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Get the most of your umbrella

Why should you invest in an umbrella?

Shaping light, diffusing it, reducing shadows, etc. are related to photography lighting. The lighting gear tend to be somewhat expensive. However as a startup, every amateur photographer should invest in one speedlite and one umbrella. Umbrellas cost as little as US$ 50 including the light stand and the flash adapter. 

The purpose of an umbrella is to soften the raw light coming out of your flash head, enlarging the source of light and bouncing it all over to provide a better quality of light and shadows. Why should every amateur photographer invest in umbrellas?

  1. Well because they are less expensive than studio strobes, softboxes, octoboxes, what have you.
  2. They do a great job of softening the light by enlarging and redistributing the directional light of the flash. 
  3. They are portable; they fold down and can easily be put anywhere. I put mine, it;s stand, and adapter in my tripod leather case for that matter.
  4. It takes 10 seconds to open, setup and mount a flash on.

When buying and umbrella make sure you buy the biggest in diameter that your space can accommodate and It is also important to make sure that you get an umbrella with a removable cover so that you can use it as both a reflective umbrella or as a shoot-through.

Things you need to know about size and distance

I am assuming you know the basics of lighting in photography, and for artificial lights, the same applies where the softness of light is determined by the size of the light source relative to the distance of your subject.

To illustrate this further, a 150 cm umbrella at 1.5 meters away from your subject will have softer light than a 75 cm umbrella at the same distance so assuming the same distance from your subject, the bigger the light source the softer the light. Consequently if you move the 150 cm umbrella farther away to 3 meters, it will have about the same softness and quality as the 75 cm umbrella one at 1.5 meters away.

We can conclude that if you move you umbrella back you will make the light sharper. 

Now that you got an umbrella, how to use it?

If you are shooting in reflecting mode i.e. the flash head targeted at the interior of the umbrella, the distance from your flash unit to the umbrella can play a huge role in the quality of light the umbrella produces. The closer the umbrella’s interior to the flash the less the light will cast on the full umbrella which means you are casting light using a smaller portion of that umbrella and thus creating a smaller light source.

Make a few test shots at a white wall with no subject. Evaluate the distribution of light so that you can make adjustments to maximize the light cast. Look for highlights on your subject skin and analyse the shadows. 

Our objective here is to soften the light and disperse it's beams it's beam pattern.

Another thing to test is to have the edges of your umbrella about as far from the subject as the diameter of the umbrella. In other words, a fool-proof technique is to place the light stand at equal distance. So if you have an umbrella of 75 cm in diameter, place the light stand at 75 cm or so from your subject. The rule states that closer than that the light will wrap around your subject creating a less flattering skin effect, and farther away than that and the shadows will have more contrast.  

Great! Now where shall I place the umbrella relative to the subject?

Well, that depends on what effect you want to create. Do you plan to create loop lighting, split lighting, Rembrandt lighting, butterfly, short or broad lighting. I will explain those quickly here and maybe I will draft another topic to highlight every pattern in details with examples.

Loop lighting is creates a small shadow of the nose on the cheeks. To create loop lighting, the umbrella must be slightly higher than eye level and about 30-45 degrees from the camera

Split lighting splits the face exactly into equal halves with one side lit and the other in shadow. It is used to create a dramatic portraits and tend to be more masculine in nature. 

Rembrandt lighting - named after Rembrandt the painter and often seen in his paintings - is identified by a triangle of light on the cheek. 

Butterfly lighting has a butterfly shaped shadow under the nose. To create this lighting you need to place the umbrella above and directly behind the camera and to shoot underneath it. 

Broad lighting is when the subject’s face that is toward the camera is in the light. This type of lighting makes faces look broader or wider (hence the name) and can be used on someone with a very slim face to broad it.

Short lighting is the opposite of broad lighting. The face side turned towards the camera is in shadow. It puts more of the face in shadow and tends to make round faces slimmer and it is considered the most flattering as all people want to look thinner...

As a general rule however, the closer the light is to the camera the flatter the lighting effect will be (if you want to eliminate the most of the shadows that is). 

What about height? Well you should always place the umbrella slightly above your subject with the shaft making a 15 degree angle or so to the ground. Light from top is more natural and tend to create texture with shadows. This technique is called loup lighting and it keeps the shadow small and pointing slightly downward. Be aware of having your light source too high which will create odd shadows and cause loss of the catchlights.

Now go to practice mode

So remove the dust off of your umbrella if you haven't used it for a while and start practicing and experimenting. Explore different things you can do with it and observe the impact on your photos.

You can start with those settings:

  • place the shaft on umbrella 1 to 2 meters from subject

  • place the light stand at a 30 degree angle to one side of the camera

  • place the umbrella at a height of about 30 cm higher than your subject's face

  • start around ISO 100 to 200

  • use flash white balance or CWB

  • set camera mode on Manual 1/100 or 1/200 sec depending on your sync speed. Your aperture controls Depth Of Field, and your exposure controls the amount of ambient light. You should decide based on the conditions of the room how much ambient light you want, which will result in your flash providing fill or being the main light.

  • set aperture at f/5.6 to begin with 

  • look at your histogram and adjust your flash power or compensation as needed if using ETTL

  • if using full Manual flash start with 1/2 power and adjust accordingly

This should give you a good starting point to begin with. Then add a white reflector on the opposite side.

Notice the difference between closing in and out your umbrella on your subject, try different placement angles, reduce and enlarge the shaft, etc. 

Make sure that you get an umbrella with a removable cover so that you can use it as both a reflective umbrella or as a shoot-through.

Shoot-through umbrella setup

Reflective umbrella setup

Reflective umbrella setup

Shot with one umbrella using reflective setup and placed above the subject head by 20 cm. Notice the shadows on the right side of the face -  cheeks and neck (left relative to viewer). 

Umbrella positioned at left of the subject while he is holding a reflector beneath his chin to fill in shadows under nose and eyes.

Umbrella positioned at left of the subject while he is holding a reflector beneath his chin to fill in shadows under nose and eyes.