This page is about the mechanics of putting your speedlights into umbrellas. It is intended to be a jump start for beginners who have never used an umbrella yet. It's about a few things you will want to know.
Beginners seem to acquire the false notion that softboxes are simply the ultimate, and umbrellas are somehow "less". But which choice really does not much matter to the light quality if it is shoot-through or reflected, or softbox or umbrella. What matters is how large it is (to create all the different angles that the light is coming from, i.e., wrap around), which is often about how close it is, since close also makes it be large. If same size and same distance, it will be about impossible to tell the difference between them. Softboxes are nice, and convenient, but not at all essential. Umbrellas are great too. The difference is not the light quality, but instead in other external factors, like ease of handling, ease of transporting, ease of resassembly, etc.
There is absolutely NOTHING wrong with umbrellas... instead, they are like magic. See Soft Light.
Speedlights do work great in umbrellas. You need an umbrella bracket added on top of the light stand, to hold and tilt the umbrella. I have always used the Impact umbrella mount (shown at right). I like this one, it has always worked great for me, but I did replace the flash shoe with Strobobrames (below). (That one says its shoe is Not compatible with the thicker SB-900 foot, but we are likely to replace the shoe anyway). There are several brands of umbrella brackets, some are just relabels.
The umbrella bracket fits on any standard 3/8 or 5/8 inch light stand stud (via the V shaped holes), or it also includes a brass adapter to fit a 1/4 or 3/8 inch thread (male and female), like a camera tripod (note that tripods are a bit short to use for umbrellas). Many light stands have this same 1/4-20 NC tripod thread, but their main mount is a 5/8 inch stud.
Note this bracket has a slightly tilted hole for the umbrella shaft, and when inserted from the correct side (as shown), the umbrella is tilted upward, to be even with the elevated flash head. If your umbrella hangs too low, insert the umbrella on the other side of the bracket, opposite the knobs. (Pay attention to this mistake every time, as the flash is limited if aimed at the upper edge of the umbrella).
The Impact brackets are (or were?) shipped assembled wrong, and the picture on the package was wrong too. It showed the bracket upside down, and shipped with the brass inserts in the wrong ends. But it must be as shown at right (the umbrella must go in the top half) to allow tilting the umbrella (so simply swap ends with the brass inserts to correct it — no big deal). You can pay twice as much for an aluminum umbrella bracket, but these plastic ones work perfectly, and seem quite tough.
Note that the flash head rotates on its body. If using the optical sensor on the side of the flash (sensor is halfway visible in this picture, in front of battery door), you rotate the shoe and body so the sensor is aimed toward its trigger source. The flash head then rotates back to point into the umbrella. So with umbrellas on each side of camera, one is normal as shown, and one body is rotated 180 with the flash LCD in front (right/left depends on reflected/shoot-through).. Both sensors are aimed at camera commander. Works fine.
There are economical umbrella kits available, generally containing two umbrellas (convertible to shoot-through), two 8 foot stands, two umbrella brackets, typically one carrying case, and typically without any flash shoes for speedlights: (see flash shoes below).
Impact 32 inch umbrella kit $99 (includes relatively poor flash shoes, but no carrying case is included). Black cover is a bit thin, not fully opaque to flash. Impact is a B&H house brand.
Smith Victor 45" UK2 Umbrella Kit $135, Stands and bag included (no flash shoes are included, stands are not air-cushioned) This one was used above — I like it a lot.
Photogenic Two Eclipse 45" Umbrellas Kit $230 (Recent reports say the Smith Victor shoes were included, but you'd much prefer to add the Stoboframe shoes.) FWIW, the stands are not black color. The Eclipse version is unique in that the white fabric covering is below the ribs instead of above them. See pictures and below about this.
All three links above are convertible umbrellas (with removable black cover), which can be used as either reflected or cover is removable for shoot-through (see below). The black cover does not affect the reflected light, but it simply prevents rear spill. All of these stands are light-weight 8 foot, probably not enough for heavy softboxes.
An inexpensive 33" kit with continuous CFL light bulbs (is NOT for flash) is Neewer 600W 5500K Photo Studio Day Light Umbrella Continuous Lighting Kit $50, with a 45 watt CFL which compares to 200 watts incandescent. Continuous is convenient because the camera can meter it, but don't be surprised, this is not much light for portraits, and I worry that most of the light goes out sideways instead of reflected back to the subject. These user ratings are good, but it will need umbrellas set close with high ISO, slow shutter speed, and wide f/stop. A speedlight flash will be GREATLY more light for portraits (a 45 watt CFL bulb used with 1/100 second shutter speed would compute 0.45 watt seconds of energy. A speedlight flash would be from 50 to typically 75 watt seconds). But this one does seem a good price for an inexpensive try.
Smith Victor 45, reflected (top view)
Top view, 60 inch Photogenic Eclipse shoot through. The fabric is below the metal ribs, instead of above the metal ribs on other umbrellas.
The black cover for reflected goes on top of the ribs.
Alienbees 45, Smith Victor 45, Photogenic Eclipse 60, Alienbees PLM 64
Eight foot stands are about as high as you can use with reflected umbrellas under a ten foot ceiling. However, stands taller than you need is one way to get somewhat heavier stands, with wider footprint, more sturdy for off-center loads. An eight foot ceiling will always be a real problem for full length standing portraits (cannot get main light above head), but seated portraits will work well. 45 inches is a common and convenient size to work around. 60 inches gets in the way in a regular room. Large umbrellas cannot be raised very high under eight foot ceilings — think this out first. I often quickly handhold a small 32 inch (holding the umbrella bracket in one hand) for quick photos of things to email to show someone... an umbrella really makes a difference.
These kits seem a real bargain for what they do for us. 45 inches is a very convenient size, big enough to make a huge difference, not too big to work around in the room. Brands vary in size, but do not expect a 45 inch umbrella to be 45 inches across. Typically the umbrella dimension is the fabric dimension, measured over the curved top, so the actual straight-across diameter will be a little less. Some are deeper shape, some are a little flatter (picture at right).
A few actual measurements for example:
The PLM 64 uses a bare flashtube barely inside the umbrella, easily visible out the side. The silver one may be parabolic, but the white PLM is a strong 180 degrees wide. A speedlight at full shaft length in a regular umbrella sits well outside the umbrella, but projects a narrow beam inside (24 mm zoom, FX mode). However that flash head face itself is visible out wide to the side, so there is sideways spill.
You can continue to use any of the flash kits above with future studio lights instead of speedlights — with the same umbrellas and stands (the brackets will not be used then). The light-weight stands are fine with regular umbrellas, however, they will be too light-weight for softboxes or heavier offset loads. The stands will tip over with a heavy off-center load (both footprint and rigidity are important for off-center loads). Be sure to always place one foot of the stand directly under any off-center load (the umbrella too), and a larger foot print is much better bracing. But regular umbrellas are very light-weight, and little issue (except for wind). I use the Smith Victor UK2 kit stands and umbrellas all the time with Alienbees lights. The lights themselves sit right on top of the stand, and are not an off-center load.
The lights can be triggered by a few methods. For manual flash, radio triggers are popular today — can be on all flash units, but you only need one if it triggers the others optically. My own choice indoors is that I prefer a PC sync cord to the nearest light (no issue at all if the camera is on a tripod), and optical slaves on the others. The Nikon Commander system works pretty well for two umbrellas indoors with TTL (but you CANNOT mix Commander and Manual light systems). See Commander and triggers and slaves.
Speedlights also need flash shoes added on the umbrella bracket, to hold the speedlight flash shoe foot. In contrast, studio monolights (like Alienbees) just fit directly on the light stand, and have their own means to hold the umbrella, and do not need the bracket or the shoes. However, if your speedlight is using "foot mounted" radio triggers or optical slave triggers, these will have their own flash shoe, which, if they include a 1/4 inch threaded hole, these can be the only flash shoe needed. Three of the kits above do not include the flash shoes for speedlights (but your speedlight will need one if you don't have another choice for it). These speedlight shoes typically mount to the umbrella bracket with a 1/4 inch thread.
The fancy home-made "multiple flash adapter" shown at right is just flat aluminum bar stock (1" x 1/8") from Home Depot, sawed off and three 1/4" drilled holes added.
The flat plastic stand (that comes with the flash) is for stand-alone use on a desktop. It will work on top of the umbrella mount as a flash shoe (it has the 1/4 inch thread on bottom). It does not feel very sturdy in this use, but it can work. A better shoe will be desirable there.
There is a much better shoe. This one is great: Stroboframe flash shoe It is only $7.85 at B&H or Adorama, and Vello makes a similarly priced knockoff copy.
The Stroboframe shoe also comes with the bottom mounting thumb screw for flash brackets (and is shown used in the home-made dual mount), which is removed and not used for the normal umbrella brackets. Some have had a pin in the base to keep it from rotating on a flash bracket, remove that too. These have standard UNC 1/4"-20 tripod screw threads. There are cheaper brands, but be sure they have this similar construction (with a vise-like moving side plate).
The Stroboframe shoe (red knob at right) holds like a vise. A light clamping holds securely, very satisfactory. Shown at right with a Smith-Victor No. 566 1/4"-20 Screw Adapter for use WITHOUT an umbrella bracket (like for background, or on a hair light boom — however a bare flash cannot tilt the head down, so you may instead need an umbrella mount with a tilting mechanism). These particular adapters are not very strong though, tightening too much can snap the plastic. For any 1/4" tripod screw mount, the Impact umbrella mount is perfect for a speedlight with or without umbrella (these umbrella brackets also do the tilt function).
The previous Impact umbrella bracket above included a minimal aluminum block flash shoe (the Smith-Victor shoe, shown in yellow image at right). The bracket is fine, I've used them for years, but I would strongly recommend replacing the shoe with a better one (Stroboframe above), to hold the flash securely. The shoe side set screw has no bite into the metal foot, and it loosens easily, and the flash slides out easily. People seem concerned about the minimal bottom clearance for the flash pins, but it seemed sufficient to me, and never gave trouble. The Nikon shoe foot pins are disabled and dead in Remote mode anyway. But I used the SB-800s in SU-4 and Commander modes, and never saw any issue with the pins. My big issue was that the side set screw just rapidly loosens by itself, and my SB-800 fell out onto the floor twice (which seemed a big deal to me). Then I ground a notch in the side of the flash foot to let the screw go into that notch, which seemed to work as a safety guard. But I finally just replaced the shoe with the Stroboframe shoe shown (red knob), which made me very happy.
Above - Just to understand how the umbrella mount is assembled. It is very easy, but confusing if you've never seen it.
Two things which matter: The half section with the hole for the umbrella shaft must be the top half of the bracket (with the flash shoe), so the umbrella can tilt up and down. Also, this umbrella shaft hole is at a slight angle itself, which raises the center of the umbrella up to where the speedlight flash head is. So the umbrella shaft must be inserted from the correct side — on side opposite the knobs here. If inserted on the wrong side, the tilt goes the wrong way, and the umbrella will hang too low below the flash.
The bracket has holes in top and bottom ends. Two brass adapters come with the bracket, to fit in those holes, to provide the threads you need. Flash shoe on top. The bottom hole fits directly on the light stand 5/8" stud, or one insert can optionally go into the bottom, to provide 1/4 or 3/8 inch threaded holes, which could be screwed onto a tripod (camera tripods are normally not tall enough for lights). Use the stud that you need, oriented to expose the threads that you need.
However, light stands with the same standard 5/8 inch mount don't need or use this bottom insert. Some could (if they had a threaded top like this standard one at right), but much better, the light stand itself simply inserts into the hole in bottom of mount. no stud needed, more secure without it. The top insert has male threads, and provides a 1/4 inch thread to hold the flash shoe.
The umbrella brackets do come with these brass or steel adapter inserts, which are replaceable if lost. They are a set of two studs, one with male threads and one with female threads (both 1/4" and 3/8" threads). These are standard light stand 5/8 inch studs, which optionally can go into the top and bottom of the bracket. The assembled picture above uses the brass insert in the top of bracket to hold the flash shoe, but the bottom insert is usually not used — the bracket simply fits on the standard stand mount. The picture at right shows the top of a heavier stand, with the same standard 5/8 inch mounting stud on top (many also have the 1/4 inch thread, as shown). The tear-drop hole in the bracket fits on either a 5/8 or 3/8 inch stud. The umbrella bracket just sits on this stud, locating on the larger 5/8 inch diameters top and bottom, and clamps down on the inner diameter (recessed so scuff marks don't bother it). However ... a few stands have a taller mount stud that interferes with fully seating the bracket on it adequately. In this case, just screw the provided brass insert to the top of the stand, and put the mount on it.
Note that tripod screws and these flash shoes and light stands have 1/4-20 UNC thread, 1/4 inch diameter and 20 threads per inch. This is the standard 1/4 inch coarse thread available in any hardware store in North America. UNC is NOT the same thread angle as British Whitworth.
Regarding trigger solutions for the remote flashes, see Triggering options.
Regarding portrait lighting setups, see Lighting Setup.
Idle chatter, about what you might expect: The Nikon spec chart in rear of speedlight manual specifies the angular coverage of each zoom setting. The speedlight FX 24 mm zoom setting is 78x60 degrees, which is about right to fill an umbrella. Take a flash picture of the shadow of the umbrella on a near wall behind it if concerned, but 24 mm will not spill at maximum shaft length. In the same umbrella, the SB-800 at 24 mm zoom meters one full f/stop less light than the 160 watt second Alienbees B400 (one stop is half power). One SB-800 at 24 mm zoom ISO 200 manual full power will meter over f/11 at 4 feet from fabric of 45" reflected white umbrella, and one will meter f/5.6 at 10 feet for groups. Two umbrellas are stronger, depending on how they combine, but never over one stop more. Close portraits in CLS Remote/Commander mode are easy at f/8 with two of them (but recycle time is not fast at f/8). According to Nikon's Guide Number specifications, I bravely assume the SB-600 ought to be within 1/2 stop of this (at 24 mm).
My Smith Victor umbrella is about one stop stronger reflected than shoot-through (at same distance from fabric, but shoot-through is typically used closer). This means 1/3 goes through a shoot-through, and 2/3 is scattered out its rear (so it needs to be very close). A silver umbrella may be up to 1/2 stop brighter than a white one, but white is much better for portraits of humans. And silver cannot be shoot-through, but silver has a good reputation for furry pets which we want to be shiny.
What makes an umbrella or softbox be a soft light is its large size relative to the subject. A little 12 inch speedlight softbox simply can do very little, as compared to a 45 inch umbrella. Ideally, its size should be at least the same size as the area or field that we are photographing. A 45 inch umbrella (which measures more like 40 inches) is a very convenient size for portraits. And ideally, it should not be farther away than about that same distance too, to remain "that large", as large as the subject. Which is just a rule of thumb, but it seems a good one for both umbrellas and softboxes, when it is possible. Large and Close is what makes soft light. Full length portraits or groups make close less possible, but these more distant subjects don't need as much softness anyway. An umbrella will give the same soft lighting effect as a softbox. There is no magic in the specific fabric, instead it is only the large size and close distance that creates soft light in both.
The big difference is that softboxes are better contained, with all the light confined to the forward direction, whereas umbrellas (especially shoot-through) scatter much light all over the room. Reflections can be an issue in a small green room, but if the umbrella is rather close to the subject, then normally that overall stray path to the walls and back is much longer, and the inverse square law helps (but 3x longer path length is "only" down 3 stops). Softboxes are usually double baffled, to minimize any hot spot that close shoot-through umbrellas can show. Softboxes have reflective walls inside, and the entire box is the lights reflector, and with a 180 degree bare-bulb light source at the back, so that the light bounces around every possible which way inside to come out the front at different angles, to fill and be soft. But speedlights are constructed differently anyway, see the picture at page bottom. My opinion is that the "larger is better" theory suggests the tiny speedlight softboxes would be better replaced with a full size umbrella.
Outdoors, be prepared — the wind definitely will blow over your umbrella and light stand (with your light on it). The umbrella is a big sail, and it takes off very easily. We can weight the stands down with sand bags or water jugs, but the best plan is a human helper to always stand with it to hold it and never let their attention lapse. Or you can add heavy weights to the base (sandbags, water containers, etc), or even stake the stand down to the ground. But be prepared, this will happen.
The above kit links except the Smith Victor have air cushioned stands. Three are light weight stands, and one is heavier. One stand is not black. A shiny stand is said to be a concern about causing reflections in the picture. Seems little concern, but possibly is true for pictures of shiny objects up close (glass, etc), which do reflect everything in the room (so we need a light tent then anyway), but shoot-through use will hide the stand behind the umbrella, and reflected use is at farther distance.
Light stands are available as thin and lightweight, or thick and heavy for loads. The load is not so much the vertical weight. Instead it is the off-center weight, like an umbrella or softbox (and especially a boom arm), with most of the weight out on a lever arm. This off-center load tries to lean the stand pole sideways, and can easily tip it over. The footprint (the diameter where the legs touch the floor) also becomes important to prevent tipping, larger diameter is more stable. Pay attention to place one foot directly under the off-center load (the umbrella or softbox), to resist this tip. However, umbrellas and speedlights are very lightweight, with no particular concerns, while large softboxes and studio lights are much heavier and a quite different ballgame. Boom arms are in an entirely different class, and even a speedlight on a short arm is formidable for a lightweight stand. Three of the kits above have lightweight stands, which are very suitable for umbrellas, but dangerous for large softboxes.
A good buy in a 9.5 foot (2.9 m) heavy-duty air cushioned stand is this one: Impact Heavy-Duty Air-Cushioned Light Stand with 45 inch footprint (the minimum height of this one is nearly four feet). I use it for a large softbox, or a tall mini-boom, and also use two of them for background support — with a 3/8" adapter on top which fits a 1/4 inch thread on top of light stand. A crossbar with holes on each end simply drops down over this 3/8" stud. A telescoping crossbar is a longer minimum length that does not transport well, but of great advantage when you only have 8 feet of room, but your sectional crossbar must be either 6 or 9 or 12 feet.
This 60 inch Photogenic Eclipse version (about 48 inches straight across) is a little different. Description says extra white panel, but there is only one white fabric cover (is more of a satin finish — shown in the Stroboframe background) which is sewn hanging from the underside of the ribs, instead of laying on the top side like conventional umbrellas (picture above shows Eclipse top view with black cover folded back). The interior is more a flat panel than rounded. The umbrella fabric itself covers and hides the ribs in the catchlights in the eyes. However this only helps for reflected use. The metal ribs still block the shoot-through light and are visible, so there is no difference then. All umbrellas have the same double rib design like this, and this Eclipse fabric is simply sewn underneath instead of on top. So it has sort of a false bottom to be more flat (a plus to me), but this causes the double rib framework to be unusually visible in shoot though mode (the same ribs are present either way). The fabric is usually on top of these ribs, but this Eclipse case, it is below the ribs.
To use as reflected, the light stand pole is in the center, with the subject on one side, and umbrella and shaft on the other side. The light points into the umbrella, reflecting back to the subject. The bottom of the umbrella shaft points to the subject. So the stand is in between, so the umbrella fabric is necessarily more distant, and must be at least the shaft length distance from the subject. The black cover does not affect the reflected light, but it does minimize spill out the back side which could bounce around the room.
For shoot-through operation, the black cover is removed, and the umbrella is in the center, with subject on one side, and the umbrella shaft and light stand pole on the other side. The top of the umbrella shaft points to the subject (feathered away a bit, it points near the subject). The light points into the umbrella, and continues through it to the subject, diffused. This arrangement allows the shoot-through umbrella to normally be quite close to the subject (a foot or two). The main difference is this fabric-to-subject distance — both are diffused, but the shoot-through can be closer and appears larger. But it puts about 2/3 of its light reflected out the back to scatter around the room — consider shoot-through only for very close subject distances — use reflected where you can.
The frosted bulb here is a 150 watt halogen modeling light (Philips and GE), and the flash tube is the clear circle surrounding it.
My opinion is that a speedlight and a bare bulb studio light are just not the same thing inside a softbox. A speedlight is like a concentrated (focused) flashlight beam, making a spot on the center of the front panel, and a bare-bulb studio light is an ultra wide light source (greater than 180 degrees) illuminating all of the reflective walls of the softbox (using it the way it was designed to work). Light comes out either way, but the bare flash tube is bigger and softer.
But an umbrella works great on the speedlight, and does the same thing as a softbox. The umbrella is a wider light, with greater spill, but light quality is the same, equally soft. Soft is about the size (and about being close). To actually do anything, softbox or umbrella, start at least at 24 inches size, better 32 inches, and 45 inches even better, at distance comparable to its size. Umbrellas make this easy for a speedlight. The FX 24 mm zoom setting (provides about 78x60 degrees beam field coverage) should fill any size umbrella. Larger umbrellas have longer shafts to make this be true, so the included angle remains about the same, so the same light angle fills either size. A larger umbrella in the same location is larger and casts a softer and wider beam angle. Or moving one back farther also casts a wider beam, but relative to the subject, it becomes smaller and less soft. Either way does require more power to distribute the light over a larger area and still have the same intensity (but the larger one does not have to be back as far to do it). The 45 inch size is very convenient to use, and covers most situations. A 60 inch is good for larger work, for full body shots, but will be difficult to work around in a smaller room.
One close reflected umbrella was used to take this picture above (sort of between camera and subject, pointing down). The lack of deep dense shadows down in those deep channels beside the speedlight ought to make the point. Umbrellas are pretty close to magic.
At right is what the inside of the older Alienbees 40x32 inch softbox looks like (peeking in from side). The four corner steel rods are tensioned to insert into the speedring, which mounts on the flash unit, and holds the weight of the softbox. That glass ring around the base of the modeling lamp is the bare flashtube (half of its circle visible). The bare flashtube is about 180 degrees wide angle, and the side walls are a big reflector which bounce light every which way. Double baffled, the inner diffusion nylon baffle reduces central hot spot (can be noticeable on shoot-through umbrellas). The front fabric is at far right. The softbox is a large diffused reflector for the bulb, and it's a big light, and efficient.
The flash attaches to the speedring, which also holds the weight of the softbox. Just mounting a speedlight in a softbox is normally a difficult problem, most are simply not made for this (the softbox must be supported). Also, the speedlight internal reflector is a more narrow beam forward, but the studio flash is bare bulb in the softbox, spreading 180 degrees to fill the softbox. In this 40x32 inch softbox, an Alienbees B400, 160 watt seconds meters f/8 at 32 inches from fabric, ISO 200, when set halfway between 1/8 and 1/4 power level.
A reflected umbrella may have to be back another foot (so its stand is not in view), and may need 1/4 power to do the same, but reflected white umbrellas are really about the same thing however, relative to the light and the subject. A little less convenient, cannot place them quite as close, wider side spill, catch light in eye is different, wind catches them more outdoors, but the same soft light quality, equally usable. Umbrellas are a great light too, and don't have to be assembled on site.
So I am not arguing softboxes or umbrellas. Both work, both are great, I use both — usually umbrellas for anything quick, and the softbox for more elaborate four light setups, with softbox for main, and umbrella for fill behind camera. Umbrellas are greatly more portable and storable. I am lucky to be able to store my softbox high on a light stand in an used room corner, no assembly required every time. Both are large, and size is the key that matters. So there is actually little difference, not in the light, but a softbox is convenient after you have it out and assembled.
What I am arguing is that speedlights obviously seem better suited for umbrellas, and speedlights seem ridiculous in a softbox. Speedlights can work in softboxes, light does come out if you can mount them. Even if mounted in an old plastic bottle. Sure, some light does come out anyway, but this is my notion why umbrellas seem much more feasible for speedlights. If using speedlights, start with umbrellas.