I love the softness of a large softbox for glamour work. However, shooting primarily with speedlites and other small battery powered flashes, standard softboxes aren’t really a viable option without investing in sometimes expensive standard softboxes and pricey speedrings and mounting brackets. Recently, my preferred budget modifiers are “umbrella softboxes.” These are constructed just like any reflective umbrella, but they have a diffusion panel like a softbox (and a hole in the center for your flash.) The light is nice and soft, since it is bounced into the umbrella and spread evenly, and then further softened by the diffusion fabric. These are my go-to speedlite modifiers when I need somewhat large, soft light.
I have several, from a few different manufacturers, but my most recent are from a company called PBL Photo Studio and can be found here on Amazon. Priced very reasonably at $26 for a set of two umbrella softboxes, you can’t really go wrong. Now don’t automatically assume an “OMG, $13 each!? I love them!” from me… I love bargains, and love being able to produce the images that I want with inexpensive gear, but I won’t shoot with junk. If it doesn’t meet my standards, it won’t be making its way into my kit. Let’s see how these stack up.
Boudoir with Naamah – Canon T2i – EF50mm f/1.4 – YN560 II – PBL 42″ Umbrellabox
For the price, I was half expecting them to show up dented, with the shaft bent at a weird angle, but they showed up new and shiny. There’s no way you can mistake these for professional, or even mid-grade modifiers. They’re lightweight, and the umbrella backing feels a little cheap, but the main shaft and the ridges are quite firm, and can take some abuse (they can, read on.) There’s a drawstring opening in the middle of the diffusion panel, with a 6″ zipper, to make inserting larger flashes / making adjustments a little easier while mounted. All in all, cheaply made, but feels solid enough to take a year or two of regular use and keep working. The two oldest in my kit are going strong after 3 years.
For many modifiers, it’s important to take into consideration how much light the modifier ‘eats.’ I tested out my Sunpak 622 Super on a stand, about 9 feet from my wife (I just stepped it out, I’m not concerned about actual output of my flash, just the light loss when shot through the modifier at the same distance.) So at 9′ I blinded her with f/22… I may be sleeping on the couch for that, but it’s for science! With the modifier in place, she was only slightly blinded with f/11 + 2/10 (1.8 stops of light lost.) Take into account that the light went an additional 2 feet, 1 each to the reflective backing of the umbrella, and then to the diffusion panel. But in practical use, it’s just less than 2 stops of power lost at the same distance. This is a bit more than pricier modifiers. I have softboxes that vary between 1.2 and 1.75 or so, and I’m comfortable with the idea of a modifier eating 1.5-2 stops of light, it’s a fact of life, and this isn’t too much of a loss to fret over.
I tested the white balance shift of the diffusion fabric using four different lights. Photogenic Powerlight 320ws strobe, Sunpak 622 super, Metz 60 CT-2, and YN560 II speedlite. Each light had their own minor shift around 5600K, but the modifier shifted to the warm side for the same amount for each. Each light was warmer by about 500K (6100 being the average.) Pop on a 1/4 CTB gel, and we’re good to go to match daylight, or gel accordingly (or just correctly white balance if you’re using modifiers that shift similarly) for indoor work where there’s no ambient light contributing to the exposure. Both umbrella softboxes in this kit shifted the same, and they’re similar to previous versions I have lying around.
Marsel – Canon XTi – Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 – YN460 II – 42″ Umbrella Softbox
These have a spot in my kit. I’ve been shooting quite a bit of glamour sets for publications recently, as well as boudoir, and having something on hand for big, soft light is always welcome. During my first two shoots with them, the weather was unfriendly, and blew them around quite a bit. They held together fantastically, and even when one did manage to catch a giant wind gust and tip over, the internal ribs did not bend (unlike many of my mid-grade umbrellas) though I may have just gotten lucky.
So if you find yourself needing inexpensive, easy to setup and transport, big and soft modifiers for your hotshoe flashes… definitely give something like this some consideration.
If you’d like to pick a set up, please support this blog, and check it out on Amazon with this link: PBL 42″ Umbrella Softboxes. Visit the Support the Blog page for more information on how your support helps keep this blog going.