Post & Photo by Joe Farace – Follow Joe on Twitter

Portrait lighting has four major characteristics: color, direction, quantity, and quality. When working with light sources from speed lights to mono lights the best way to improve the quality of the light is with a light modification device such as an umbrella or a light bank and each one has their own advantages and disadvantages. But no matter which one you chose, each device is governed by one important rule: The closer that a light source is to the subject the softer it is; the further away the light source is, the harder it becomes.

Umbrellas are cheap (you can buy a photographic umbrella for less than 30 bucks); easy to use, and produce a broad and soft source of lighting that could, for simplicities’ sake be considered to emulate outdoor lighting. Light banks are usually rectangular, octagonal or square and emulate the soft, directional lighting produced by window light. Because umbrellas produce this broad, soft, lighting, they are easier for beginners to use. You point an umbrella at a subject and bang, zoom you’ve got soft lighting! Use two of them and you’ll think you’re a lighting genius.

In the above photograph, four lights and two umbrellas are used: The main light has a 60-inch silver Booth Photographic umbrella mounted while the fill light uses Booth’s 75-inch white umbrella, both in bounce mode. Two other heads are a hair light wand another head aimed at the background.

Light banks are the kind of light modifiers that all the big time photographers use so naturally that’s what many beginning photographers aspire to as well. Light banks are controllable and available in large sizes that when placed close to a subject produce very soft, yet directional light. There are lots of accessories available, which as grids or louvers, that make the lighting even across the plane of light. What’s the downside? Even an inexpensive light bank, isn’t cheap so all that directionality comes with a price. Unlike umbrellas that are forgiving, light banks require some basic knowledge of balancing the main versus fill light (that fill could even be an umbrella) so it won’t produce too contrasty lighting. Unless of course that’s what you want.

But choices are what this whole discussion is about. You select the light modifier that matches the kind of portrait you’re trying to make. Sometimes that will require an umbrella and sometimes it’ll be a light bank. There is no “one size fits all” solution to lighting. Just as you will select the right lens and ISO for a natural light photograph, when it comes to working with artificial light you need to select the right tool for the job.

Joe Farace is the author of “Studio Lighting Anywhere” the second book in a planned trilogy from Amherst Media. It’s available in all the best bookstores as well as Amazon.com.

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