Basics: How to Choose an Umbrella
Umbrellas are cheap (and very portable) light softeners. But there are enough choices available to make picking the right one a little confusing. Or worse yet, to end up with something that is completely a wrong fit.
Below are some of the pros and cons of each of the major types of umbrella. You'll find that choosing is easy, once you figure out how you will be most likely be using it.
Shoot-Thru or Reflective
The first choice you'll make is whether you will bounce off of an umbrella or diffuse light through it. For most people, I recommend a good shoot-through umbrella as a first light modifier.
Shoot-through umbrellas offer softer light, both because they are white (vs. silver for many reflective umbrellas) and because you can place them very close to your subject. This is simply because the umbrella shaft will not protrude into the frame in advance of the umbrella, because it is pointed in the other direction. So you'll get a larger apparent light source, and thus softer light.
Since the light source can be very close with a shoot-thru, it can also be very powerful. If you do outdoor headshots and compete with the sun's light level, this kind of thing matters. You'll want a shoot-through. Just come in as close as possible with that light source and keep it barely out of the frame.
Another advantage of a shoot-thru with a removable black backing is that you can partially gobo the light with the backing and change the character of the light. This technique can keep light off of, say, the bottom of your frame. For instance, if you wanted to light your subject but keep the spill light from illuminating the ground around them.
But at a further distance, shoot-thru's are usually less efficient than their silvered reflective counterparts. And efficiency is important if you are lighting larger objects such as full-length portraits rather than head-and-shoulder shots.
To get even coverage over a larger area, you need to back your light up. And a silvered reflective umbrella will let you do that and still keep a lot of light hitting your subject.
A good example is in this group shot, done with two, horizontally ganged 43" reflective umbrellas to make one large, efficient source for key lighting this group shot. It was done with speedlights inside of a dark, shiny room that just threw one problem at us after another. (Seriously, I can go awhile again before shooting with curved, dark wood as a backdrop.)
The silvered umbrellas helped us keep as much of the flash's power as possible with a farther working distance. Additionally, the black-backed silver umbrellas also blocked the raw flash light from flaring into the camera, as the umbrellas were just out of the frame to camera left.
Rather than choose, I like to have this one both ways. I use shoot-through umbrellas with removable backings most of the time, but usually keep a silvered umbrella with me if I am going to be lighting at distance. Fortunately, they are both very cheap (in the $30 range) and they take up very little room in the light case. So it is easy to splurge for those two reasons.
Double-Fold or Standard
This one is easy, and it is exactly the same as in choosing an umbrella for rain. If space in your bag is at a premium, go with a double-fold. If you value durability over space in the bag, get a standard umbrella.
Apples to apples, the prices are all in the same neighborhood, so this is really a physical size vs. durability choice. The double-folds are wonderful little umbrellas, and at 43" they are great for general use. But you do have to be careful with them because they are constructed in a fairly lightweight manner to allow every thing to collapse upon itself.
That said, if you aren't using them in windy conditions they will hold up fine if you are careful.
Another factor to consider is whether you are using a normal stand or a 5-section compact model. With a normal stand, there is no reason to sacrifice strength and get a double-fold, as you are already committing to the linear space in your lighting bag for the stand. So you may as well get the more sturdy umbrella, too.
Conversely, your choice of umbrella may dictate your choice of stand (full size or compact) so keep them both in mind when choosing.
Medium or Large
First of all, why not a small?
Because you can make any umbrella into a smaller light source by zooming in the flash head or choking up on the shaft (or both). And the smalls are only a few bucks cheaper than the mediums, if you can even find one. So there's really no reason to buy a 30" umbrella. Go with at least a medium and you'll have more flexibility.
So your choice pretty much comes to something in the medium range (~43-45") or something in the large range (~60"). And speaking of inches, that measurement is the distance around the curve of the umbrella, from tip to tip.
Why? Because it sounds bigger that way, just like the diagonal measurement of your TV.
Second, let's dispel a myth: that you shouldn't use a huge umbrella with a small speedlight.
You absolutely can, but with the lower-powered flash you lose one of the biggest advantages of a huge umbrella, which is that you can back the light way up and still keep it soft.
With a speedlight, if you back that umbrella way up (say, to light a large object) you will lose effective power pretty quickly. But if you are shooting in a very low-light situation and your aperture is accordingly set (i.e., close to wide open) you can get away with it.
For just a few dollars more, a speedlight in a 60" umbrella makes a gorgeous, soft, light source for close-up portraiture—i.e.,a head shot or 3/4 shot. Just keep it in pretty close to the subject. And it doubles as a sweet light mod if you add a more powerful monobloc to your bag later.
But that 60" umbrella and speedlight combo is pretty much an indoor setup. Both because of the light levels and for the fact that it is vulnerable to wind. For most shoots, a standard 43-45" umbrella is a great fit for a speedlight. It also gives you a nice power-to-effective-size ratio that works well with the small flashes.
Front-Baffled or Regular
Here's one last consideration. Some umbrellas, such as the Photek Softlighter, come with a front diffuser/baffle that turns it into a poor man's Octa light.
These are very useful (a good example, the pianist shot above) because they give a flat edge to the light source.
This flat edge allows you to feather the beam (think of the light it emits as having an "edge" to it) which can be very useful. A normal umbrella—and even more so, a shoot-through—spews out light with a beam pattern that is like that of a hand grenade. Not so great for edge control.
You'll pay more for front-baffled umbrellas, but they are very versatile when lighting people. In fact, the Photek Softlighter baffled umbrellas can be used with/without the baffle and with/without the black backing. Lots of lighting choices there. It is my most-used big light source.
For most people, I would suggest starting with a 43-45" shoot-through umbrella for your first flash. Standard or double-fold is a pick 'em, and your choice depending on the variables above.
If you are going to shoot with your lights a little further back and need more efficiency, opt for a reflective umbrella (similarly sized) as your second umbrella. But if you want the versatility of a controllable, flat edge to the light you should probably go with a baffled umbrella as your number two choice.
When you are ready to step up to a larger light source (for a softer light and a nicer "wrap-around" effect) the 60" baffled Photek Softlighter II is hard to beat.
Below are a couple of my favorite choices, which I consider to be good values in umbrellas:
Westcott 43-inch Shoot-Thru Double-Fold
Westcott 45" Standard Shoot-Through
Westcott 45" Standard Reflective
Photek 60" Softlighter II Baffled Umbrella
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