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| Re: upgrade from 'flashes+umbrella' to? |
The only really problem with umbrellas is control of where the light doesn't go. The footprint of your key and fill sources bouncing off the ceiling and walls in a small room add a "spill fill" factor which can be good if you want low ratio lighting, but can be problematically if wanting moody high ratio lighting on dark / black backgrounds.
What softboxes do vs. umbrellas is provide a more uniform footprint (without the characteristic brighter center an umbrella has) with a footprint which can be controlled better to prevent the "spill fill" variable when it is not desired. For example when shooting on dark backgrounds I use a medium 24 x 36 SB with a 20" circle mask; making it a uniform 20" source that lights the subject's face more than the lower body and doesn't bounce excessive light around the room.
Another commonly used modifer, a dish with plate in the middle, creates a "dead" spot in the middle when used close to the face. It's ideal for centered full face patterns because the darker spot aimed at the nearer forehead winds up making the overall lighting of the head brightest aroung the eyes and mouth when the darker center is aimed at the forehead.
You can also get a variety of lighting effects with just a standard modifer or direct flash by "feathering" it the same way. Don't aim the "key" light at the nose, aim it in front or behind the head so only the softer edge hits the face. That's how photographers back in the days of Fresnel sources and direct flash with small refectors used them. But the evolution of modifiers from umbrellas to softboxes has made that skill a "lost" art because today people never even try it.
So there is a lot you can do with what you already have you may not have explored yet. Essentially what you should do is start with the goal for the mood of the lighting, then define the strategies needed to meet that goal, then pick the modifier needed. Thus the more different modifers you master the more different strategies you can accomplish successfully.
For your budget you should look at the Alien Bee line. The 160 W/S AB400 runs about $230 ea, the 320 W/S AB800 about $280. That plus small and medium SB, in addition to the umbrellas you have should help you expand your strategy options within your budget. I'd recommend the AB800s because you'll find the AB400 underpowered in some situations. I have four AB800s myself.