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When it comes to studio lighting in photography, choosing the right lighting modifiers (also known as light shapers) for your work can be daunting. With a seemingly endless number of options available from various brands on the market, it's all too easy to get caught up in marketing hype or accidentally purchase the wrong tool for your specific use case. Do you need a large light source or a small one? Should it produce soft light or hard light? Does it need to be a focused beam, or is a wider spread of light preferred? These are valid questions where the only right or wrong answer depends on what you're looking to achieve with your lighting setup.
I first discovered the Photek Softlighter II Umbrella all the way back in 2009, when I was trying to get more serious about studio lighting. I would watch as many behind the scenes videos of Annie Leibovitz and Norman Jean Roy as I could find, and there was always one piece of lighting equipment that kept showing up in their on-location shoots. They would often use the Photek Softlighter II Umbrella in combination with a handheld boom arm which would be used by an assistant off camera. If you've seen any of their behind the scenes videos from their photoshoots over the years you may have noticed this as well. Having now owned several of them over the years, it makes perfect sense to me why the Photek Softlighter II is their preferred on-location modifier. It's convenient, reliable, and delivers professional quality lighting in a simple package.
The Photek Softlighter II Umbrella is actually three lighting modifiers in one. It is a silver reflective umbrella by default, but it also comes with a soft diffusion panel that turns it into an octabank when attached. You can also choose to remove the black backing of the silver reflective umbrella which will then turn it into a shoot through umbrella. The modifier itself comes in three sizes: 36 inch, 46 inch, and 60 inch. You can also choose from a 7mm or 8mm shaft size depending on which brand of studio lights you own. The 7mm shaft size is intended for Elinchrom users, and the 8mm size is for nearly every other brand available. I personally use the 60 inch version which is basically a poor man's octabank that punches well above its weight at this price point.
The standout feature for me is how easy the Photek Softlighter II Umbrella is to set up and take down. If you've ever been a sweaty mess before a photoshoot like me, you'll know that this is pretty important. To use it as an octabank, just open the umbrella like you would any other, attach the velcro pieces on the diffusion panel to the umbrella's velcro strips and you're done! It's so simple that it only takes me a minute or two to put it together. Another clever feature is that the the long end of the shaft is easily removable so that you can place the light even closer to your subject without having the umbrella accidentally show up in your finished image.
In terms of construction, the Photek Softlighter II Umbrella is well made, and the materials used don't feel cheap. These are durable lighting modifiers. I've owned a total of eight of these in my life (you might say I'm a collector) and only one has broken down after several years of use. It's also quite convenient to pack and store. The umbrella comes with a protective bag that also stores the diffusion panel in an attached pouch, keeping everything neat and tidy. Regarding the three sizes available, the 36 and 46 inch variants are the perfect size for on-location and travel work with their small footprint. The 60 inch Softlighter II is better suited for studio use given it's much larger size.
There are some accessories that can be purchased for the Photek Softlighter II Umbrella as well. First, there's the optional silver / gold inserts which effectively change the color temperature of the light. For example, gold interior umbrellas have been traditionally used in men's magazines for portraits to add warmth to skintones. Replacement diffusion panels are also available to ensure the umbrella lasts for years to come.
The Photek Softlighter II Umbrella produces beautiful rounded catchlights for a natural look in a person's eyes. When configured as an octabank, the soft light it produces looks good on everyone, no matter their age. The silver reflective umbrella setup on the other hand is ideal for fashion and beauty work where a slightly harder light source is desired. I use both frequently depending on the model and the look that I'm trying to achieve.
The quality of light that the Photek Softlighter II Umbrella outputs is excellent, and only beaten by substantially more expensive modifiers such as offerings from Elinchrom or Broncolor. The Softlighter will get you 90% of what they will offer at a fraction of the price. You will need to spend a lot more to get that other 10%. It is true however, that the difference will be noticeable to the most discerning eyes. Some photographers in the high end fashion industry will need that, and it's a valid use case. If that isn't you, rest assured that the Photek Softlighter II will do an amazing job.
Another positive is that the Photek Softlighter II Umbrella can be used with nearly every brand of studio light without compatibility issues. There are no speed rings or specialty adapters to worry about. As I mentioned earlier, the only thing to keep in mind is that the 7mm shaft version is specifically for Elinchrom lights. The 8mm shaft is pretty standard for all other brands out there. I always prefer to buy studio equipment that is essentially brand agnostic, meaning that it isn't locked into being compatible with one brand only. As a bonus, if you need to shoot at someone else's studio you can bring your lighting modifiers with you and know exactly what you're going to get. There's no guesswork about the results you'll be getting even if the studio lights are different.
It's hard to make any complaints about the Photek Softlighter II Umbrella. I will mention that the 60 inch version is a big boy, and can be cumbersome to use on location without an assistant. But overall, it does what it's been made for incredibly well and without any fuss. If anything, it might become too convenient to use, and over time your lighting style might be at risk of being less creative if you always choose to lean on it. While it isn't dirt cheap, it also isn't expensive. In fact, I find it to be very reasonably priced for the versatility, quality of light, and durability it provides.
Nearly my entire studio portrait portfolio has been shot with at least one 60 inch Photek Softlighter II Umbrella either as a main or fill light. I've also found it useful for indoor events, real estate interiors, and on-location portraiture with great success. With three different lighting setups in one package, the Photek Softlighter II Umbrella is likely the most versatile light modifier on the market, and arguably the best value as well. I highly recommend it for any studio photographer to have this in their arsenal. If you want to get serious about studio lighting, this is the first light shaper you should buy.