As a new photographer graduating from natural light photos to flash photography, the best place to start is with a shoot-through umbrella. This set-up is the easiest type of umbrella photography because the umbrella diffuses light evenly over a large surface. If you want to get all you can out of your shoot-through umbrella, you must learn how to use one properly.
Here is a breakdown of the steps to using a shoot-through umbrella:
- Mount the white umbrella to the strobe or flash.
- Position the umbrella to cover the light source.
- Experiment with different angles.
- Apply a multi-light set-up.
- Use a shoot-through umbrella to soften natural light.
As photography umbrellas come in different sizes and designs, you need to understand how to position them for every occasion. In this article, I’ll expound on the above steps of using a shoot-through umbrella to take excellent pictures and videos. Let’s begin.
1. Mount the White Umbrella to the Strobe or Flash
All studio strobes have a small hole to insert the umbrella handle and a knob to tighten the grip. But if you are using an off-camera flash unit, you will need to buy a separate flash bracket with an umbrella holder.
The flash bracket is a small component that screws snuggly on top of the light stand, and the flash unit slides into the receptacle on top. A small hole is on the bracket below the receptacle where the umbrella handle will slide into. It also has a knob to tighten the umbrella in place.
Now, you may be asking, ‘Which direction does the umbrella face?’ Let’s look at the second step.
2. Position the Umbrella To Cover the Light Source
With shoot-through umbrellas, you have to place the umbrella between the flash and the subject. This position means the inside part of the umbrella is facing the flash while the pointed part faces the subject. This way, the umbrella spreads out the light to a larger surface, making this type of umbrella photography best for shooting a large group of people.
Speaking of positions, pay attention to how far or close the light is to the umbrella.
If you place the flash too close to the umbrella, it won’t light the entire surface of the umbrella. Instead, it will result in a light that’s not as soft as you’d like. Adjust the distance between the light source and the umbrella until light fills up the entire umbrella surface.
However, attaining the optimum position is not always possible. Sometimes the light source doesn’t aim at the umbrella’s center, and it cannot tilt downwards. As a result, the light will mostly cover the top part of the umbrella and only a small section of the lower part. So no matter how far back you move the umbrella from the light, it still can’t cover the entire surface.
In this case, you have to keep that in mind when taking shots to ensure the light is aiming at the subject and not above them.
3. Experiment With a Few Angles
Umbrella photography is not that different from traditional photography. You still need to test different positions to see where you get the best shots. In this case, try adjusting the flash angle to the subject and see the different creative patterns.
Here are a few examples:
- Misdirection. You can try facing the umbrella away from the subject slightly. This way, you will only have an edge of light reaching the subject in a process known as feathering. The light will be softer and weaker, which makes for beautiful pictures.
- Distance. Try moving the light closer or further from the subject as well. This tactic is a simple way to make your headshots look like they were taken by a professional and not the DMV.
- If you want hard light and sharp images, increase the distance between the light source and the subject.
- Conversely, if you want a soft feathered look, use a large light source and move it as close to the subject as possible.
- Height. Don’t forget you can also change the height of the light. Most photos are taken at a 45°angle, which makes them all look the same. Instead, Go higher or lower to create more dimension.
- Horizontal. You can fly the umbrella just over and above the subject’s head and take the shot. This creates a less predictable, more ethereal image.
- Over and in front. This position is similar to the standard 45°, but it creates a more mysterious light to the face. You can see the umbrella’s reflection in the subject’s eyes, and it’s quite captivating.
- Down and below. You can also use the umbrella as a fill light instead of the key light. This occurs in multi-light setups, but it’s also possible in a single light setup. When the umbrella is positioned just below the subject’s face, it illuminates their face and bathes them in a soft bottom light, keeping all the shadows away.
Long story short, you can get as creative as you want with positioning the umbrellas and the light.
Take a test shot with every position, and adjust the light and the umbrella as needed.
- Does the shot have a softer effect or a harder one?
- What about the shadows behind the subject?
- Do they diminish when you move closer or when you move the light farther away?
Tip: Small light sources make for harsher light and shadows, whereas bigger light sources make for a softer light and no shadows.
4. Apply a Multi-Light Set-Up
A one-light setup is good and easy to manage, especially if you do small area photography or take portraits. But if you are doing a group shot or your studio is large, then a multi-light photography setting may be more suitable.
You can use the shoot-through umbrella in the main light as a modifier or use several umbrellas for the fill lights in this setup. Try mixing different light sources and place one of them behind the subject to create a backlight.
Don’t be scared of trying different lights and adding colored ones and reflectors to add dimension and color to the image.
5. Use a Shoot-Through Umbrella To Soften Natural Light
As it turns out, using a shoot-through umbrella is not reserved for flash photography only. You can also use it when taking pictures in natural light, especially when it’s too bright outside. The same way you shield yourself from rain, you can use an umbrella to shield the subject from direct sun.
Direct sunlight can cause unappealing shadows on the subject or make them squint. So, if you are photographing outdoors on a sunny day and there is no shade in sight, you can make your own using a photography umbrella.
The subject should stand or sit so that the sun is behind them and not in front. It’s easier this way because the sun won’t face them directly, and you can make a shaded background after. Have someone hold the umbrella over and behind your subject’s head. It’s important to hold it in the right position, shielding the subject from the sun without getting into the shot.
A shoot-through umbrella will, of course, cast a slight shadow on the picture because the material allows some light to pass through. However, this isn’t something to worry about, and you can reduce its visibility by moving the light closer to the subject and using a bigger umbrella.
Using a shoot-through umbrella may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about shooting in the sun, but it’s a cheap and convenient way to diffuse the sunlight.
Keeping Your Shoot-Through Equipment Secure Outdoors
Umbrellas, lightweight stands, and wind do not go well together. But that doesn’t mean you have to restrict yourself to only taking indoor shots. Pictures done on the beach or the mountains at night are some of the most beautiful shots you can take, and they are worth the risk.
So, how do you secure your equipment from flying away when the wind is up?
The classic method is using sandbags. They are cheap, readily available, and you can even make one yourself.
But there are other ways of keeping your lights and umbrellas from taking a hike.
Secure the Equipment Like a Tent
The cheapest and lightest way to secure your equipment is to treat them like a tent. Carry three sturdy cords and some steel hangers cut into j-shaped stakes. Loop the cords around the stand a little above ground and dig the stakes into the ground.
When well-staked, you can’t easily move the light stand, so you have to move the subject instead. You can also use this method to secure the umbrella by tying the cords to the rib ends.
The next best method is to suspend iron plates (weightlifting plates) from the light stand. These plates have a hole in the middle where you will loop a short rope and use it to suspend them. Make sure they hang low and wrap the remaining rope snugly around the stand.
Again, the weight will not allow wind to move your equipment, and these plates don’t take up much space in your luggage.
Get an Assistant
All those tactics cannot beat having an assistant who will hold onto the stand and ensure it doesn’t move. Unlike weights and tent cords, a human will also hold the umbrella to avoid blowing away or turning inside out.
Speaking of umbrellas, you might want to try one that doesn’t use metal ribs if you like taking outdoor pictures. Some shoot-through umbrellas use graphite or other materials for ribs, and they don’t break or bend quite as easily as metal ribs.
Choosing a Shoot-Through Umbrella
There is something special about shoot-through umbrellas, especially when you’re new to flash photography. They are inexpensive, easy to position and aim, and cover-up many mistakes new flash photographers make. But you have to pick the right umbrella.
So, what do you look for when purchasing a shoot-through umbrella?
Size is an essential consideration here.
The larger the shoot-through umbrella, the softer the light it will produce, except this requires a more powerful light to fill it.
Your subjects should determine the size of a shoot-through umbrella you choose. For instance, if your everyday subject is one or two people, you might not need a 7-foot (2-meter) umbrella. You only need a big one if you work with larger groups of people or objects.
Shoot-through umbrellas come in three shapes:
- Regular. Regular umbrellas look exactly like your standard rain umbrella with a convex shape and triangular panels. They are available in sizes 20″ to 7′ (51 to 213 cm), and they fold up nicely.
- Parabolic. A parabolic umbrella looks like a regular umbrella, but it has a more rounded shape. They are also larger and designed with more panels than regular umbrellas. Because of this, the light produced by a parabolic umbrella is more distinctive and can appear more natural.
- A combination of a softbox and an umbrella. The umbrella/softbox combo blends the characteristics of both light modifiers. It exhibits the shape and form of a regular umbrella but has a front diffusion panel to fine-tune the light output.
As a beginner, the cost is a major consideration because you may not have the budget to buy expensive equipment.
The cost of a shoot-through umbrella depends on the following:
- Material used to make the ribs
The more money you cough up, the better your umbrella is likely to be.
That shouldn’t pressure you, though, when you are starting. Instead, get the best umbrella you can afford and upgrade later.
The important thing is to master the process of using a shoot-through umbrella and other types of diffusion umbrellas in photography. You can get better equipment once you learn how to take perfect pictures from different angles and light positions.
That’s it for this beginner’s guide on shoot-through umbrellas. In summary, learn how to:
- Mount the white umbrella to the strobe or flash.
- Position the umbrella the right way, covering the light source.
- Experiment with different angles and positions.
- Use a multi-light setup.
- Use the shoot-through umbrella in natural light.
These steps become second nature to you with time, and you won’t even think about them consciously anymore. It’s also important to learn how to use a reflective umbrella and other types of light diffusers so you can be a more versatile flash photographer.
- Westcott University: The Essential Guide to Photo Umbrellas
- The Phoblographer: Lighting Basics: How to Light Portraits with an Umbrella
- Fstoppers: Why Photographers Prefer Multi-Light Setups for Portraits
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