DIY Softbox From an Umbrella




As a devout reader of David Hobby's wonderful blog "Strobist" I have a great debt to pay to the online photo community for teaching me much of what I know about photography and in particular... lighting. This is my humble attempt at giving something back.

So this buddy of mine has a really cool 26" softbox (Wescott Apollo) that is unique in that it has an internal umbrella shaft and can be used with an ordinary lightstand and speedlight, without any additional hardware. So these softboxes are great, except they cost $140 USD so I set out to make something similar for $23 and it works like a champ! I also wanted something that looked at least sort-of professional, was collapsable and fully portable.

What you will need:

1 45" Westcott silvered on the inside, black on the outside umbrella (needs 8 internal ribs and MUST be a single fold design, ie. NOT a compact umbrella)
4" of 16ga wire
1yd translucent fabric

wire cutters
needle or sewing machine
tape measure

These two photos show the starting umbrella and what the inside will look like with a strobe in place


Step 1: Remove the Fabric From the Frame

So your umbrella needs to have 8 "legs", and you need to carefully cut the threads on EVERY OTHER leg, that hold it to the fabric. The goal is to then pivot the 4 (now) free-floating legs to be paired with each of the adjacent 4 still attached legs.

After you cut the outer threads attached to the tips of the metal supports, you will need to re-glue the tips back on to prevent them from poking through the outer fabric.

Step 2: Tape the Free Floating Legs to the Still Attached Ones

Just use a couple inches of gaffers tape for this.

Now you should have an umbrella with four doubled legs

Step 3: Mark and Cut the Internal Braces

The reason for this step is that you need to shorten the internal bracing, in order to re-use the original locking mechanism that holds the umbrella open. Recall that we are going to be using this in a 3/4 open position, compared to the original umbrella, and we need to adjust the internal bracing length. This is probably the hardest step in the whole process (in particular the drilling of the new holes).

Position the center slider about 5 inches below the position where it normally rests, tape it in place. Now use thread or string to tie the opposite corners together, while slightly bowing the umbrella legs. We will need to shorten the internal braces, so measure the length that they will have to be cut to. On this umbrella for a 28" x 28" softbox, my leg braces needed to be about 10-10.5 inches.

Now cut the wire that holds the internal braces to the center slider.

Shorten the internal braces by cutting them with a wire cutter, flattening the ends with pliers, then re-drilling the tiny hole in the tips (to replicate the original hole).

Step 4: Reattach the Center Supports With Wire

Re-thread the center supports with wire, twist with pliers to finish.

Step 5: Gather Additional Fabric in the Umbrella Shell

Now re-attach the string/threads that hold the softbox in a square shape and the proper dimensions. Here I would encourage you to tie it slightly undersize (because there is a lot of stretch in the seam and fabric. So for a 28" finished softbox, tie it in a 26" x 26" square.

Now gather the extra fabric between the 4 legs. Three of them will need to have this extra flap sewn shut (leaving the gather on the inside). This pretty much requires some hand sewing, because its impossible to get a sewing machine inside the umbrella. If you want an easier time sewing, this can easily be done if you decide you don't mind having the gathers/seams on the outside of the finished softbox.

Only sew 3 or the 4 gathers. The 4th is where the lightstand will go, so you need to cut and hem about a 12" slit in one side.

Also measure about 4" in from the 4 points of the umbrella where the ribs where removed, and trim off this extra "point" of fabric, making a clean square profile to the lip of the box.

Step 6: Cut the Shaft Down

Now the center shaft needs to be carefully cut down, so as not to protrude through the center of the face of the softbox. My center shaft was aluminium and if you have a pipe cutter, use it! I didn't so I used wire cutters to slowly crimp/cut the shaft while rotating it. This produced a fairly smooth, non-jagged end of the shaft. It took about 30-40 gentle crimps with the wire cutters, evenly distributed around the circumfrence of the shaft.

Step 7: Sew the Edges of the Flap Shut

Use a strip of the leftover exterior fabric to splice the ends of the access flaps together. Make sure you make that edge dimension 28" overall when you do it.

Step 8: Cut and Attach the Face Fabric

I bought some fabric at Joann for $2.99/yd and cut a 29"x29" square out of it. Use pins or staples to attach it to the edge of the softbox temporarily.

Now go back and sew the whole thing together around the perimeter.

Step 9: Done!

This finished softbox works best with the speedlight pointed into the back of it (produces most even illumination). If you stop down to a really low aperture, you can see the shadow of the lightstand/speedlight in the face of the softbox, but this is pretty minor.

Additionally you can point the head of your speedlight UP towards to top of the softbox to create assymetrical lighting similar to what you would get out of a striplight.

Another variation is that you do not have to make this thing square either, if you want a rectangular softbox, you can easily modify these plans to do so.

In the end you have a collapsable softbox, that uses te original locking mechanism to hold it open, that is compatible with speedlights, and mounts on a standard lightstand. Total cost $23.




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    18 Discussions


    6 years ago on Introduction

    You can purchase different types of ripstop nylons from Seattle Fabrics.


    Great idea, I had actually done the same thing a while back and it served it's purpose well. One thing that I did notice about your setup is that you are very limited in the angle you can place the softbox at due to how it is mounted . The part that will tilt is inside the box. To remedy this would be a great addition to this technique. I have mounted strobes in the rear through a hole, mounted them externally to shoot into a hole in the diffusion fabric, etc. Thanks for sharing!

     Does anyone know where to get the fabric that is on the umbrella? I would rather get a few yards of it and use it to build from scratch.



    9 years ago on Step 9

    Very nice! Looks like some serious sewing, but I bet some fabric tape would do the trick for those of us not too good at sewing...

    no unlessyou have stuff behind your softbox that can reflect it back onto the mimage. if you have a white diffusion, that should be good enough. just make sure the reflective material is is not so transparent that the purple can be seen


    10 years ago on Introduction

    Cool idea, but I have a couple suggestions to make it even better, and more like a standard softbox, and not really add about a buck or two to the cost for some extra fabric . First turn the light around so it is shooting outward and move it back a little deeper into the umbrella, the reflectivity of the lining will serve to help direct any stray light caused by my next suggestion outward. Secondly, add a second panel of the translucent fabric about 1" - 2" inside from the outer sheet (this is typical in a softbox.) This will spread the light and make it so the outer panel won't have a hotspot in the middle from turning the light around. You should wind up with better output with the flash facing forward.

    2 replies

    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    Great feedback! The reason I kept the light facing backwards was to increase the uniformity of the lightsource (from the small strobe head) but had I built the face of it with a double layer of fabric, it would have mitigated this as well. I didn't think of the double layer idea... it would eat some light, but would probably help the quality of the light.


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    Yeah, it will eat a little light, but probably less than is lost by having it reflect off the back for primary lighting. It definately gives you very nice quality light to have the double fabric. White rip-stop nylon works really well.


    10 years ago on Introduction

    excuse me if I am being negative but here is a thought. Why bother with the entire mod, couldn't you just have placed the diffusion screen on the umbrella without having to do all of the work of shortening, wiring, sewing and making the box rectangular? I was thinking of using this as a regular reflective umbrella but putting a diffusion screen on the outside. Wouldn't that accomplish what you have hear, except the catch lights would be circular rather than square? Great mod with excellent level of detail.

    1 reply

    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    That is a great idea, but one of my goals was to get a square reflection and hence a square light source. You could easily built an octabank by doing exactly what you describe, with much less effort, but then you are back to the same round/spoked reflections.


    10 years ago on Introduction

    I did this a while ago, and it's an idea that works. The one I have now is starting to peel a bit these days, so perhaps it's time for a new one. Not a bad investment for a cheap brolly and a can of silver paint though - I made this current one in 1964...

    2 replies

    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    You made the last one in 1964.. which means you will have a few good old-time instructables in your pockets to share with us youngsters :-P


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    Well - I shudder to think of the home-made photography gear I've thrown out over the years in house moves - wish I had some of it back just for old times sake. Everything from spotlights and floodlights (anyone remember photofloods?) to coffee-tin enlargers and 'electronic' (well, they had knobs on!) darkroom exposure meters (several of each). Flash-guns (bulb!!) from cake-times and folding colanders. In photography, as in most other things, I've rarely bought anything I thought I could make. And even the failures always taught something. Thing is, most were answers to problems since solved by technology. Like wire close-up frames for a hand-focused cameras - long before autofocus, when even a decent manual SLR was beyond the dreams of avarice. Dimmers and cross-faders for slide projectors - but who uses projectors these days? Even - with a group of others, years ago - a 5x4 studio camera, later sold for charity. I'll have to think about how much is still applicable in digital days - that people in here haven't already thought of (and they seem to have thought of pretty much everything!). Problem is, these days, I have trouble remembering what I had for breakfast! My most recent idea is for a bank of electronic flash, made up from cheap disposable cameras - but I'm going to have to find someone who knows more about modern electronics than I do...


    10 years ago on Introduction

    Excellent mod! I mainly use my two Westcott collapsible white shoot-thru umbrellas and my silver just sits in the corner. I've been considering buying a softbox, but this mod might just work. Strobist fame in 5...4...3...2...1...