Choosing an Umbrella
Written by Daven Mathies
They say you're not a true Portlander if you own an umbrella, but I'm pretty sure they weren't talking to photographers when they decided that. Umbrellas are some of the easiest to use and least expensive light modifiers available, a perfect option for photographers just getting into off-camera flash. They are portable, take just seconds to set up, and are very effective at diffusing light from a variety of sources—a speedlight, strobe head, or even a constant light. I have found, however, that people often get confused by the myriad options available. So here's a brief overview of the different types of lighting umbrellas.
A shoot-through umbrella is perhaps the most basic option. It uses a color-neutral translucent material to diffuse light. Positioned between the light source and your subject, light passes through it and is spread out and softened. It offers the least control of any umbrella, as some light also bounces back in the opposite direction. This makes it great for filling a room with light, or in situations where control of excess light is not important (such as shooting outdoors). Some shoot-through umbrellas are "convertible," meaning they come with a cover that converts them into a white reflective umbrella.
A reflective umbrella aims to accomplish the same basic goal as a shoot-through umbrella, but it does it a little differently. Unlike a shoot-through, with a reflective umbrella the light source is placed between the modifier and your subject, aimed toward the umbrella. Light travels into the umbrella and is bounced back toward your subject. The white material spreads and softens the light like a shoot-through umbrella, but gives you increased control as the black cover prevents light from escaping in the opposite direction.
Perhaps the most common question is, "What's the difference between white and silver?" Honestly, it is a subtle one—if this is your first time using a light modifier, you may as well flip a coin to determine which to get, or buy one of each. Until you have an idea of the effect you're looking for, or which look you prefer, it's difficult to recommend one over the other. Silver umbrellas are highly reflective, which increases specular highlights and enhances details on your subject. The amount of diffusion is similar to a white umbrella, but with a little more "edginess," if you will. If I'm going for a softer, more painterly look for a portrait, I'll stick with a white umbrella. If I'm shooting fashion, I might prefer the silver. The differences are highly subjective. As with everything in photography, don't be afraid to experiment.
All types of umbrellas come in various sizes. The basic rule of thumb is that the larger the light source, the softer the light. In reality, it's the size of the light source in relation to your subject—so a small source that is very close to your subject may be softer than a larger source that is very far away. If your subject is an individual, you may be able to get the light right up close, but if you're shooting a large group, chances are your light is going to be placed farther away. In the interest of keeping things simple, if you want the softest light, buy the largest umbrella. However, for the sake of portability, smaller umbrellas may be a better choice—it just depends on the type of work you're doing.