Umbrellas are one of the most essential light modifiers that flash photographers use to shape light. As simple as umbrellas are to use with a flash, it can seem intimidating to a new flash photographer to know how to set up an umbrella for a photography shoot.
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In the video, we go through the various types of umbrellas that can be used in flash photography, and what each of them are used for.
The white shoot-through umbrella
White translucent umbrellas are used as an inexpensive and effective way to spread out a light that will cover approximately a 1.5 yard (1.4 meter) area.
Shoot through umbrellas are, in our opinion, the best type of lighting modifier for beginning flash photographers. The reason we like using these umbrellas is that they create very soft light, they are inexpensive, and they have a wide enough lighting pattern that they are easy to position and aim. Using a shoot through can cover up a lot of rookie mistakes made by newer flash photographers.
The drawback to this and all types of umbrella is that they are easily breakable. If there is any wind when using these on-location, the spokes can be broken, or it could catch the wind and knock over the light stand.
One tip to keep in mind when using this type of umbrella is to flip down the small on-flash diffuser onto the flash head so that the light is spread across the entire size of the umbrella.
The silver reflective umbrella
Silver reflective umbrellas throw light EVERYWHERE within a 180 degree radius. The wide and even pattern of light created by a silver umbrella makes them perfect for lighting groups, though they have less application for shooting portraits of individuals or couples, because it is difficult to achieve good shadows with this type of umbrella.
Unlike shoot-through umbrellas that are placed between the flash and the model, silver reflective umbrellas function by pointing the flash away from the group, and then the silver umbrella bounces the light back onto the people.
Silver umbrellas are my go-to tool for shooting family reunions and groups. I simply set up the camera on a tripod about 15 to 20 feet (6.1 meters) from the group, then I set up one reflective umbrella on a light stand to either side of me. This setup always produces simple even lighting for larger groups.
The parabolic umbrella
Parabolic umbrellas have become very fashionable in the last few years. Pioneered by Paul C. Buff, this type of umbrella focuses the flash pattern and creates a quality of light with high specularity.
Should I buy an umbrella or a softbox?
Newer flash photographers are always eager to spring for the softbox. Honestly, I think it is because softboxes LOOK more professional than umbrellas. While it isn’t terribly difficult to work with a softbox, I still find that most students do better by learning with an umbrella first. Umbrellas cover up many mistakes that newer flash photographers make in positioning the light, because umbrellas throw a wider pattern of light onto the subject. If you’re looking for exactly which lighting modifiers we recommend, check out this article.