Pro to pro workshop: Using umbrellas
Umbrellas aren’t just for rainy days!
OK, you've read up about different light sources, and you’ve decided that
using a large light source will improve your pictures. But now, after you’ve decided
to use a broad light source, you are faced with a decision between
various types of umbrellas, bank lights, or variations on that theme.
What’s the diff? Well, there
is a “diff”, the question really is, which type of large light
source should you choose for which type of subject?
Umbrellas vs. bank lights
Umbrellas and bank lights are distinctly different types of lights so
I have divided this magnum opus into two parts; umbrellas (this article) and
bank lights (see links at right). But, because both represent broad light sources, there
are some similarities and differences that I will point out now.
has no direct point source light hitting the subject because the light
source is aimed away from the subject towards the umbrella’s surface. Conversely, a bank light is a point source aimed directly at
the subject after it has traveled through the front surface of the bank
that acts as a diffuser. While both can be considered broad sources, and
therefore create the same sized small shadows, the bank light creates shadows that are more distinct with sharper,
This feature (which is neither good nor bad) is a difference that is also
dependent upon the size of the room in which the light is being used.
When an umbrella is used in a small room, some of the light that is aimed
into the umbrella spills over the edges of the umbrella and hits the walls
and ceiling. This “secondary” light, bouncing off the walls
and ceilings, can actually fill in the shadows created by the umbrella’s
primary light and make the shadows more “open” (less dark)
than shadows created by a bank light.
The dark, opaque, sides of a bank
light contain this spill and, therefore, when used in small rooms don’t
spill and fill in the shadows they create. But, when used in large rooms,
with a high or dark ceiling, the spill off an umbrella’s edges has
less effect on the quality of the light; here, the differences between bank
lights and umbrellas become less noticeable.
Umbrellas are probably the fastest and least expensive way to turn a small
flash or continuous light into a broad source. With what I can
only describe as a pleasant and reassuring “foop” sound, they
can be opened and ready for a photo shoot in seconds, and packing them
away at the end of the shoot is just as fast.
Given umbrellas' low cost and
speed of set-up/break down, it is easy for you to assume that no other
broad source would ever be needed--but that is not the case.
Using All the Umbrella You Paid For
One common thing photographers do when first using an umbrella is pushing
the umbrella shaft too far into the mounting hole on the light source.
This results in the light’s “pattern” not covering the
entire surface of the umbrella. In effect, you are creating a smaller light
source than you’d get if the umbrella’s entire surface reflected
the light back towards the subject.
There are times when you might want
a smaller sized source than the whole surface of a big umbrella because
it creates larger shadows, but in general, why bother carry a 55-inch
umbrella if you are only going to use the central 24 inches of it?
you are using a continuous light source (or a flash unit with a modeling
lamp) aimed into your umbrella there is an easy way to see if your light
source is “filling” the umbrella. Look for a scalloped edge
shadow created by the umbrella that is cast on the ceiling (or a nearby
wall). If you don’t see that scalloped edged shadow on the ceiling,
chances are good your light source is not using the umbrella’s entire
surface. Look at photos 1, and 2 to better understand this point.
Q: Why carry a 46" umbrella if you are only using
the center 24 inches of it?
A: One reason: to get larger, more distinct shadows!
you don’t see this scalloped edge shadow on the ceiling you aren’t
filling the big umbrella you paid for with light. While it’s easiest
to see this with a continuous light source, if you practice you can see
it when firing a test flash. Hint: it helps to squint when trying this.
Because there is always the other side to every story, it pays to remember
that a smaller umbrella will give you larger shadows (when used at the
same distance as a larger umbrella) and sometimes a larger shadow will
result in more dramatic lighting.
So, even if you’re using a 46-inch
umbrella, remembering that the larger umbrella can create shadows like
a smaller sized one if you sink the umbrella shaft further into it’s
mounting hole is a trick worth remembering.
Getting It All Together: Join
part A to parts B and C using part D!
So, because you like the portability, economy and convenience of their
quick set-up/break down you’ve decided that umbrellas are for you.
You buy one and immediately discover that attaching your light to the
light stand and the umbrella to the light might require an adapter of
Although there are others, one pro-grade, bulletproof attachment
adapter is made by Bogen/Manfrotto.
This unit relies on a stud system to join
the pieces together. There is no need to worry about this though because
Bogen/Manfrotto kindly supplies you with the required stud as part of
the package. One point worth noting though is the Bogen/Manfrotto adapter
should be mounted on the light stand with the hole for the umbrella shaft
on top; otherwise you’ll be able to change the angle of the light
but not the angle of the umbrella.
The hole for the umbrella shaft must be on the upper half of the adapter
for it to work as designed!
Containing the Spill…Call the EPA!
One way to stop the light from spilling off the edge of an umbrella and
lowering the contrast your light creates is to use a lighting accessory
called a barn door. A barn door attaches to the edge of a light’s
reflector and limits the width of a light’s beam. Attaching barn
doors to your light can be difficult but, often, a product made by Bogen/Manfrotto
called the Multi-Clip
can do the job.
is made up of two metal spring clips that are held together (and pivot
on) a metal wire bent into the shape of a squared off “U”.
One of the clips is attached to your light’s reflector and the other
holds the barn door. If, like me, you use flash heads with round reflectors
you might bend the wings on one of the Multi-Clip’s clips to better
conform to your flash head’s reflectors. This little trick can be
done easily with a pair of regular pliers.
Bending the ears on one clip of the Bogen Multi-Clip allows it conform
better to a round reflector.
There are metal barn doors available but I have used pieces of mat board
for years with nary a visit from the photo purity police. I use black/white
ones (the white side always faces the light source) and, with a #1 X-acto
knife and a #11 blade, I can custom tailor a barn door to suit my needs
in seconds. Generally though, I use 6 by 8 inch rectangles that work well
with my flash head’s round reflectors.
The shape of the catchlight, which is the pro’s term for reflections
in shiny or wet subjects such as glassware, liquids, people’s eyes,
polished metal, etc., created by an umbrella, is one of its biggest downfalls.
The reflection of the umbrella, the back of the light source in its center,
and the ribs of the umbrella radiating from it make the catchlight look
like a spider!
Although this is great for a horror movie, it is not the
most flattering of things to appear in a shiny surface. Importantly though,
for general, non-reflective subjects, the reflection of the catchlight
is not an issue…. but…. if you are shooting wine bottles (or
close-ups of a model’s eyes), well, let’s just say the catchlight
shape is a subject worth reflecting upon!
combat this, some umbrella manufacturers have come up with translucent
covers that can be attached to the front of their umbrellas that effectively
hide the reflections of the ribs (the Photek
SoftlighterII is an example of this feature) while others have designed
their umbrellas so the ribs are hidden behind the umbrella’s inner
surface (the Photogenic
Eclipse is an example of this solution). While the Eclipse is an elegant
solution because it doesn’t inhibit the umbrella’s speed of
use and the SoftlighterII requires more effort and time to set-up neither
addresses the black blob in the center of the catchlight that is the rear
of your light source.
An arachnid-shaped catchlight in all its glory.|
In many ways umbrellas are the perfect broad source light; compact, portable,
fast, and easy to use. But, if you work in small areas with light colored
walls or shoot highly reflective subjects then you might want to consider
a bank light instead. I’ll cover them next.
You can bank on it!