When you delve into the world of off-camera lighting, the choices for modifiers can seem overwhelming.  Today, we will break down the battle of beauty dish or softbox

Learn how they’re different, how they are similar and when you might want to use them both!  We’ll also discuss the beauty dish and softbox vs umbrella and see images shot with all three devices!

beauty dish vs softbox

What is a Beauty Dish?

A beauty dish is one of the least understood of the light modifiers.  You put the device on your speedlight or strobe to modify, or change, how the light looks.  A beauty dish is a shallow parabolic disc with a plate in the center.  Picture something that resembles a home satellite and you’re pretty close.  

Most beauty dishes are made of metal.  A beauty dish can be white or silver on the inside, and are generally white or black on the outside.  The metal beauty dish bowls cannot be folded down.

A few beauty dish manufacturers offer a collapsible version to make storage and transport easier.  These versions are made of fabric that is stretched over a plastic frame.  Collapsible versions still have the center deflector plate in the middle, but the outside collapses in.  These too can be lined in white or silver.

How does a beauty dish work?

On this light modifier, the light is attached from the back.  When you fire the flash, the light hits the front plate and bounces back into the bowl and back out again. 

These light modifiers provide a very focused light source when used up close.  Beauty dishes are popular with fashion and beauty photographers because of the bright, even light they create.  These light modifiers create strong shadows and highlights.

Beauty dishes come in several different sizes, usually starting at about 16” in diameter up to 32” for traditional one-piece discs.  Collapsible units usually range from about 22” to 42” in diameter.

They are generally used up close, focused on your client’s face.

Some of these light modifiers come with a grid or a sock.  These accessories will change the quality of the light.  The grid looks like a honeycomb and snaps onto the outside of the bowl. 

A grid will give more defined shadows, which can highlight facial features like skin texture or bone structure for even more dramatic images.  A sock, or front covering, will soften the light and make your beauty dish function more like a softbox.

You can even make your own flash modifier…check out this video tutorial!

What does a softbox do?

What is a softbox?

These modifiers are are made of soft cloth and are square or rectangular in shape.  Because it is rectangular, it provides very directional light.  

Softboxes provide soft light with less contrast than bare flash.  They also “wrap” more than a beauty dish, meaning even if you move it off-axis from the camera, you’ll still get light across your subject.

Softboxes start at sizes around 18” tall to 72” tall.  Softboxes that are tall and skinny are often called stripboxes, but function like a traditional softbox.  The larger the box, the more expensive they are.  Some are designed to be constructed and left open.  Others are designed like umbrellas and can be opened and closed as needed.

Softboxes can also be gridded.  The grid will further control the spill of the light, giving you even more directional light.

You might also see a product called an octobox. This is an octagonal shaped box that combines properties of softboxes and umbrellas. Octoboxes also give soft, directional light but have circular catchlights.

How does a softbox work?

Your flash is mounted from behind the box and shot through one or more diffusion panels.  Other softboxes use an umbrella mount and require the flash be mounted inside the box.  The light then bounces off the back of the box and is reflected forward out of the box through a diffusion panel.

They can be used up close to illuminate your clients face and upper torso or even a full-body or a few people.

Beauty Dish and Softbox Differences

These two modifiers differ in more ways than just their shape. 

Beauty dishes:

  • Give more edge, or contrast, than softboxes.
  • Don’t “wrap” illumination around your subject as well as softboxes.
  • Have round catchlights, where a softbox gives square catchlights
  • Lights are always mounted at the back of a dish and shot forward.  Some softboxes allow for a light to be mounted inside, bounced off the back and projected forward.
  • Are usually made from metal (although there are a few fabric collapsible models) where softboxes are made of fabric mounted over a metal frame.

Beauty Dish, Softbox or Umbrella Portrait Examples

Let’s take a look at some different images shot with different light modifiers.

The image below was shot with a 22” collapsible beauty dish and a Godox AD200 strobe.  I used a gray card to set a correct exposure on my subject.  The light was about five feet from my subject, at about 30 degrees to the right.

As you can see, it gives nice, even, bright lighting over my subject’s face.  There are few shadows.  But where there are shadows, the transition from light to dark is pretty short.

You can also see that the light is spilling around her and lighting the background to some extent.    

Beauty Dish Flash Modifier

This image, on the other hand, was shot with a 24×24” softbox with two diffusion panels.  There are more shadows than previous image, which give it a little more depth and mood.  But the transition from light to dark is more gradual.  

You’ll also notice that the light is more controlled.  There is less spill hitting the background.  

Flash Modifiers Softbox vs. Umbrella

These final images are shot with a 22” umbrella.  The first image shows the results of a white shoot-through umbrella.  The scene is evenly lit, bright and the look is seamless.  The transition from bright to dark is very subtle.  It’s also a bit flat. 

White Umbrella Bounced

This next image was shot with a bounce umbrella with a silver lining.  As you can see, there is more contrast in the scene.  There is also less spill hitting the background.  

Flash Modifiers

Softboxes or Beauty Dishes: Which is Better?

Honestly, there’s no single perfect modifier.  It all depends on your goals for the image and your style.  A softbox is better for softer light with less contrast and more gradual transitions between light and dark.  They are also more flattering to flawed skin.

A beauty dish is better when you want a brighter, more sculpted look to your client’s face.  They tend to be heavier and sturdier than fabric boxes.  This makes them a better choice for shooting outside because they are less likely to tip over in the wind.

In general, if you do a lot of close-up photography and want well-light, sculpted faces, the beauty dish is better.  If you do more traditional portraits and want a more traditional lighting that is more versatile, get a softbox.

What is an umbrella?  

No discussion on modifiers would be complete with talking about an umbrella.  In fact, it’s one of the first light modifiers photographers get when they start their career. Why?  Because they are inexpensive and relatively easy to understand.  All of us have worked a rain umbrella at some point in time, so we at least have a basic idea of how to open and close them.  

Umbrellas sort of throw soft light everywhere.  They are great for providing a very bright scene, but it’s hard to control the spill. 

Umbrellas come in two basic styles: 

  • A shoot-through umbrella is designed so that you shoot your flash through its translucent material.
  • A bounce umbrella is designed so that your flash points into the bowl and bounces back out onto your subject.  

Umbrellas also come in different colors.  A white umbrella generally provides the softest illumination and can work as a bounce or shoot-through umbrella. 

An umbrella lined with silver or gold with a black backing will provide more contrast and can change the color of your scene slightly.  A gold lining will warm up the scene, whereas a silver lining will give more contrast and “edge” to your scene.

Umbrellas range in size from around 16” up to huge 72” units!  They are generally the cheapest of the modifiers.  They fold down small like a standard rain versions and are easy to transport.

Umbrellas vs softboxes

An umbrella differs from it’s rectangular cousin in a few ways.  First, an umbrella sort of throws light everywhere.  It’s very hard to control spill and only illuminate a certain part of your scene.  Umbrellas are also harder to modify.  You can’t really put a grid on them and they are harder to flag.  Umbrellas also throw round catchlights.

Some bounce umbrellas are designed so that you can attach a front cover them to give you extra diffusion and to help control spill.  These are usually called brollyboxes.  Essentially you’re turning your umbrella into a softbox umbrella. 

A manufacturing company named Paul C. Buff created a really large brollybox and called the softbox umbrella a PLM or parabolic light modifier.  It’s basically a HUGE umbrella with a cover, or a brollybox.  The term PLM is trademarked by the company, but many photographers use it to describe any really, really big umbrella with a cover.

Look at the size and shape when considering which softbox umbrella to buy and don’t necessarily worry about the name.

How do you decide which light modifier is best for you?

The first step to deciding which light modifier to buy starts with understanding how each works.  Then decide which light you prefer in terms of quality.  Review the portraits above and other images taken with different modifiers and examine the differences in the light quality.  See which you prefer and try to identify why you prefer them.  

Also consider the physical properties of the light modifier and the type of photography you do.  Is it portable?  Is it easy to store?  Will it work with your existing flashes?  Do you like the shape of the catchlights?

Then choose a lighting modifier based on which will help you create images that fit your needs.

What size of softbox or beauty dish do I need?

One of the most important principals of off-camera lighting says “the bigger the light source, the softer the light.”  So all things being equal, bigger lighting modifiers will give you softer light.

The softer the light, you’ll also want a box roughly the same size as your intended subject.  A light box that is 18-24” would work well for headshots.  But you’d want something larger for full body shots, such as a 48”-56” version.

And don’t forget to balance the size of your light modifier with the size of your shooting environment, lighting and storage needs.  A 72” box creates beautiful wrap around light but also takes up a lot of space in your studio!

Finally, consider the power of your light.  A single speed light would look great in a 24” unit, but it’s not going to fill a 48” box or 72” umbrella very well.

Do I need a softbox?

The short answer is no, you don’t NEED one.  But it’s perfectly okay to want a light modfier!  

If you use artificial light, a light modifier can help achieve a more natural-looking scene than using bare flash.  It makes the light bigger, which diffuses and softens it.  Soft, diffused light is more flattering to just about every subject because it makes the transition from well-lit to dark more gradual.  

What is the best size softbox for portraits?

As I said before, there’s no one universal “best” size.  But here are some general guidelines to follow as you choose a modifier for you.

Head and shoulders images – 18-24”
Upper torso images – 36”
Full-body images – 42” and above (though you might still see some fall off at the feet).

If I had to just use one flash modifier for the rest of my career, I’d choose the 32”x48” softbox.  This size is incredibly versatile.  It can be used as a window to mimic natural light.  It works great for newborns, portraits and athletics.  When I have to shoot a large group, I turn it sideways and light a team or class.  

The beauty and the box – Conclusion

There’s really no clear winner in the beauty dish, softbox or umbrella discussion.  All three are great at what they do but not perfect in each and every situation.  Learn the advantages of each modifier, then choose the one that best fits your style, needs, and budget.  Remember, it’s only better if it serves your needs!

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