Lighting Modifier Comparison: Beauty Dish Versus Umbrella Versus Octabox

In this short video, Manny Ortiz gives a very quick introduction to three lighting modifiers that he uses in the studio — the beauty dish, octabox, and umbrella — and gives a short overview of their pros and cons.

For those new to lighting, understanding how modifiers affect the behavior of light as it falls across the subject can be a bit of a mystery. Ortiz explains not only how each modifier produces slightly different light, but also offers some advice on how the hardness of the light can affect your decision on how to position it. 

It's worth noting that there's a huge diversity of price when it comes to lighting modifiers. While you can pick up an umbrella for less than $15, even the cheapest octaboxes tend to be a little more expensive, simply because there are so many more components involved. (That said, this umbrella will set you back just under $10,000. If you've ever used one, let us know in the comments!) Ortiz's choice of octa, the Westcott Rapid Box Switch Oct-M 36", is a great option when it comes to flexibility, being quick to set up and allowing you to swap out strobes and speedlights from a variety of manufacturers.

One small note: if you're using a C-stand, keep the big leg on the same side as the modifier! That's also the best spot for your sandbag.

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20 Comments

Alex Cooke's picture

Haven't used the Profoto, but I adore the Bron Para.

Andy Day's picture

Having barely used a studio in my life, what's it for and why the hell is it so expensive? 😆

Michael Jin's picture

It's supposed to be specially shaped so that it shoots all of the light evenly in a single direction rather than scattering it as a normal umbrella or octabox would do—at least that's the theory. You can also adjust the quality of the light by adjusting the position of the strobe within the modifier so you can get several different looks from a single modifier.

As for why the hell it's so expensive, part of it is the Broncolor name and part of it is that it doesn't really have a whole lot of competition. Most umbrellas marketed by other companies as parabolic aren't truly parabolic (meaning that they aren't shaped correctly to get you that single-directional beam) and the one company I've found that seems to be (Parabolix) doesn't have as many sides so you won't get such circular catchlights from it. No real competition = premium price tag.

Jacques Cornell's picture

For an affordable para, check out Paul C Buff's PLM. It's the real thing.

Brian Stricker's picture

This looks like a comparison of a octa, a slightly bigger octa, and an umbrella.

The diffused 'beauty dish' is more like a small octabox - and I think the lesson is that the apparent size (taking into account actual size and distance to the subject) of the source is actually THE most important determinant of the final 'look' of a modifier.

Nick Rains's picture

True, but don't forget that the distance not only affects the relative size but also the rate of falloff, which is also very important. Two sources of the same relative size will give very different results at differing distances.

Absolutely correct (and why a big modifier is NOT the same as a smaller one closer)! My main point was that the size and distance of a modifier are the key to understanding the quality of light that it will produce- much more important than details of construction/shape of the modifier...

Martin Peterdamm's picture

fun fact, no one besides photo nerds will see a difference, means after buying every f.cking modifier on this planet and "schlepping" them around, or better paying a xxx for assistants to carry it around for years ... you realise that a shitty, big and light 69 buck umbrella will do it. but you never realise this before spending an shitload of money.

William Howell's picture

No doubt, one thing though, if its windy, you can’t use an umbrella. I agree with you, if it isn’t windy I use an umbrella, you know, one typically doesn’t have to worry about spill outside.

Michael Jin's picture

Yeah, but you could also say this about most photography gear. Do you think that most people will notice a difference between a basic 50mm f/1.8 and a Zeiss Otus 55mm if they just saw the photos—particularly on a mobile phone screen, which is the most popular viewing device on the planet?

Agree with everything you said, however in multiple light set-ups umbrellas are a little bit more difficult to control light spill. But, it can be done. Best thing about umbrellas you can even find them under 10 bucks, of course quality varies but for beginners 10 bucks and a flash and a couple of poster board for reflectors and your in business.

Jacques Cornell's picture

While I agree with the sentiment, I can't equate an umbrella with a softbox, if only because a softbox gives you control over spill on the background. That's a difference even non-nerds will notice.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

Another small note: "if you're using a C-stand, keep the big leg on the same side as the modifier! That's also the best spot for your sandbag" Is not quite correct, you want to put a sandbag on the leg opposite the modifier to counteract the weight. But yes, it is best on the big leg.

Is the Wescott modifier now called a beauty dish?
The beauty dishes that I have seen were large reflectors with a disc in the center sometimes used with a diffuser.
Manny's advice to aim the BD centered at the model is one way to do it but then it's look is similar to a large octobox or umbrella like a large reflector.
The "magic" of the classic BD is not to point it directly at the model but to use the edges of the light pattern to get into the transitional hard to soft zone and usually it is very close to model just out of frame - it is tricky to place it to get that special light.
I was not that good at it but a fashion photog who I shared a space with used the BD often, he knew how to make it work. He got that last 20% out of it make the subtle difference.

Martin Peterdamm's picture

yes so true. and BD are nearly impossible to setup with dim mod lights or bright ambient light. you have to see the shadow from the center disc and place it in the center of the face, otherwise there is 0 BD effect (like in the photos above). and the model can't move more than some mm. in 99,8% of these youtube BTS or tutorials the people have no clue how to use them, always funny to see. ... but also everyone is using reflectors from below... to archieve this total beauty of "I will tell a ghost story" light

Mr Hogwallop's picture

My old instructor called it spooky light! :)

steve fischer's picture

This comment is dead wrong "Another small note: "if you're using a C-stand, keep the big leg on the same side as the modifier! That's also the best spot for your sandbag" Is not quite correct, you want to put a sandbag on the leg opposite the modifier to counteract the weight. But yes, it is best on the big leg.". You never counter the weight with the high leg. The high leg and the sandbag go in the same direction as the heaviest part of the c-stand. So if you have a boom arm with a strobe you put the high leg (with a sandbag) pointing the same direction as the boom. You do not use the high leg as a counter weight. It's a stabilizer.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

Although I learned it this way a long time ago from a grip named Pauly, I stand corrected.

Jon Winkleman's picture

he is using a tiny beauty dish and much larger soft boxes and umbrellas. Of course the tiny dish used does not have a wrap around quality. However soft boxes and shoot through umbrella of the same size would also lack wrap around light. I have a Mola 28" Setti that has wrap around light as do other larger beauty dishes. The video implies the wrap around light is determined by the type of modifier rather than it's size.

David Bicho's picture

...it's interesting to see that the whole point of the beautydish totally have been annihilated by the last generation of photographers... The original design of the beautydish does NOT and should NOT create a center shadow. If you DO have a center shadow, your disk is to far away from the flash tube. If you are using a flat front flash head this could easily happen.

When the disk is at the correct distance from the flash tube (when used with a extruding flash tube like the Prohead) you will get a BRIGHTER spot in the center of your light pattern! In other words, the very opposite to the modern misunderstood beautydish use of today.

With this brighter spot (Nerd fact: which actually is the center of an antumbra-shadow. The disks penumbra is wider than the radius of the disk-shadow and will therefore become intersecting penumbras with the result that the the center becomes brighter) you can place your light pattern so the brighter center is aimed on the chest of a model and therefore create an even light from chest all the way up to the face (which is closer to the lightsource). Or you could place the center spot higher up to make more of a vinjetting effect. The distance of the beautydish determines the size of this brighter center spot, and is almost like a soft edged brush in photoshop where you can change the size.

If you have the disk too far away from the flashtube, you will end up with that "center shadow" with no gradiations to work with - and then you could use a small white umbrella instead. Easier to carry.

It hurts me to see where the craftmanship of photography and lighting is going. It's a race to the bottom.