Saturday, May 12, 2012

Have an Umbrella? You've also got a Softbox...

The other day, I was doing some portraits in a public park, using speedlights on stands and umbrellas. There was another photographer there shooting as well. At one point, wanting a different quality of light than the typical shoot-through umbrella provides, I turned my umbrella into a softbox...shortly after, the other photographer came over, and asked me about it. I thought everybody knew this neat little trick -- apparently not!

Many umbrellas come with a removable cover (usually black on the outside), so that you can take it off and use the umbrella to shoot *through* instead of bounce light out of. This is really useful, as it gives you a number of advantages: you can get the front of the umbrella much closer to your subject than you can if you bounce out of it (for softer, wrap-around light); the light is softer and less focused than bouncing, and you have a bit more control over feathering the light (only having part of the light from the umbrella light your subject). It also has a few downsides. First, because the white surface reflects nearly as much light back towards the flash as goes through it, you waste a lot of's bouncing out behind your flash where it does nothing to light your subject. Second, both that wasted reflected light and any "spill" light reflects off of anything nearby; if you're shooting outdoors the second downside usually doesn't matter much, but if you're shooting indoors, it does. You get light bouncing off any nearby walls, off your background, and all over the place, meaning you have less control over where the light does and doesn't go.

The image above shows a typical umbrella in "shoot-through" configuration. Notice how much light there is on the white wall behind and to the side of the speedlight? That's all light bouncing off the *inside* of the umbrella...being wasted, not lighting the subject, and reflecting light where we don't want it. There's an easy way to get some control of that, however, using the removable cover you've already removed!
Just take that cover you removed, put it on the *back* side of the umbrella, and attach the little nubs on the ends to the umbrella ribs as you normally do. Nearly all such removable covers have a hole at the top for the top of the umbrella shaft to go through, and that hole works just as well on the back of the umbrella to fit over the shaft as it does on the front. You'll have to not attach one of the bottom ribs to the cover so you can fit the light stand through, but that's no big deal.
Compare the amount of light being spilled out the back and sides in the normal configuration to the "quick softbox" configuration just above -- see how much less wasted light there is? Notice how much more control you have over where the light does and doesn't go? That's where using the cover on the backside is really useful.

It's not "perfect" of course. The cover, when fit backwards, doesn't go up to the edges of the white umbrella front, so there are gaps (clearly visible above) where light still spills out the sides. It's a lot *less* light than was spilling before, though -- and because it's only in particular places, it's easier to control the spill.

Another bonus is that if you get umbrellas whose removable black covers are silver on the *inside* (like the one in the photo above), then when you flip the cover around that silver interior will reflect light back out the front of the makeshift softbox, bouncing it around several times while doing so. You lose less light, the illumination of the front of the umbrella is more even, and the light is softer than a regular "shoot-through" setup. While certainly not perfect, it's a darn good softbox -- for free. I typically see a 1/2 to 1 stop increase in light output (at the same flash power level) when I put a silver-backed cover on the back of a shoot-through umbrella -- that's 1/2 to 1 stops of light that were being wasted before, but that we can use now. Win-win.

You can already buy "Brolly Boxes" lots of places -- collapsible umbrella-like "softboxes" that have tight-fitting rear covers that eliminate *all* spill (like this Photek 36-inch Softlighter Brolly Box ). They're certainly useful. What I don't like about them is they usually put the speedlight (or monolight) at the *front* of the white cover part instead of inside it like our makeshift version, which means your catchlights have a black spot in the middle of them (where the flash is), and they're one-trick ponies...they're only "brolly boxes," not bounce-into umbrellas plus shoot-through umbrellas plus softboxes. And they cost more than regular umbrellas do as well.

Here are some umbrellas in various sizes that work great as normal umbrellas, shoot-through umbrellas, and makeshift softboxes. All of them have silvered-interior black removable covers (or in some cases, a separate silver layer which is neat, too!). Give them a look, or use one you already have...and next time you want less spill, less wasted light, and a different quality of light than a shoot-through umbrella gives, make up a quick softbox!

ePHoto 43-inch White Umbrella

Bowens 56-inch White Umbrella

Studiohut 33-inch White Umbrella

Bowens 46-inch White Umbrella


  1. This is a great idea! Unfortunately my umbrellas never came with a cover, any ideas how I could get around that?

  2. Love it! I tried it out before I read this article but I'm glad that I'm not the only one to think of it.

  3. I am trying to get pure white, clean, and even background for indoor portrait. I am a hobbies, so I do not have much space and money.

    Is two of Studiohut 33-inch White Umbrella enough to get even while background when 1/2 stop or so over-exposed for 2 to 4 people portrait? Or should I use 2 43" or bigger umbrella? Thank you.

  4. I believe everyone have a photographer within him/her self and they just need to explore it. This is really good post for those who want to learn photography. Thank you for sharing it with us