Shoot Through Umbrella vs. Softbox

A great question was raised today on OSP about choosing a modifier. Lauren (Top 100 WPJA photographer! Congrats!) was asking about the difference between brolly box modifiers and softboxes. I thought I would take a minute to show the difference between the two and why one might be chosen over another in certain shooting situations.

I will talk about them with the idea that you would be shooting with one of these modifiers indoors because that is where you really see the difference between modifiers. You can’t feather light off the sky! Also note that my “science” is Myth Busters science. It’s pretty close and has been based on “pretty good” observations from real world shooting. If someone wants to chime in with math equations knock yourself out!

Let’s look at the brolly box first. This type of modifier is basically a shoot through umbrella with a cover on the back to keep light from reflecting out of it.

Brolly box vs. softbox A brolly box or shoot through umbrella produces very soft light and spreads it throughout the environment you are shooting in. They are great for producing soft light on your subjects. They are also a better option for shooting groups of 4 or more people since they deliver light over a lager area. If your shoot through umbrella or brolly box is in between you and your subject you have to watch out for flare coming into your lens. It’s a large bright light source that can shoot right back into your lens.

The next image is a medium sized softbox. About 2×3 feet. It is the discontinued Westcott Apollo RL3.

softbox vs. brolly box

This medium sized softbox is a great modifier for shooting 1 to 2 people. It will cover about 3/4’s of the body and you’ll see a bit of light falling off around the thigh to shin area if you are shooting a full length portrait. Shooting more than 2 people next to each other with this modifier isn’t a good idea. You would have to back it off so far that you lose the quality of light you are looking to achieve by using a softbox in the first place.

A softbox produces a beautiful diffused light but is more directional in nature. It is the modifier I choose if I am wanting to keep light on the subject but control the amount of light falling into the environment I’m shooting in. A softbox is much easier to feather light onto or off of a subject or area of environment.

Remember that the differences between these two modifers does not make one better than the other. They are just different and you use one over the other based on which one is going to modify light for the specific purpose of the photography you are trying to create. If I wanted to add a large soft light on a subject as well as use that light source to fill the room I’m shooting in, I would choose the shoot through / brollly box option. If I need to keep light falling on the subject more than the environment I would choose the softbox. If I am shooting a large group of people and need that light to cover a large area so everyone is evenly lit, I go to the brolly. The softbox above is not the size you need to shoot 4 or more people.

It is very difficult to pick one over the other. If I had to pick just one, I would start with a softbox because they require more of an investment to purchase one. A 60″ shoot through umbrella like the one pictured above can be had for $40 or so bucks so it is easy to add that to your bag of tricks later.

If you have any other questions about these two modifiers, just drop ’em in the comment box!

Cheers, Zack

PS – Should go without saying… Brollys give you round catch lights in the eyes. Softboxes give you square catch lights. Always watch the catch lights in photos and it will give you a hint as to what type of modifier was used.


  • Phil said on March 30, 2008

    Neat demo Z. I need to get myself a softbox someday!

  • Scott Piner said on March 30, 2008

    Great write-up! I find myself in Gap & Gap Kids stores standing about 2 feet away from the wall staring at the gallery wrap images. The conversation usually goes like this:

    Store help: ‘Can I help you?’

    Me: ‘Not really. I’m just trying to see how this person was lit.’

  • kurt said on March 30, 2008

    This is awesome! I hope to see more of these types of posts. It really helps clarify things, and the diagrams are stellar in making it all sink in.

    I’ve had “Westcott Apollo” saved as an ebay search and I get an e-mail alerting me each time a new one pops up. So far, the last RL3 that popped up was the one you snagged. All that really ever shows up is the micro which is garbo, and an occasional 28″. The 28″ always sell for enough to warrant just buying a brand new one.

  • kurt said on March 30, 2008

    Oh yeah…I love looking at the posters in stores like Gap. That’s always fun.

  • Damon said on March 30, 2008

    Slick. Nice demo shots, Zack.

  • zack said on March 30, 2008

    Target has some clean in-store marketing photography as well.


  • Rajat said on March 30, 2008

    this is awesome!

    in the line above the brolly-box diagram you mentioned that it is “a shoot-through umbrella with a cover on the back to keep light from reflecting out of it”

    where is the cover on the back in the diagram?

  • zack said on March 31, 2008

    Hi Ragat,
    The product in the photo above is just a 60″ shoot through umbrella. Click the “brolly box” link at the top of the post to see a photo with the cover on it.

    Westcott makes a similar product called the Halo. You can see it here…


  • John&Lauren said on April 2, 2008

    Awesome post! Thanks for posting it on OSP too cuz that’s how I found this.

    Is there a big difference between a 45″ and a 60″ umbrella? I want to get the 28″ softbox but it’s only available in the package with a 45″ umbrella. My only concern is that the 45″ will be too small and almost useless.

  • zack said on April 2, 2008

    Hi John&Lauren,
    You can get the 28″ alone here…

    There isn’t a MASSIVE difference between the 45 and 60. The 60 is larger thus giving you a softer light. If I had to choose between the 2, I’ll take the 60 any day.


  • Bob Bill said on May 12, 2008

    I like the combination- a Photek softlighter 2 umbrella that is shoot through, or white reflector with black back on, or with the black back and installation of the diffuser becomes a circular,bounced soft box with gold (or silver) reflectors wonderful to be inserted to add warmth. If needed, when using the diffuser, spill can be controlled with bookends or flags. Nice 10 sided circular catchlights. With removable half of shaft off, can position within a foot or so of subject in that mode. 52 inches of sweet, soft, diffused, warmed light inches from subject.

  • Hamish said on May 13, 2008

    Thanks for being so generous with your knowledge…it is inspiring! This is just the first page I have read and can’t wait for more! Cheers!

  • Michael Drager said on May 27, 2008

    I need to get my set up resolved for shooting groups at weddings. Would you reccommend a Q flash and a Brolly type set up?

    Hope your visit with your family goes well and gives great memories.

  • Jim Stone said on May 29, 2008

    Zack – love the ideas they really help as I’m trying to set up lighting without spending a $M. I recently tested my Adorama 2 piece umbrella (removable black/reflective cover)over white shoot through. I took the reflective cover and mounted it on the brolly support pole with the reflector facing into the white umbrella. I then mounted my strobe inside facing the reflector and ended up with a very nice soft-box effect with no hot-spots.

  • zack said on May 29, 2008

    Awesome mod Jim! Good job. I’ll have to try that!


  • Ronnell said on June 8, 2008

    Fantastic info! Thanks for taking the time to illustrate this.

  • Gustavo Pellizzon said on July 6, 2008

    Good post! I like your blog and web site. I got the link on Strobist. Congratulations!

  • Levijwebb said on July 15, 2008

    Cheers for sharing your knowledge and for the great site in general, have learnt a lot from your Myth busters approach. Keep up the great work.

  • John Falkenstine said on September 13, 2008

    Do these brolly boxes and softboxes as shown in your illustration also include the internal reflectors in front of the flash head, especially for the square softbox?

  • Dan said on November 4, 2008

    I like it and the background and colors make it easy to read\

  • mark said on December 8, 2008

    Id love to see a shoot-thru vs. reflective umbrella comparison.

  • Still need a name said on January 31, 2009

    This is super amazingly useful. I’ve never tried shoot-through, umbrellas or box in anyway and you made me cross the small distance that was seperating me from studio stuff. Here I am now at my first studio attempt today with 3 strobes, 2 umbrellas and a softbox and hell this is fun.

  • jjp said on March 12, 2009

    i keep seeing this subject discussed in various places, but never as well, nor as well illustrated, as this.

  • Gerald said on April 16, 2009

    There is a thing called umbrella softbox. It looks like the brolly box by reversed in the black and white areas. You can have a look at it here…

    This is really the budget softbox, at only SGD$33/-

  • cherrie said on May 8, 2009

    if you were just setting up a studio, and had money to spend on 2 softboxes, and you shoot toddlers whith their parents, what would you choose? Thanks also for sharing so much info with us all… really inspires me, and keeps me thinking….

  • shawn said on May 13, 2009

    Im looking to light stainless steel items from 6′ to 16′ long. What would you suggest? Umbrella?

    Im looking at buying a whole studio kit for photographing our huge products.

    Also i have some small items under 3′ that i set up a light box for. What would be the best lighting for that? Softbox?

  • james said on September 26, 2009

    I think this site is great,this is interesting but I wondered about softbox vs umbrella box,,,the light being pushed through 2 lots diffuser,,,whats the difference,,,cheers,,,keep on posting more info for portraiture,,how about low-mid key classic portraits

  • DJ Paine said on January 12, 2010

    i love how practical you are zack. some one asks a question about what one is better and you produce two straight forward factual images to show them. great work.

  • Edward Songco said on January 17, 2010

    Hi Zack I was wondering what is the model of your 50 inch softbox? thanks lots!!!

  • Edward Songco said on January 17, 2010

  • zack said on January 17, 2010

    That’s the one!

  • jerry eisner said on January 18, 2010

    nice job on your tutorial

  • TonyS said on January 23, 2010

    Am I missing something, this is a great write up about shoot though v softbox. However not a brolly box, the “box” portion is missing on brolly – the back prevents those hot spots shown and puts more light forward. It is a different modifier.

  • Katie said on June 2, 2010

    2 Quick questions about size benefits/setbacks of shoot through umbrellas.
    1) How small of an umbrella can you use to evenly/smoothly shoot a group of say roughly 10 people? I plan on using two speedlights, most likely one on either side of the group.
    2) How large is too large to use with a speedlight? At what point does the umbrella overpower the flash.


  • zack said on June 2, 2010

    Katie –

    1) You can easily cover 10 people with a single 60″ umbrella. Plan on using 1/2 to full power and try to get around 5.6 on the group. Fly the umbrella directly over your head when you are shooting in the center of the group and you’ll be fine.

    2) There really isn’t “too” large of a size. I mean, once you get to 6ft or more in size then you probably are getting too large of an umbrella for a speedlite. Otherwise, your standard 60″ will be fine.


  • Alex said on June 9, 2010

    Zack, your works are amazing. Can you explain? When we using umbrella shoot through we have rounded modifier, and so if we put it near model we will see that our 60″ will be smaller, cause its front part will be the nearest point from subject to light source and it will be hottest point? is it right? so it means that if i want a big lightsource near the model i need soft boxes only?

    PS sorry for my english…

  • David said on July 1, 2010

    Hello Zack,
    i have a question to this. Does this mean that with a softbox I can better control the background.
    I just tried several approaches with the umbrella and I never get the background darkened. I put the umbrella very near to subject, hollywood style and took the subject 2 meters away from the backround. closed and darkened the windows. the umbrella is also a small 32″.
    Do you think it would be easier to have a dark background with the softbox?
    David from Madrid, Spain

  • bill taylor said on July 7, 2010

    i see the shaft in the top photo has it really choked down. any reason for that?

    great info by the way.

    bill in belize

  • Suzanne Young said on October 4, 2010

    I very often find exactly what info I’m looking for right here. Thanks so much Zack. For your generous spirit in sharing what you know, without the insecurity of being out-done! Your teaching is unfluffy & down-to-earth and only embellished with valuable insights. I’m very greatful. As an un-schooled photographer, every assignment I do, I double check with what Zack says!

  • Josh Perkins said on November 9, 2010

    Super helpful. Thanks Zack!

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