How To Use Your Nikon SB-800 Flash With Softboxes,, Softliters, Umbrellas, etc. Wirelessly

by Atlanta, Georgia Portrait Photographer Julia Greer, Julia Greer Photography


What if you could have perfect studio lighting on location without the burden of lugging strobes with you? In fact, what if you could fit an entire four-light set-up in a small shoulder bag? Nikon's SB-800 flash makes all this possible and more.

It's true: you can use your SB-800 speedlight flash with a Softliter, softbox, etc., and getting results that rival Alien Bees. This article has everything you want to know about this, including why you'd use speedlights instead of bees, what exactly you need (including links to specific products), the difference between various light modifiers (e.g., how a Softliter compares to a large softbox), samples, and photos of the set-up so you can visualize exactly how it looks.

Sooo, why would I want to use an SB-800 instead of an Alien Bee?

If you walk into your typical camera shop and tell them you want to use a shoemount flash with a large softbox, you will probably have some know-it-all insist that it can't be done, that a flash isn't powerful enough, yadda yadda yadda. If a salesperson tells you that, no matter how convincing they sound, he or she is wrong.

The SB-800 is a powerful flash. It has a guide number of 125 at 35mm (ranging up to 184 at 105mm). That is MORE powerful than an Alien Bee 400. It's powerful enough that I have used it numerous times with my 50"x50" softbox. You cannot tell whether the light from the softbox was produced by a shoemount flash or a monolight.


You have virtually the same variety of light modifiers you have with monolights, as you've seen above. With my Nikon flashes, I routinely use large softboxes (in fact I use my Westcott Apollo softbox much more with my SB-800 than with my AB), umbrellas, a Softliter, grids, snoots, gels, etc.

Often those accessories are much less expensive than the equivalent for monolights. For instance, I "bought" a Rosco gel swatchbook for one penny from B&H, giving me every color gel of the rainbow, whereas I'd be out a lot more money buying gels for studio strobes. My Lumiquest snoot cost $20, as opposed to the much costlier snoot and accessories that Alien Bee sells.

Some other advantages of going with speedlight over monolights if you have a Nikon system:

1. More control over light output. Bees only go down to 1/32 power; Nikon SB-800 can be adjusted down to 1/128. This is important to me since I like the option of being able to open up to larger apertures than f8 in the studio. With my Nikon, I can even use f1.8 if I want to.

2. You have the option of a superb, AMAZINGLY smart TTL metering system, eliminating the need for a light meter or trial-and-error, for multiple Nikon speedlights. TTL has numerous advantages in and of itself, such as the fact that it adapts instantly to whatever light changes, camera setting changes, etc. -- no need to re-meter.

3. Lightness and portability. I love being able to throw several flashes into a bag and set up quickly and without having to plug in. If I'm indoors and need to move from room to room, it's no sweat to pick up lights and move them, since I'm not tied to an electric outlet. I can also do outdoor shoots without having to buy a costly and very heavy AB power pack.

These are just a few advantages of my Nikon flash system over my bees (I do have both). I've seen people name other "cons" that don't apply to Nikon SB-800s... for instance, even using my SB-800 with a large (50x50) softbox, I have extremely fast recycle time... I've never missed a shot, even firing rapidly in sequence.

Another great thing: you can use speedlights WITH monolights such as bees in a multi-light set-up. So if you have a bee or want to get one down the road, you can use your bee as key light and you'll have your SB-800 that you can use as fill or a background light (great for high key) or a hair light or whatever. I took this photo, for instance, on a little piece of cheapo tablecloth vinyl from Joann's, with an AB400 and my Softliter as key, and the SB-800 sitting on its little stand right behind the baby to brighten the background. It's trickier to try to hide a bee behind a baby... not to mention the cord you'd have to clone out later!

The Set-up: Attaching the SB-800 to a Softbox or Umbrella

I have used my SB-800 with four different softboxes: the Alien Bee large softbox, a smaller softbox specifically designed for shoemount flashes by a company called Morris (which I bought from B&H), and a teeny-tiny Lumiquest softbox (only 5"x7", but it does great in a pinch, such as if I'm taking casual snapshots for the family or friends and don't want to lug equipment), and (my personal favorite) a 50x50 Westcott Apollo, as well as a 48" Softliter. Here are details, with photos, of all of them:

Westcott Apollo Softbox and Photek Softliter

Both the
Westcott Apollo and the Softliter and based on an umbrella frame (that is, they open and close just like an umbrella). The inside is silver and it bounces back through a sheer cover, so that the light is beautifully soft.

This attachment will let you attach an umbrella or Softliter to your SB-800:

When you use this attachment with a Softliter, you can use the Softliter just the way you would with a bee, except there's no black power cord to hang down, so it looks like this (excuse the bad snapshot and messy living room!):

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Here's what it looks like up close:
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And here it is with the diffusion screen removed so you can see the "guts" and how it fits together (this is also how it would look on a standard bounce umbrella):

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It fits onto any standard light stand. Here's a sample using the SB-800 and the 50x50 Westcott Apollo, unretouched except for resizing and slight sharpening for web, so you can see how the light falls.

Westcott Apollo Details:
Price: $226.95 (pricy but worth it!)

Size: 50"x50" (they also have a 28"x28")
Connects to flash with adaptor described and linked above
Time to set up: a minute or two... it's as easy as opening an umbrella, putting the adaptor onto a light stand and the SB-800 and umbrella onto the adaptor, then hooking the diffusion layer around the umbrella spokes.
Pros: Diffuses the light beautifully... a very soft, natural-looking light. Very easy to set up. Square catchlights.
Cons: none that I can think of! other than perhaps its price. More than worth the price though.

Softliter Details:
Price: $74.95 for the 60", $59.95 for the 48", at B&H
Size: you can buy a 36", 46" or a 60" one
Connects to flash with adaptor described and linked above
Time to set up: a minute or two, similar to Westcott Apollo with the added step of hooking the diffusion panel over the front.
Pros: Diffuses the light beautifully... soft and natural-looking light. Very easy to set up.
Cons: Round catchlights (well, to me that's a con! tongue.gif )

Morris Softbox

If you want to use your SB-800 with a softbox, you'll need a speedring such as this Chimera version:

or this Morris softbox which includes the speedring:
(note that it is out of stock, but if you and enough people call them to order it, B&H will be more likely to restock it soon. And, yes, this Morris kit is actually cheaper than the Chimera shoe-mount speedring alone, even though it includes both a medium-sized softbox and the speedring you'll need... a very good reason to call B&H and bug them to get it back in stock!!)

Here's what the Morris softbox looks with a speedlight (this is actually on a boom and I was using it as a hair light; hence the weird angle... also, this happens to be my old SB-28 flash, since I was using my SB-800 as key light):

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Same thing, from the side, so you can see the bracket that comes with the Morris softbox:

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Here's a close-up (oops, I didn't velcro it all the way!):

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More info and "frequently asked questions" on this post:

Here's one of the first photos I took using the Morris softbox so it's not the greatest, but gives you an idea of how nicely it diffuses the light:

Details on the Morris softbox:

Price: $44.95 at B&H which includes the speedring (this is important!)
Size: 15"x18"
Connects to flash with speedring which is included. I use it either on a light stand or holding it up off camera (you could use a tripod or probably use it on a bracket, although I haven't tried that).
Time to set up: less than 15 seconds... extremely easy to set up. Also folds down easily like an umbrella.
Pros: Fantastic for using with ambient light as fill. Great catchlights. Extremely quick to set up and take down, and very small when folded down. Extremely light; very easy to pick up, hold, move around, etc. on location, so it's ideal for chasing toddlers or other moving targets. The biggest "pro" for me was that it comes with a speedring so that I could use it with my SB-800 flash without having to buy anything else.
Cons: I found that in a completely dark room or studio setting, the shadows are a bit too harsh, especially for groups of people vs. individuals. So, if this is the only light source, it's best to use when there is some type of available light.

Alien Bee large softbox

Until I bought my Westcott Apollo, I preferred using my Alien Bee large (32"x40") softbox to the other light modifiers mentioned. The light is softer than with the Morris softbox (since it's so much bigger), and I like the rectangular catchlights that you can't get with a Softliter. Here's one of the first photos I took using my SB-800 with a large softbox (this was my first time using it, and I realized afterward my light was too low and too far away, but it gives you an idea):

Large Alien Bee Softbox Details:
Price: $109.95
Size: 32"x40"
Connects to flash with a speedring that is designed for camera flashes -- this must be purchased separately (or bought with the Morris softbox which includes the right kind of speedring).
Time to set up: Took me 5 minutes the first time but I estimate it will normally take 2-3 minutes to set up at most.
Pros: Large size produces wonderful, soft light (especially when used with the internal diffusion panel/baffle attached). Perfect for studio. Comes with a speedring that will fit Alien Bee strobes (this won't matter if you have no plans to buy bees, but I do, so this will save me from having to buy an Alien Bee speedring down the road). Cons: Large and bulky -- fine for studio work but slightly more of a pain on location. Does not come with a speedring that will work with your speedlight flash.

Since the SB-800's flash capacity is between that of an Alien Bee 400 and AB 800, the SB-800 + large softbox combination is a fantastic alternative to an AB + softbox, since my camera will do the metering for me and adjust automatically (no need to buy a Sekonic meter!), and it's battery-operated (no cords!) and it's controlled wirelessly by the D70 (no expensive radio trigger system!). I did buy an extra set of rechargeable batteries in case I go dead during a shoot, but I haven't needed to change mid-shoot yet.

Lumiquest Softbox

A cheap but decent alternative to the larger softboxes is the Lumiquest softbox. I love the effect of the Lumiquest when bounced off the ceiling... it's a very natural-looking light. I have yet to take a photo using my SB-800 and have it look like it's obviously flash. Here's one of the first shots I took with my Lumiquest, with the SB-800 sitting on a table at about a 45-degree angle to the subject, aimed at the ceiling... it cast a very attractive light in this otherwise completely dark room, and the catchlights aren't dead-center the way they would be with on-camera flash.

Lumiquest Details:
Price: $26.49 at B&H
Size: 5"x7"
Connects to flash with velcro which is included (I didn't want to attach velcro to my SB-800, so I used a rubber band instead for the first couple of weeks. Then I realized I would be keeping my SB-800 forever (ha!), and went ahead and put the velcro on)
Time to set up: about 3 seconds... just stick it onto the flash and you're ready to go.
Pros: Diffuses the light MUCH better than an Omnibounce. Collapses down to be completely flat, so can be stuffed very easily into a camera bag or any other bag. Very easy to set up. Can be used on-camera (with flash mounted to camera's hot shoe) if you want. Light is soft and appealing whether used straight on or bounced.
Cons: Difficult to get nice big catchlights with it, since it's so small, unless you have enough available light to give you catchlights.

Other Accessories:

I bought a cheapo light stand ($19.95 from B&H), thinking I would only use it with my SB-800 and one of the smaller of the softboxes, but I put my large Alien Bee softbox on it and it seems to work fine -- doesn't seem in danger of toppling over unless someone were to give it a hard shove. You could also use a tripod instead, but I like this because it's so light and quick to adjust:

Now that you know what to get and how to set up the equipment, here's how to set your D70 and SB-800 to operate wirelessly:

Using the SB-800 Wirelessly

You definitely want to get adept at using your SB-800 off camera... this is where it really shines.

Here's what the settings should be for using it off camera (no cords or adaptors needed... you're ready to shoot right out of the box):

Camera settings:
- On-camera flash in Commander mode (Selection #19 in CSM Menu for D70)
- on-camera flash popped up (don't worry, it won't contribute to exposure... it fires just enough to trigger the SB-800). On the D200, change the on-camera flash to manual, 1/128 power (the lowest). See below for other ways to control your off-camera speedlight(s).
- Metering mode can be set to whatever you want: Manual, Aperture priority, Shutter priority, or a Program mode

SB-800 settings:
- TTL (rather than M or A) (note: if you're outdoors and you have bright backlighting, you'll want TTL-BL instead... see epic novel at the end of this post)
- Remote mode (to select this mode, hold down the center "SEL" button for a few seconds; scroll to the Remote menu which is an icon with two squiggly lines; and select "Remote" rather than SU-4... then exit this menu by pressing the power button once)
- group A
- channel 3

Once you've got it set to that, you can have your SB-800 almost ANYWHERE in the vicinity, pop up your on-camera flash, and that baby will fire with perfectly-calculated exposure.

You may also use an additional SB-800 to control your off-camera SB-800(s). The advantage of this is that, in a multiple light set-up, each speedlight can fire at different power (up to three groups). Nikon now has a device called an SU-800 which controls off-camera SB-800's and SB-600's via infrared. You can read more about how it works here:

Ken Rockwell's Review of Nikon's SU-800

There are many other great resources for using your SB-800 or SB-600 wirelessly, including in multiple light set-ups. Here are some useful links below with more detail and sample photos:

Nikon's Speedlight Info Center
Ken Rockwell's Article on Using Nikon's Flash System Wirelessly
Dave Black's Article on Location Portrait Lighting with multiple SB-800's

Many More Resources

Using the SB-800 Outdoors when you need Fill Flash

When you're using fill flash (i.e., when the background is very bright and the subject would be underexposed without fill flash or blowing out the background), you need to use TTL-BL on the SB-800, not TTL. TTL-BL tells the camera and flash that you want to illuminate the subject to be balanced with the background. I use Aperture-priority mode, not Manual, though, when I do that, because the SB-800 is a smart flash that will calculate the light output for you automatically. If you're using a Sekonic meter and manual mode, you need to use manual flash anyway, not TTL. So, to summarize, EITHER use all manual settings on both your camera and SB-800 (i.e., M, not TTL or TTL-BL mode) and meter manually, OR just use Aperture Priority (or a program mode or shutter priority or whatever your preference is), set to TTL-BL (if using it as fill flash), and let your D70 and SB-800 do their thing. You'll be amazed at how perfectly they work.

Here's an example of how I used this approach for fill flash with my brother and his wife... since it was a very bright day, I had to use fill flash, or else the background would have been blown out, or the subjects would have been horribly underexposed. But instead of using on-camera fill flash, which would have been flat and given the subjects pinpoint catchlights, I used my SB-800 at camera left on a Morris softbox. You can see that the light has some depth to it:

In general, to get the most beautiful light from this or any other flash, you should use the flash off camera and hold it up higher, and/or use a larger diffuser on your flash such as a softbox. (An Omnibounce is most effective when you're bouncing your flash off a ceiling, which of course you don't have the option to do when you're outside. Or, you could bounce it sideways off a big piece of white foam core or a reflector.) Personally, I like to do all of the above. You get much more beautiful, rich, natural, full-of-depth, non-flash-looking fill light if you use the SB-800 off camera (as much as 45 degrees to the subject) with a softbox.

Can I Use an SB-600 To Do This Instead?

Absolutely! The SB-600 is not quite as powerful as the SB-800, and I haven't tried it on a large softbox, but most of what I've said above applies to the SB-600 as well (you have to set it to group A, channel 3, etc.). Even if you have an SB-800, you might get a hankering (hankering?! yup, I'm in the South, all right laugh.gif) to try multiple light set-ups... since you don't need as much flash power for fill and accent lights, SB-600s are perfect for a multiple flash set-up.

Can I Do This if I'm Use Canon instead of Nikon?

Absolutely! From what I understand, you will need to get something called an ST-E2 Transmitter. I found a Canon user who has written a terrific FAQ on how to set up a Canon 580 or 550EX wirelessly in the same way. He also explains "master"/"slave" terminology, channels and groups (this is when you're using more than one flash and want to set lighting ratios -- I'm only just now experimenting with this and it is VERY cool), why your shutter speed shows as 1/60 in Aperture Priority mode, and lots of other cool stuff. Definitely worth a read:

TroyB's Canon Wireless Flash FAQ

This may be a lot to digest, but Nikon makes it all easy... and this is just the tip of the iceberg as to what Nikon's Creative Lighting System is capable of. Be sure to post your results on ILP and ask questions of your fellow ILPers who are using this set-up as well (unfortunately, I no longer have time to respond to emails asking questions about your set-up, so I ask that you post your questions on ILP rather than emailing me directly). Happy experimenting!

This article originally appeared as a post on (

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