softer.
For even more versatility, you can get a kit like the Spectrum Newborn and Baby Photography Lighting 'TWINKLE' Kit that contains both shoot-through and reflective umbrellas as well as continuous energy-saving bulbs, which is perfect for newborn and child photography.
For those who like a portable kit to use with speedlites, the Standard Off Camera Flash (#OCF2) Double Umbrella with Tilt Mount Kit for Speedlites (Speedlites excluded) also provides the option to use a shoot-through or reflective umbrella.
If you want some inspiration on how to set your umbrellas up for a portrait or fashion shoot, here’s one of our nifty lighting diagrams:
What is a Collapsible Beauty Dish Softbox?
The beauty dish is a firm favourite with portrait, glamour, makeup, and fashion photographers, and the reason why is in the name! Beauty dishes give a dramatic, circular light that wraps around your subject’s face while also helping to smooth and even skin tone and texture. Beauty dishes also give a lovely circular catchlight in your subject’s eyes, similar to a ring light.
Traditional beauty dishes were large, metal, unwieldy things that were difficult to pack and transport, but nowadays you have the option of a collapsible beauty dish softbox like the Hypop Collapsible Beauty Dish Softbox with Diffuser and Grid (Bowens Mount) so you can set up and take down on location with ease.\
Use the collapsible beauty dish with a reflector like the Hypop Multiple 5-in-1 Photography Reflector Diffuser Disc (43”110cm), as in the diagram below:
What is a Diffuser Sheet?
Diffuser sheets (or scrims) are not softboxes, but are an affordable lighting modifier for shaping natural light or strobes. These panels are generally a large piece of diffusion fabric like the Medium White Photography Light Diffuser Sheet (3.6m x 1.5m), which is held up on a stand like the Heavy Duty Photographic Black C-Stand with Boom Arm (20kg load) with pegs such as the Hypop Large Backdrop Peg Clamp (16cm) 4 Pack.
The diffuser sheet is often used in fashion editorials, and is a simple way to create large areas of soft, diffused light, and can be used indoors or outdoors with sunlight or strobes.
Here’s an idea of how to use a diffuser sheet and reflector on an indoor shoot with a bare studio strobe:
So, there you have it - a swift rundown of the different softbox types and uses (here’s a quick reference guide in case you’ve forgotten!) in varied types of photography:
- Rectangle softbox - fashion, product, e-commerce, portraiture, food
- Parabolic umbrella softbox - portraiture, flat lays, fashion, product
- Lantern softbox - portraits, interior, real estate
- Softball softbox - baby and child photography
- Umbrella softbox - portraiture, baby and child photography, fashion
- Collapsible beauty dish softbox - portraiture, glamour, fashion, makeup and hair photography
- Diffuser sheet - fashion or portraiture
A final note on umbrella softboxes - they can be an expensive liability if you shoot outdoors with them! As with ordinary umbrellas, the wind tends to catch and blow them over - taking your expensive lights with them. If you do want to work outdoors with umbrellas, get an assistant to hold the light stands, or use some heavy-duty sandbag weights.