Umbrellas for Off Camera Lighting: Shoot Through and Reflective

I received an open question recently on a discussion board from a member of the Off-Camera Lighting Group I run, wondering if a kit with light stand and umbrella would work for taking a self-portrait of himself and partner for Christmas.

In the interest of spreading information, here’s what I wrote in reply:

Good questions, and I’m glad you’re comfortable in asking them here. This fits right in, too, with this month’s topic of Creative Portraits & Headshots.

Not sure which kit you’re talking about (if there was a link it isn’t showing up), but it sounds like it at least has has a light stand and an umbrella.

Both can be very helpful in getting the new Christmas image done. If the kit also has an Umbrella Adapter then you can more easily attach both the flash and the umbrella to the stand. Umbrella adapters vary widely in style and construction, and the one linked to here is what I use most. Strong, lightweight, dependable and easier to use than many others.

There are a few different kind of Umbrellas for Photo Shoots and they simply modify the light to be more diffused and not as harsh as using an off camera flash alone. Softer shadows result both on the subject and on the background. A harshly defined shadow–though sometimes desirable for effect–is usually an indication the photographer has not learned about off-camera flash and modifying their light.

As a starting point, here are two basic umbrellas:

Shoot Through Umbrella – Simply a white satin umbrella and can be used as:
1. shoot-through – flash pointing into the umbrella with the top of the umbrella pointed generally at the subject) which creates a softer diffused light and a more round catchlight, or specular, in the subject’s eyes
2. somewhat reflective – flash pointing into the umbrella and the whole affair pointed away from the subject so the light bounces off the inside of the umbrella and back at the subject creating a nice soft diffused light. You can lose a lot of light this way too, as much of it goes through the fabric.

Convertible Umbrella – same as above, pretty much, though with a removable black cover that makes reflective shooting more effective, as more of the light bounces and is not transmitted through the white satin fabric. Has the advantage of also being used as a shoot-through when needed by removing the cover, or partially removing to get more of a spill effect with your light. This particular one also has the advantage of double folding to only 13″ long when collapsed; nice for running around and shooting.

Here’s a great stand for the above umbrellas and adapter, in that it double folds for a more compact unit when transporting: Manfrotto 5001B 74″ Stand. I have several of them, and though lightweight, are very serviceable for home and light location use. They’re all I used for years on the road, though now I have a large studio have invested in heavier, taller, stands.

Softboxes are another great thing for diffusing your off-camera flash, and I’ll get into writing more about them another time.

You can also find a lot of the above and more, along with other versions and manufacturers, at Midwest Photo Exchange in Columbus, Ohio, a very friendly place for Strobists and the like.


disclaimer: some of the above links lead to products available through Amazon, and while any purchases made through the links do not cost you any more, they do help 21c Studio to be able to continue presenting low-cost workshops and seminars