A Guide to Choosing Umbrellas and Softboxes

A Guide to Choosing Umbrellas and Softboxes

When working with flash lighting, it is rarely the case that bare-bulb flash is the ideal choice for lighting subjects, especially when those subjects are wedding participants and your objective is to create inviting, flattering light. Flash can be modified in several ways, which all effectively diffuse and redirect the initial light source into a broader, more aesthetically pleasing source that is ideally suited for creating interesting and controllable illumination.

Softboxes and umbrellas are two of the most frequently used light modifiers, and both work to soften and diffuse light by spreading the initial beam to create a larger light source. Both modification tools are generally portable solutions that can be adapted to a range of light types, from external camera flashes to the most powerful studio flash packs.


An umbrella is one of the most simple and straightforward flash modifiers and, as such, it is one of the most versatile. There are two basic styles: the reflective umbrella, in which the inside of the umbrella is directed at the subject, and the shoot-through umbrella, which is made from translucent white fabric and whose outside is pointed toward the subject. Both umbrellas have their benefits, depending on the type and quality of lighting desired and the distance of the subject from the light source.

Reflective Umbrellas

Reflective umbrellas are designed to have the flash fire into them, reflect, and then bounce the light onto the subject. The umbrella expands the size of the light source, and the resulting light has a broader, softer quality compared to a bare flash. Reflective umbrellas have an opaque covering on the outside to prevent light from passing through and escaping. This ability to contain the light makes it a more efficient light source than a plain white, translucent umbrella through which light passes. Reflective umbrellas can also have colored interiors, such as silver or gold, to brighten or warm the light to better suit the subject.

For shooting weddings, a gold-lined umbrella will help warm skin tones and give people a healthier look, but may also affect the color of the wedding dress itself. Silver-lined umbrellas will help intensify the quality of light with little or no color cast. A plain white umbrella with a black backing will offer the most neutral color of light, but compared to the metallic-lined umbrellas, tends to diffuse a bit more and reflect a bit less.

Shoot-Through Umbrellas

Shoot-through umbrellas work to broaden and soften the light source and create a more pleasing overall quality of light than the bare flash itself. They work in the opposite way that reflective umbrellas do. Shoot-through umbrellas are constructed from translucent white fabric through which the flash passes to produce soft, seamless light. The benefit of working with a shoot-through type of umbrella is that you can place it closer to your subject—the ability to place your light source closer to your subject produces a softer light, which is especially well-suited to wedding photography and portraiture.

Umbrella Shapes and Sizes

In addition to the choice between reflective or shoot-through umbrellas, size and shape are determining factors. The larger the umbrella, the softer the quality of the light it will reflect, but at the expense of requiring a more powerful light to fill it. Then again, you might not need a 7-foot umbrella for single or couples portraits. Conversely, however, if you're working with larger groups of people, then larger and multiple umbrellas are the most suitable choice for modifying your flash output.

The final consideration when choosing an umbrella is its shape: either regular, parabolic, or a combination of a softbox and an umbrella. Regular umbrellas, true to their name, feature a standard convex shape made of triangular panels, fold up compactly, and are available in a wide range of sizes from 20" to more than 7'. A parabolic umbrella resembles a traditional umbrella, but has a more rounded profile. These umbrellas, which are typically larger than regular umbrellas, are designed with more panels that produce a focal point of light. In turn, the light produced by a parabolic umbrella has a distinctive wraparound quality that can appear more natural than light from other umbrella shapes. The umbrella/softbox configuration is a hybrid between a softbox and an umbrella, and blends the characteristics of both types of light modifiers together. They exhibit the traditional shape and form factor of an umbrella, but have a front diffusion panel to fine-tune control of light output.


Softboxes are also used for softening and increasing the size of a smaller light source, and diffuse light sources not unlike umbrellas—with a few notable differences. A softbox controls the shape and direction of light more than an umbrella and prevents more light-spill from occurring. Softboxes, since they are generally rectangular, also have the advantage of being able to produce natural-looking light by mimicking the shape of a window.

Just as with umbrellas, softboxes are available in a variety of different shapes and sizes and can all be employed to suit the subject matter. A larger softbox will produce softer light, but will also require greater light output to sufficiently fill the entire softbox. If you're shooting with a handheld camera at a wedding, with a flash on- or just off-camera, a smaller softbox makes an ideal companion for easily diffusing light on single subjects at a closer range. With groups or full-body shots, larger softboxes or multiple softboxes are a more viable option for accomplishing soft, even lighting. As a rule of thumb, the size of a softbox should be approximately the same size as your subject; meaning a head shot or half shot could require softboxes in the range of about 18 to 24", whereas full-body shots could require multiple softboxes in the 48" or larger range.

Aside from different sizes of softboxes, different shapes also allow one to alter the quality of light. This can be especially apparent when photographing people from closer range, since the shape of the light source used can often be seen in the reflections in their eyes (called “catch” lights). Softboxes are available in a variety of shapes such as rectangular, square, octagonal, or long, thin strips. Less common shapes are hexagonal, parabolic and round. The effects of each of these shapes can be applied to the specific subject, and can be used in combination to develop a well-rounded image that reaps the benefits of such. Additionally, similar to umbrellas, different interior surface types are available—silver or white—and will alter the quality of the light output. A silver lining will give a more specular appearance with greater contrast and light transmission, while a white lining is ideal for maintaining neutral colors.

Umbrellas versus Softboxes

Both umbrellas and softboxes are a viable means of softening the quality of light from a bare bulb or unadulterated flash source, and both can be used quite effectively for producing flattering light that is well suited for capturing wedding events. When deciding between the two types of light modifiers, certain considerations should be taken to choose the best option. Umbrellas are typically the more portable option of the two, since they can break down to a small, thin size fast, but softboxes are great for replicating window light. Both can be unwieldy to use in windy conditions without sand-bagging your light stands. The light quality from umbrellas and softboxes is also somewhat different, even though they both work to soften and broaden the light overall. Due to their inherent forms, a softbox will produce a wider, flatter, and more even type of light that lessens the intensity of shadow edges and has less directionality than umbrella light. An umbrella’s curved shape will produce light with more apparent directionality and more pop to the edges of the shadows.

Becoming familiar with both types of modifiers will increase your options for creativity, and being able to pair one or the other to the specific subject matter will result in the most effective solution for transforming the quality of light from a standard flash. A combination of the two is sometimes the best option to show versatility and to pair the flash light source with the existing ambient light.

Which do you prefer for most lighting scenarios? Are you a fan of umbrellas or a fan of softboxes? Let us know in the Comments section, below.


Hello Team, 

What do you think is the most versatile softbox or umbrella for a couple of flashes Godox TT600? I'm asking this since I want to make sure I get a combination of the right modifier size based on my flashes power and the most versatile for different scenarios.

Is there a larger softbox that works with an Amaran P60x panel to create a softer light, as a key for a talking head video? The included softbox isn't terribly soft.

Due to the design and shape of the amaran P60x Bi-Color LED Panel, there are not many softboxes compatible for use with the light fixture.  Light panels do not often have a large variety of softboxes available due to their sizes, and they often do not have softboxes larger than the light fixture itself.  The closest option you may try would be the Airbox Model 129 Inflatable Softbox for 9x12" LED LightsB&H # AI129, which is a special order item we do not keep in our inventory (there is an estimated 7-14 business day arrival time after purchase).  However, do note it is not much larger than the softbox included with the purchase of the amaran P60x Bi-Color LED Panel.

Hi! I have a question. Is 2 80x80cm Godox sofbox combined with a Godox ad200 good enough to light a Catholic Church for a weeding or sweet 16? I’m just concern if that will give me enough light even if I don’t place them too close to the subjects.


Yes, using 2 Godox AD200 flashes equipped with Godox 80 x 80 cm softboxes would be fine for shooting a wedding at a Catholic Church or a Sweet 16.  They can be used for both posed portraits or as a fill for a shoe mount flash already on your camera. 

I am going to take pictures of PHoto frame ( which has a hand painting drawing), when I am taking pictures I am having reflection /glare what should I buy " studio light, photo umbrellas or photo softboxes ". I know this might be a stupid question but what should I purchase a

Not a stupid question at all. To give you a more even spread of your light, I would use them with umbrellas. You could use  2 of the GVM LED Video Soft Light (Daylight-Balanced) LS-p80s LED 1-Light Kit with Umbrella, BH # GVP80S1. These have plenty of output even for still photography applications.


The article said: "A larger softbox will produce softer light, but will also require greater light output to sufficiently fill the entire softbox."

Is there a way to know beforehand whether a particular strobe is 'strong enough' to 'fill the entire softbox' for typical shooting?  I.e. is there a rule of thumb for a minimum number of watt seconds for a particular size softbox?

I'd like to know whether the Westcott FJ400 is sufficiently powerful to use with a 4x6 foot rectangular softbox, or whether that size would be frustrating to use with the FJ400?

The largest possible softbox in a rectangular shape is 4 x 6 foot, but a safer size to use in order to give you a good balance of output and softness is the Westcott Rapid Box Switch Softbox 3 x 4, B&H # WE2528. You would also need a speed ring to attach this softbox to the FJ400 such as the Westcott Rapid Box Switch / Beauty Dish Switch Insert for Bowens Flash Heads, B&H # WE2530.




Wow. This indeed looks really cool. And perfect timing, I’ve been looking for.  There aren’t many cool looking and functional umbrella out there. Really glad that I found this.

Hello B & H,

very good article.

I have a question: If you have an reflective umbrella and a  flash fire into it, isn´t there a shadow of the flash (the strobe, the speedlight...) bound to be on the subject ? The flash fires into the umbrella and when reflected and leaving it again, it cannot pass at the location, where the flash is mounted. As you didn't mention it in the text, I´d say: The shadow is there, but negligible.

Best Regards,


I have a Nikon D7000 and an SB 600 flash unit. I have annually helped out a friend at a fundraiser by taking pictures using this TTL flash unit with one of the Sto-Fin diffuser caps using a bounce technique/approach. Guests are in particular fond of the “red carpet” shots, with one of her gallery’s logo backdrops; these shots can be solo to with up to 6-8 people in the shot. Other then that, I take portraits and candid shots. I mostly use my 18-300 lens for the red carpet shots, and my 35 mm 1.8 prime lens for the candid/portrait shots. I have gotten pretty good results, and the pictures are often in demand afterwards. I was trying to get advice on adding a second off camera flash that would be compatible and perhaps then an umbrella with stand, for better lighting versus a soft box on the camera. What would you recommend? 

If you will be using the second flash off-camera for event photography usage needs, I would use a more powerful flash for your second flash option.  The Nikon SB-5000 AF Speedlight, B&H # NISB5000, would be a good option, but if you are on a budget, the Godox VING V860IIN TTL Li-Ion Flash Kit for Nikon Cameras, B&H # GOV860IINKNK, would also work for your usage needs.  Both options have more output power, and would have quicker recycling time, which can further be reduced by using an external battery pack, which would allow you to shoot rapidly with less pauses between recycle time.  Both are also compatible with Nikon’s i-TTL CLS optical slave system, so if you are using one of the above flashes on-camera as a Commander flash, it can trigger the other flash off-camera wirelessly.  If you will be using the Nikon SB-600 on-camera (which does not have Commander capability), then you would need to purchase the Godox X1T-N TTL Wireless Flash Trigger Transmitter for Nikon, B&H # GOX1TN, which may be used under the on-camera SB-600 and can still communicate wirelessly with the Godox VING V860IIN, which has a built-in receiver.  If you will be buying the Nikon SB-5000 with this setup, then the Godox X1R-N TTL Wireless Flash Trigger Receiver for Nikon, B&H # GOX1RN, can be purchased for the off-camera flash to add the Godox X-wireless receiver so you can communicate with the off-camera flash using radio triggering instead of optical triggering.


For the above options, I would recommend a light stand such as the Impact Heavy-Duty Air-Cushioned Light Stand (Black, 9.5'), B&H # IMLS96HABI, as well as the Impact Deluxe Umbrella Mount with Adjustable Shoe, B&H # IMDUBAS, which will allow you to attach the light to a light stand, as well as use an umbrella like the Westcott White Satin Umbrella with Removable Black Cover (45"), B&H # WEU45WB.  For stability/security, I would recommend using a sandbag such as the Impact Filled Saddle Sandbag (15 lb, Black), B&H # IMSBFB15, so the stand does not tip over.  The above setup should work for your stated usage needs.

I agree I own the the Nikon D90,D7000, and D7100; however, all my lighting equipment Is Godox as in the Godox VING V86IINTLL Li flash kits as well as Godox transmitters,receivers, (3) Godox S-2 softbox mounts for Bowens, and a few Godox softboxes. Impact air-cushioned light stands and impact umbrellas 48" B/white. along with a handful of Tamron constant f/2.8 zoom lens. I saved a plenty building my business going this route,to many get caught up in having all brand name equipment,besides its not always the equipment but the person's knowledge of how to use it that counts.               

Hello Anthony,

Thanks for your input!

I’m starting to do a lot of newborn shoots, and was wondering what the best type of lighting would be. I’m looking more towards the softboxes, but again I’m not sure what’s best, or what rlse I would need as far as lighting. I have always done outdoor newborn shoots, but winter is coming, and I have some scheduled for indoors. As well as trying to figure out what softbox is best, any other newborn shoot tips would be greatly appreciated! 

Hailey check ok Godox , I'm a Nikon user but Body only. Lens are all Tamron constant f/2.8 zooms and my lights,transmitters,receivers,soft boxes and soft box mounts are all Godox. Check out youtube plenty of good videos on Godox being used by high end photographers as well as me , wish you the best. 

Okay - I was voluntered to shoot some group/family pics (up to 8 people could be in a shot) at an outdoor haloween party - backdrop will be hay and normal October stuff. I have to nikon sb-600 speedlights and plan to use CLS to trigger the flashes - i was thinking of getting a couple translucent shoot through umbrella's - what size would be best and approximately how far from subjects would be best in general?

2 speedlights - didn't catch the spelling error

Hi John,

A good working size in an umbrella for use with a speedlight is 32”.  The Impact Digital Flash Umbrella Mount Kit B&H # IMDFUMK would be an excellent option to consider, as it includes light stands, umbrella brackets and two 32” convertible umbrellas.  These umbrellas can be used as a shoot through type with the black cover off or with the cover on, they can be reflective umbrellas.https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/425220-REG/Impact_DFUMK_Digital_Flash_Umbrella_Mount.html

I'm doing school portraits in a class room that doesn't have the best lighting...which do you think would the best option? Umbrella or softbox?

Hi Danielle,

Both an umbrella and softbox can soften a light source easily, but each would direct the light in a different sense.  An umbrella would have a broader throw of light while a softbox would offer a more directional type of light, which wraps around the subject.  Also, it is easier to direct the light even more with a softbox when adding a grid when a more dramatic effect is needed.  Another consideration in terms of which modifier is best would depend on the type of light source being used. For example, a speed light may benefit more from an umbrella due to the broader throw, while a softbox would work best with a studio strobe or strobes with a bare bulb flash tube.

I have been looking into getting a softbox also. When using a softbox do you also have to use a speedlight? Most that I have looked at says with speedlight. Since this will be my first softbox I dont want to spend alot of money. Thank you. 

Hi Rhiannon - 

 A soft box may be used with either flash or continuous light sources such as fluorescent lamps or "hot lights" such as quartz halogen bulbs or tungsten bulbs. If soft box lights are used with "hot" light sources, take care to ensure that the soft box is heat rated for the wattage of the light to which it is attached in order to avoid fire hazard.

Mark S. wrote:

Hi Rhiannon - 

 A soft box may be used with either flash or continuous light sources such as fluorescent lamps or "hot lights" such as quartz halogen bulbs or tungsten bulbs. If soft box lights are used with "hot" light sources, take care to ensure that the soft box is heat rated for the wattage of the light to which it is attached in order to avoid fire hazard.

Hi, which light source is more superior in term of quality : Fluorescent, halogen or tungsten bulbs ?


I have a few questions regarding this. You talking about people photography but what about for food blogging, which might include long shots of tables, but not people? Would a Softbox work better for those? Restaurants vary in ambiance when it comes to lighting, so having an external source of lighting is useful, but it is problematic as well because it means having to carry equipment on what should be a nice night out with friends. Or for video-blogging tech videos such as unboxing videos and stuff like that? 

I'd like to hope that one type of equipment could work for both because let's face it, both are not money-making work, and have budget constraints, but I'd like the best advice, so that when I can, I'd like to broaden my collection of equipment if necessary.

Also, the size of equipment that I should probably go for would also help. Currently using a 3ft x 5ft desk for tech videos (white or black table top depending on the tech unboxed) - the whole table is not filmed, obviously.

The food blogging is more varied, but it is still photography. It can be a smaller area of photography - a coffee cup, malt milkshake, or almond croissant, to the top view of a whole (or partial view of a) table that seats 12 people. 

Thank you so much for your advice. I really appreciate it. 



P.S. I am actually trying to get a Christmas get a 

No expert here but I've done food blogging over the years and if you're out with friends you could try one of the little plastic diffusers from Sto-Fen or Vello that fits right on your flash unit. I find they tend to diffuse the light enough that you don't get that nasty amateur flash look. Try shooting the flash manually, not TTL, unless your system is smart enough to get it right. Even an improvised diffuser, like a piece of diffusion material in your wallet, could be held in front of the flash and help you out. Paper taped to the flash pointed up, there's a lot of ways to go. 

I have never used artificial light before. I am shooting a wedding on the beach in the middle of the day and have no idea what I need. Also, the reception is a very small dinner indoors. What lighting equipment is needed. I was planning on buying the yn685 but I'm unsure if that's what I should go with. Do I need umbrellas or soft boxes? How many? What can be used for a small intimate space indoors? 

The middle of the day is a very tough time to get great pictures. Without a flash and/or reflector, the bright sun will cause bright highlights and dark shadows. To get great and flattering photos, it ia necessary to use some sort of help with the light. Even an assistant with a reflector will help, but a difused flash from one or more soft boxes or umbrellas will be very helpful if the situation can tolerate the setup and posing. An assistant with a reflector is often helpful.

The response would depend on your setup and how far the flashes will be from the people you wish to illuminate.  The main issue is you will be fighting with the sun; the output power of most flashes outdoors will mainly be filling in shadows on the subject.  If you want the flashes to be main light sources, then they will have to have higher output to compete with the ambient light produced by the sun.  The secondary issues would be if you use an umbrella or softbox, this will also reduce the light output by the flash unit; also, battery power would need to be considered, as you will need replacement batteries to power you through the entire wedding (most hot shoe flashes output about 100-150 flashes at full output per charge, more if used at lower output).

If you will be using the flash as an on-camera light for fill-flash purposes, then the Yongnuo YN685 TTL flash you list will work for your needs.  If you wish to use the flashes off-camera as additional lighting, then power may be an issue, depending on how close you may place your lights/light stands to your subject without them interfering with the wedding.  The Yongnuo would be the most economical option (and the only one having TTL capabilities), but would have the least amount of output power.   With the Yongnuo flash, the Impact Umbrella Bracket with Adjustable Shoe, B&H # IMUB, would allow you to connect the flash to a light stand and to use an umbrella.   The Impact Convertible Umbrella - White Satin with Removable Black Backing - 45", B&H # IMU45BW, would be a good umbrella option, while the Raya EFS-30 Easy Fold Softbox Set (30 x 30"), B&H # RAEFS30, would be a decent softbox for your needs. 

The second option would be to consider the Bolt VB-22 Bare-Bulb Flash Kit with Cyclone PP-400DR Power Pack, B&H # BOVB22K, which is a manual flash, but which has more than 3x the flash output power of the Yongnuo flash.  The Impact Convertible Umbrella - White Satin with Removable Black Backing - 45",  B&H # IMU45BW, would still be recommended, though the Bolt Umbrella Mounting Kit for VB-Series Bare-Bulb Flashes, B&H # BOVBUMK, would be the adapter to connect umbrellas to the flash.  You would also need a different softbox (and speedring) to use a softbox on this flash.   The The Impact Speed Ring for Bolt VB, Quantum Q & Lumedyne Series Flashes, B&H # IMSRBOLT, and the Impact Luxbanx Medium Rectangular Softbox (24 x 32"), B&H # IMLBRM, would be a softbox option for your needs.

The strongest option I would recommend while still trying to be economical would be the Dynalite Baja B4 Battery Powered 2-Monolight Kit with Case, B&H # DYBK42200B.  It may use the same umbrellas and softboxes listed for the Bolt flash, but it would need a different speedring.  The Impact Speed Ring for Impact, Bowens S, Westcott, B&H # IMSRIMP, would work for your needs.  For further assistance, or if you are looking for different alternatives, it may be easier to contact our Lighting Department directly by e-mailing [email protected].

Whatever you do, make sure you do NOT show up with a bunch if equipment that you have never used. Practice practice practice as much as you can. That said I would get a 70-200mm lens and try and get images that differ from the likely hundreds that the guests will be gettign with there phones. Photography is a lot of things, but in a setting lke you describe it is about timing and lighting consideration to tell your story. I have shot weddings in the middle of the day on a beach where people sitting right up front get amaizng images with their phones, and since strobing on the run outside is pretty difficult most shooters end up shooting mostly with ambient light. The way to make your phtoos stand out is by getting creative with your compositions and your timing. The light might be harsh so plan to control that during the posed photos with strobes or reflectors or both. I can count the number of times I used an Umbrella outdoors at the beach on one hand because the wind makes it imposible so get a softbox, I like the rapid boxes from westcott, fast setup. 

If I am taking apparel product photos, using a mannequin and whitish back drop but need a little more light, which would be the better choice? The Softbox or the umbrella?

I would likely go with a softbox.  They control the directionality of light as well as soften it, which can be a benefit for product photography.  For recommendations, I would suggest sending us an email letting us know what lights you are using.  [email protected]

Great article indeed, i have learned alot on both umbrella and softboxes and also the difference.  How do these two apply towards product photography?  I too am new to this and I'm trying to gather information to make a proper decision as to which of these two would be good for product photography with more of a natural day lighting for cloth products no bigger than 12".  Is there another article or can someone give me more guidance?

Softboxes control spill and are generally preferred for product photography, unless you are looking for the flattest light possible (or are on a real tight budget).  I personally would go for a softbox.  If you would like suggestions, I would suggest sending us an email letting us know what lights you are using, and any other information you think might be pertinent.  [email protected]

How do you know which size umbrella to buy?

The first consideration should be quality of light, the larger the umbrella, the softer light. Second consideration should be regarding how much of the subject you intent to light. For head shots the 32” range is popular, for half shots/full body you would want to be around 45” or larger. Note that the larger you go, the more powerful you’ll light will have to be. 

Thank you, as always B&H hits it out of the park informative article. 

Lighting is a little intimidating to me.  Since I am basically learning on my own, this information is invaluable to me.  I did purchase a 7' parabolic umbrella and the results that I have gotten at the event that I shot were beautiful as I was expecting.  What I learned reading this article was that the umbrella extra panels makes the light more panels which produces a focal point of light. . . which has distinctive wrapping quality that can appear more matual thanlight from other umbrella shpaes.   Also, regarding softboxes which was a mystery to me was the benefit of having the same size soft box as your subject.  That was a tremendous help because I didn't know what size to get.   Thank you so much for this informative lesson.

Janice Kendricks

An excellent article, very useful in explaining the specific techniques and reasons for using the equipment.

Accuracy of language is always important, especially in a technical article.

"A silver lining will give a more specular appearance with greater contrast and light transmission, while a white lining is ideal for maintaining neutral colors."

Obviously no light is transmitted through an opaque silver lining.  The light output is GREATER because of the higher reflectivity of the silver vs the translucent or opaque white lining.  Is there an implication that a silver lining imparts a color cast to the subject that the white lining does not?

Thank you for contributing to the science of the photographic arts.

Lots of useful information on light modifiers. This article would be perfect if we can see a comparison of white vs silver umbrellas and softboxes.  

Sergey Zh


excellent indepth information with absolute clarity


what is missing is a series of images, side by side, of the same object, photographed with the diferenet lightings; a few softbox shapes and sizes and a few umbrellas. there is a limit on how text can help in explaining in these cases.

Can't say enough about the importance to protect your modifier from Wind.  Sand Bags are important, but an assitant is better.
Anything to make you look better, work easier and have more fun doing what you love to do for a living. 

Thanks Bjorn for the update article,
Chris Lo Bue
CLB Photography

Great....Short overview..

Very interesting. In a few sentences you describe something that was not clear to me.


Nice article, helps to clarify concepts and purposes such as the how/when/why, etc. each should be used. Next, please add beauty dishes: tie them into the whole scheme of things so that we can understand how/when/why they should be used, or not used. Thanks, Bjorn!