Pro to pro workshop: Using umbrellas

© Steve Sint 2003

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.

An umbrella 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, harder edges.

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.

Umbrella Basics
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?

If 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!

If 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 some sort.

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.
BA Multi-Clip 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.

Arachnid Catchlights
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!

An arachnid-shaped catchlight in all its glory.
To 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.

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!

Printable Version
In Steve's Gadget Bag: Bogen-Manfrotto Swivel Umbrella Adapter Bogen-Manfrotto Multiclip Photek Softlighter II Shop Relevant Items: Umbrellas Light support grip and accessories Light stands Studio light kits Related Articles: Put it in a tent Shoot a smile with your umbrella Using bank lights
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