Umbrellas are the simplest, most inexpensive form of light modifier you can buy and that simplicity also makes them 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 with a light source bounced into them, create a big, light source and the bigger a light source is the softer the light falling on the subject will be.
(Right) Am Octobox produces a large, directional yet wraparound light source with even light spread. One classic lighting technique is using a white umbrella in “shoot-through” mode firing the flash directly though the fabric. Because umbrellas typically have 16-ribs, they are not as “octa,”so light quality is not the same and directionality is lost as well as light spilling out an umbrella’s open sides. Nevertheless in some applications, using an umbrella in shoot-through mode might be better thanit 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 monolight with 36×36-inch Octabox is placed at camera right and 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 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 power to match it. The light is soft and less directional as you can see by the difference in the 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.
If you’re interested in shooting portraits and how I use cameras, lenses and lighting in my in-home studio, please pick up a copy of “Studio Lighting Anywhere” which is available from Amazon.com with, as I write this, new copies selling for$17.50 (plus shipping,) just a few bucks more than used ($15.34,) both cheaper than the Prime price.