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Monday, September 09, 2013

Umbrellas 101

Lighting Equipment

In this lesson, LA photographer Jay P. Morgan demonstrates how to use umbrellas on set. Umbrellas are great modifiers and the ones that most people start with. They’re inexpensive compared to soft boxes and they collapse and fold away, which makes them easy to store and transport. They are the first step in controlling light to achieve your photographic vision.

This lesson examines the materials umbrellas are made of and how they affect the light. To test each umbrella, Jay P.'s team set up a target that allowed them to track how the light spread. Afterward, Jay P. photographed a model with the various umbrellas to see the effects of each. Here are his notes on the shoot.



Our TRITONFLASH was placed 8 feet from the center of the target. The camera was placed right next to the center of the umbrella. We made the exposure equal f/11.5 on the light meter for each set-up. We kept this consistent to show what the light loss or gain was for each umbrella.

Light-Bouncing Results
Our first light modifier was a Photoflex ADW 30” Adjustable White umbrella with a black backing. I started with this series of umbrellas because they are about in the middle of the scale for exposure. You don’t get as much light as a silver umbrella, but more than a shoot-through. This umbrella has a solid area that it covers. From the center to 3 feet on each side, it only loses about 1/4 of a stop. When you go out to 6 feet from the center on each side, it loses about 1/2 stop. It has a very broad area of coverage with little fall-off. The black cover keeps the light more controlled so that you don't light the ceiling and your talent. It’s slightly more controlled than a shoot-through.

Next, we moved on to an ADW 45” Adjustable White umbrella. We got a very similar area of coverage to that of the 30-inch. We lost about 1/4 stop at 3 feet out and 1/2 stop at 6 feet.


The ADH 30” Adjustable Silver umbrella was next and we gained 1 stop of light with this umbrella. This is a much more focused light. At 3 feet on either side, we lost 3/10 of a stop. At 6 feet out, we lost 3/4 of a stop. It falls off very fast. This umbrella, when moved closer, is a very focused light source.


Next was the ADH 45” Adjustable Silver umbrella. We gained the same full stop of light with this umbrella but the area of coverage was a bit broader. At 3 feet out, we got the same 3/10 fall-off, but at 6 feet we got 1/2 stop fall-off. It falls off very fast after 6 feet.

Next, we shot with the new ADH 72" Adjustable Silver umbrella. With this umbrella, we gained 1.5 stops more light over the ADW umbrella. It’s the silver lining and parabolic shape that focuses the light. The light fell off 1/2 stop at 3 feet and 1.5 stops at 6 feet. A very narrow area of coverage.

The Photoflex RUD 30” White Shoot-Through umbrella was next. Here we were bouncing light, not shooting through the umbrella. Interestingly, with this umbrella, we did not lose any light value as compared to the version with the ADW and it projected the very same pattern as well. We lost 1/4 stop at 3 feet and 1/2 stop at 6 feet. You can shoot through this type of umbrella, which makes for two different types of light - one very soft and one very directional. The disadvantage is that they throw light everywhere, making it harder to control.

Next, we shot with the Photoflex RUD 45” White Shoot-Through umbrella. Again, we bounced light rather than shooting through and maintained the same light pattern as the 30-inch. It has a 1/4 stop fall-off at 3 feet and 1/2 stop at 6 feet.

Next was my favorite umbrella, the new Photoflex RUD 72” White Shoot-Through umbrella. This is a very soft light and a joy to work with. The area of coverage was very similar to the 45 and 30 inch. At 3 feet, we lost about 1/4 stop and at 6 feet we lost about 3/4 stop. It falls off faster. The parabolic shape helps to narrow the light pattern.

Shoot-Through Results
With the reflective tests complete, we then shot through the translucent umbrellas. The  RUD 30” White Shoot-Through was first. This made the light more narrow. At 3 feet we lost 1/4 stop, but at 6 feet we lost almost a full stop.

The ADH 45” Adjustable Silver umbrella gave the same result.

The RUD 72” White Shoot-Through umbrella also gave us the same result. We lost about a stop of light shooting through when we were on set, but showed no light loss when we tested them later. It’s inconclusive as to the power loss, but I don’t think you lose power by shooting through.

Tests with a Model
With all of the light spread tests complete, we decided to examine the different light qualities on a person’s face. We placed different umbrellas 5 feet away from our model, Tatum, to test the light.

The ADW 30 White umbrella shows a pretty strong shadow on the wall and deep shadows on her face.


When we changed to the ADW 45 White umbrella, we saw that the shadow on her nose started to open up and the shadow on the wall softened. It’s a larger source so the umbrella illuminates more of her face.


Next was the ADH 30 Silver umbrella. Notice how the shadow on the wall is very defined and that the light is specular on her face.


When we went to the ADH 45 Silver umbrella, the shadow became less defined, though still specular on her face.


The ADH 72 Silver umbrella wrapped around her face and cut into the shadow on the wall, but was very bright on her face. This is a very pretty look.


When we got to the RUD 30 Shoot-Through umbrella and maintained the bounce-light approach, it looked very similar to the ADW 30.


Similarly, the RUD 45 Shoot-Through looked very similar to the ADW 45.


The RUD 72 reflected was very soft and the shadow on the wall and on her face was very open. It created both a key light and a fill light, all from the same source!


When we shot through the RUD 30 umbrella, we saw more open shadows. Bouncing light off an umbrella creates a harder quality of light, while shooting through it creates a softer quality of light. It was still a 30 inch umbrella, so the shadow on the wall was very defined, but the shadow on her face revealed more fill light.


The same was true of the RUD 45 umbrella when we shot through it. The shadows were softer than when we turned it around and bounced light off of it.


The RUD 72 Shoot-Through umbrella was very soft and the shadows opened up very nicely, a very pretty light. This is one of my favorite ways to use an umbrella. A very soft light when you shoot through a 6-foot umbrella!


Time To Experiment
WIth all the comparisons shot, we were now ready to apply what we learned. First, we placed the RUD 72 Shoot-Through umbrella slightly behind Tatum and let that soft light wrap forward. It’s a great placement. I dialed the power down on the TritonFlash and opened up to f/3.5 with a 200mm lens, which threw the background out of focus. This is a very soft source, but with the right placement it can look very moody. The strobe head shot through the umbrella, lit her face, and the bounce opened up the background beautifully.

Next, we moved the umbrella behind her and from the right side. This opened up the background more and rimmed her hair. Finally, we added a 39x39-inch White LitePanel to become the key on her face. A subtle but cinematic effect!

For further information about the products used in this lesson, click on the logo at the top left of this page.

Written and photographed by Jay P. Morgan.
To see more of Jay P.'s work, visit his Pro Showcase page.


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Lighting Equipment


On October 07, 2013 at 02:45 PM, Tristan S. said:

This was an EXCELLENT read and an even more excellent video.  VERY informative.  What I am curious about (but I’m going to experiment it myself now) is how the coverage of light changes with the convertible umbrellas.  If I use it in a 6 point or 4 point configuration - how the coverage changes (if it does).  Once again, Photoflex and Jay P. knock it out of the park.

On January 27, 2014 at 10:32 AM, viviana said:

Thank you so much for the informations!
We are great people!

On March 04, 2014 at 06:22 AM, Jim Schiller said:

I normally use 650 Fresnels with barn doors and 750 Totas with black white umbrellas. I was interested in hearing the commentary during the video.

On March 04, 2014 at 08:54 PM, Arthur Argote said:

Great demonstration of the light properties of the umbrella.  BTW, that last frame, very Terrance Malick / Ridley Scott!

On July 16, 2014 at 11:07 PM, john campos said:

on the umbrella video j.p morgan talks too fast.  it sounds like he is just reading
from a script.  it does not give a person enough time to soak in what he is talking about..
i noticed that about him on other videos. he talks too fast.

On December 16, 2015 at 05:09 PM, Daniel Smith said:

Awesome demo I will try your findings out . I like what I have seen.

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