Umbrellas are the simplest and most inexpensive form of light modifier that you can buy and that simple fact also makes them the most popular. Photographic umbrellas look and act like the same kind of umbrellas that keep “raindrops from falling on your head,” except in a studio lighting situation they’re reflective and have a light source bounced into them, creating a big, soft light source that’s aimed at the subject. The bigger a light source is the softer the light falling on the subject will be.
(Right) The Octobox produces a large, directional yet wraparound light source with even light spread. One classic lighting technique is to use a white umbrella in “shoot-through” mode and fire the flash directly though the fabric. Because umbrellas typically have 16-ribs, they are not as “octa” as an Octobox, so light quality is not the same and directionality is lost as well as light spills out the umbrella’s open sides. Nevertheless in some applications, using an umbrella in shoot-through mode might be better than using it in a traditional orientation. The upside is that the umbrella used in this example is a 33-inch translucent umbrella that costs less than ten bucks! Here is the lighting set-up used for this comparison test. The main light is at camera right.
A Flashpoint DG600 monolight with 36×36-inch Flashpoint Octabox is placed at camera right while I used a 32-inch 5-in-1 reflector for fill at left. As you can see from this gently retouched portrait, the light is directional and slightly broad. Camera is a Canon EOS 5D and EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens (at 135mm) and an exposure of 1/125 sec at f/10 and ISO 100.
Here is the same lighting set-up with the monolight in the same location and 5-in-1 reflector at camera left. Exposure for this portrait was 1/125 sec at f/10 and ISO 100 and is identical to the Octabox shot because I increased the DG600’s power to match it. As you can see the light is soft and less directional as you can see by the difference in the additional light falling on the background. Although both images were lightly retouched, less retouching was required on this shot because of the softness of the light produced using a shoot-through umbrella.
For the photographer on a budget, an inexpensive umbrella used in shoot-through mode is an affordable way to create a lightbank look without the cost of a lightbank or a speed ring. One of the most important things to remember that in my studio, there is no “perfect” way to do anything. Portrait lighting is always changing as new tools are introduced and new styles make our clients demand a certain look.
To learn more about studio lighting techniques, please pick up a copy of my book, “Studio Lighting Anywhere” which is available from your favorite book or camera stores as well as including Amazon.com.