Thursday, December 31, 2009

Lighting with Just One Umbrella

Farewell 2009
2009 is fast coming to an end and I wanted to get at least one more post out the chute before 2010 arrives. Today's post is a bit of a departure from the more pedantic nature of past postings. I thought it about time to start showing what can be done with some studio equipment in real world use. Keep in mind that by my way of thinking, a studio is any space where I can control the lighting to make photographs. While that includes the use of natural light, here in the greater Seattle area we have learned not to depend on the sun, so artificial lighting is more a way of life than a convenience.

How I Started with Off-camera Flash
My first light was a Vivitar 285HV, which is still in use. After a stint with camera-mounted flash and then a flip bracket, an umbrella was the next logical equipment choice. Umbrellas and swivel mounts are inexpensive, and this made my limited budget happy. Good light stands are not so cheap, and this made my limited budget unhappy. Unfortunately, you cannot serve two masters. Quality and budget fought one another and quality lost, so my budget's dictate for a cheap light stand was obeyed. This lead to a frail aluminum thing that called itself a light stand. One slight breeze while shooting outdoors clearly explained why quality was right. A good solid light stand and sand bag are indeed a good investment. Since then “budget” has been demoted to merely an advisory position, though at times I still think it speaks with too much authority.

Anyway, back to the story. That simple, one umbrella setup was a starting point from which my studio collection grew. At one time I had six portable flashes and homemade adapters to use them in softboxes. After that, some real studio lights were purchased (the count is now five) and the portable flash count is down to just two plus a little kicker flash. However, no matter how much equipment I collect, I find myself time and again coming back to the single umbrella setup. The portability and flexibility make it the perfect choice for travel, location, and informal lighting setups. The photo in the introduction of this posting was taken on Christmas day using a single umbrella for the light source.

A Truly Portable Studio Kit
My portable studio kit consists of a 6-ft. light stand, background stand, two swivel mounts, 43” convertible umbrella, 30” umbrella, two Vivitar 285HV flashes, colored filters, spare batteries, clamps, ball bungees, wireless triggers, spare triggers, High Voltage battery & cable, spare batteries, white balance checker, and a collection of colored & ND filters. It could even be pared down to a single flash kit for absolute minimalism. What amazes me is that all this fits inside a 21”x 3”x 10” bag that has a couple of external pockets. The careful observer will recognize that this is actually a paintball marker bag. The kit fits into my carry-on rolling bag and still leaves enough room for a few days worth of clothing. More on that later, but for now all you get is a sneak peak at the bag. Lighting for the bag photograph is from a flash bounced into a 45” white umbrella.

Some Samples
How about some samples you say? Thought you would never ask.

This was taken on Christmas day. I put a white blanket over the sofa and placed a flash in a 43” shoot-through umbrella to make a little studio right there in the living room (while most everyone else were in the family room). I added a little bit of blur to the background (should have shot at f/4), but otherwise this is how it looked out of Bibble 4.

This too was taken on Christmas day, Great Grandad with Great Granddaughter. I had been photographing her on the sofa nearby, so the light was handy. When I saw this opportunity, I raised the light, guessed the distance and placement, and grabbed the shot. It wasn't all guess work, as I knew that the flash power was set for shooting f/6.3 at about 2-ft. Now it was a little farther, so I shot at f/5.6 and out popped this. Only some trivial retouching to darken the background. Not bad for a grab shot!

How about some holiday cheer? This was taken while visiting some relatives. For the record, we weren't drinking the stuff, but the subject of rum came up while discussing cooking and this was on hand in the kitchen. One glance and I knew it would go perfectly with a gingerbread house, don't you think? No retouching on this photo. Light is from a flash shot through a 43” umbrella.

This is a favorite of mine. I was throwing the ball and he would come running back with it. After a few times I could see where to position the light for the best chance of grabbing a good shot. The background has been darkened a little with Photoshop, but this is pretty much how it looked out of the camera. One flash bounced into a 45” white/silver umbrella.

This is from a simple snapshot and special retouching. The background has been darkened and a soft focus selectively applied to create the mystique, but the basic lighting is still intact. Light is from a flash bounced into a 45” white/silver umbrella.

This is one of my earliest off-camera lighting attempts. It was a cold, overcast morning and I wanted to create the appearance of bright sunlight using rim lighting supplied from a flash bounced into a 45” umbrella. The background was metered for a sunny look.

This too dates back more than seven years ago to the early days of working with off-camera flash. While not perfect lighting, it shows that even a bozo can produce nice photos with an umbrella, given a good subject and very little knowledge. Lighting is from a flash bounced into a 45” white/silver umbrella.

Coming Next
Well, that's it for 2009. Next year I hope to bring out more postings and perhaps make things a bit more personal. I still owe a peak inside my portable studio kit, so keep an eye out in 2010 for this and other new things to show up on Studiography. I wish you the very best for the coming year and thank you for spending time here.

Happy New Year!



  1. Hello! Just wanted to say thank you for this very useful blog. I already learnt a lot about creating light for photography, which has always been a weakness, or better say absolutely inexistent in my production as amateur photographer... I very much appreciate the examples you give, and would be also very interested in a few examples where the light used is skeched and shown together with the result. Thank's again and happy new year, Cécile

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