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Rethinking the Umbrella

Umbrellas are a staple of small-flash photography. Back in March of 2006, when I wrote the original post on umbrellas for Lighting 101, my go-to choice on umbrellas was the classic, reflector variety. I have done a complete 180 in the last two years, and now use a shoot-through almost exclusively.

I was going to just update the original L101 post, but decided the reasons were worth revisiting the subject.

More on why I am now a shoot-through guy, after the jump.

Back when I first started using umbrellas, I used silver, reflective umbrellas on the logic that they were more efficient way to get the small amount of light coming from my flash back to my subject. And technically, I guess that is true in an apples-to-apples comparison.

But when it comes down to the way you are more likely to actually want to shoot, you can more -- and better -- light from a shoot-through umbrella than a reflective one. It all comes down to distance.

As you know, the intensity of a light source can vary greatly depending on its distance from the subject. Without trotting out the Inverse Square Rule (which I am loathe to even think about) suffice to say that the closer a light is, the more powerful it is.

This alone can be reason to use a shoot-through.

Why? Because you can position a shoot-through much closer than you can a reflective umbrella. If I am shooting in close, I can get a shoot-through in a couple of feet from someone's face and still keep it out of the frame.

This photo of UK Photographer Ant Upton from last year is a good example. The umbrella is about three feet away from him. This proximity gives me power to spare, which means I am able to shoot at a low power setting. Which also means not having to even think about recycle times.

If I was shooting with a reflective umbrella at a distance of three feet (that is to say the actually umbrella was three feet away) the shaft of the umbrella would be sticking well into my frame. But with a shoot through, I can bring it in much closer, which not only means that my light source gets more powerful but it gets much softer.

But I didn't want the light to be too soft on Ant's face. So I "choked up" on the shaft a little bit to make the light a little less soft. (The flash was not lighting the entire umbrella.)

But that proximity also gives me another advantage. When my light is this close I also have lots of control over the amount of light reaching my background, which in this case happens to be a grey room divider.

This means that it goes dark so I can now create a nice backdrop by shooting a blue gelled flash through a stack of drinking glasses to make a nice, subtle pattern.

In short, the shoot-through umbrella typically gives you more power, better light quality and better background spill control than a reflective umbrella.

Not that you should throw your reflective umbrellas away. They are very useful for shooting subjects where you have to back your light source up a little -- light small groups, etc. But find that nine times out of ten, when I set up an umbrella these days, my light is more likely to me going through it than bouncing off of it.


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