It may come as a surprise to many photographers today, but softboxes are relative newcomers on the photography and video lighting scene.
In the old days on movie sets there were huge hydrargyrum medium-arc iodide lamps (HMIs), and “hot lights” with names like “Blondes”, which was a 2K open-face light and “Red Heads” which were 1K. Only poor filmmakers used Red Heads, although I saw them sneak on to big sets as background fills occasionally.
About the same time in photography, you probably would have found floor flash units mounted inside large umbrella reflectors.
Photography has always had an edge on film lighting, until very recently. With the advent of DSLRs on movie sets, we’re also seeing some intersection in lighting gear. The old days of HMIs, jokingly referred to as standing for High Monetary Investment, are giving way to less powerful lighting options that produce more even lighting. Softboxes are now turning up in photography studios and film sets alike, although the lighting inside is somewhat different.
With advances in construction and materials, we’re also seeing flash umbrellas making a comeback in photography, although these are not your grandpa’s flash umbrellas.
When it comes to umbrellas in photography, size matters. The broader and more diffuse your light source, the more even the lighting on your subject. The older style umbrellas were small, not much bigger than an umbrella you might carry with you for rainy days. Today you have a better selection.
Companies like Booth Photographicare fielding umbrellas that would make any softbox owner blush with envy. Parabolics, because of the shape, are going to have less fall off at the edges. A parabolic light like a large umbrella, near your subject. is going to give you a bit of wrap around the subject, contributing to a very smooth overall lighting effect.
Umbrellas lost favor to softboxes because, for a long time, the only large umbrellas you could find were really expensive. Today, they’re coming back into vogue with models like this 7 foot Wescott and this 75 inch silver model from Booth.
When you’re out shopping for studio lights, don’t forget to give some of the newer umbrellas a look. With price tags under $200, it’s possible that parabolics will stage a comeback.