I have a confession to make: ever since getting involved in the whole strobist world, I’ve been on the hunt for the perfect light modifier. It has lead me down paths to experiment with beauty dishes, softboxes, ring flashes, umbrellas and octabanks. While every light modifier is very capable of doing their own thing very well, I’ve found that umbrellas are the most versatile. And because of this fact, I own four of them.
Umbrellas are great! They give beautiful catchlights in the eyes, can bring out lots of detail in a subject, have a beautiful and inefficient light spread that isn’t really directional but can be made so, and they’re super portable.
And more so than any other light modifier, I believe umbrellas rule them all.
They Can Give Incredibly Soft Light
Umbrellas come in all shapes and sizes: but some of the most popular offerings are very large. The standard rule of lighting is that the larger the light source is in relation to your subject then the softer the light will be. While some folks go for umbrellas ranging in the 40 inch range, it isn’t uncommon to see them in the six to seven foot range because of how soft the light can be. Indeed, many pros love the look of large umbrellas because of how much they tend to spread the light out but also give some sort of control.
When light modifiers become this large, it’s most common to see umbrellas over any other light modifier.
Umbrellas Can Act as a Softbox (Sort of)
An umbrella can be modified to act like a softbox in one of two different ways. If you have a convertible or shoot-through umbrella, you can set it up so that the light from the inside of the umbrella gets diffused by the translucent part. When combined with adjusting your flash to its widest zoom setting, it can give off the look that a softbox does–for the most part. The only issue is that if you’re shooting with windows or glass, then you’ll probably see the umbrella arms.
The other method is to take a diffusion sock and put it around the open end of the umbrella. Then aim the light inside of the umbrella (an opaque surface needs to be used) and when the light travels forward it will be further diffused by the diffusion sock.
Typically, a softbox has a diffusion panel and a diffusion sock to prevent hot spots, but in this case an umbrella can work well enough.
They Can Diffuse Natural Light
Want to work with natural light in the middle of the day without any sort of shadows. Add either a translucent reflector or a shoot through umbrella. The sheer fabric from the umbrella will diffuse the sun’s harsh light and turn it into soft, beautiful light. But the extra cool thing about a shoot through umbrella is that it can make for a really, really cool prop to play with.
People normally carry umbrellas to begin with in order to protect them from the sun’s rays being too harsh on their skin–or at least they do in the Southern part of the United States. In that case though, they can add an extra element to the image and for your portrait subject to be creative with.
More so than any other light modifier, they come in so many different sizes and colors. White, silver, translucent, small, big, medium, parabolic: you name it and an umbrella can do it. To boot, umbrellas are very portable–much more so than beauty dishes and some softboxes.