(Full disclosure: I am a Photoflex Pro Showcase Photographer but this will not cloud my judgment or influence the outcome of my reviews. If something isn’t good, I will tell you.)
Like most photographers dabbling with light, my first modifier was an umbrella. I bought it while I was still in school, a simple white reflective 42″ Aurora - a pretty effective tool that allowed me to expand my creative vision and play with off-camera light. I would lug my old Bronica GS-1 6×7 kit with a Vivitar 285, a light stand and my light meter and play around photographing friends. Good times…
Most people start with umbrellas for the simple reason that they are affordable. You can get a relatively large light source for a fraction of the cost of other lighting modifiers. They weigh next to nothing and they are very portable. I still keep an emergency lighting kit in the trunk of my car at all times as an emergency option. It consists of an umbrella, a light stand and a swivel. You never know when you will need to light something!
As my confidence and technique grew, umbrellas fell out of favor. I preferred the control my softboxes and octoboxes afforded me.
Reflective umbrellas (where your flash is pointed away from your subject and bounced into the umbrella back towards your subject) are very inefficient light sources that spray light all over the place. You can try controlling it a bit using flags or tons of gaff, but your light will pretty much go all over the place. You know the hose nozzle in your backyard? This is the lighting equivalent of the “mist” setting. Your light will go everywhere in a 180-degree radius.
Given the choice of umbrella, I always choose a shoot-through model. The difference is pretty self-explanatory. Instead of bouncing light back onto your subject, a shoot-through umbrella acts just like the front panel of a softbox, diffusing the light before it hits your subject. Again though, the inefficiency is pretty obvious. Much of the power from your flash head is lost as the light reflects from the surface of the diffusion material and bounces away from your subject, lighting the wall, trees or whatever else is behind the light stand. This isn’t a big deal outdoors as the light is simply wasted. Indoors though, especially in tight quarters, you must be careful not to place anything colorful behind the flash as the color will be picked up and bounced back onto your subject. That red wall behind your umbrella will turn your subject red.
To use the above garden sprayer metaphor, a shoot-through umbrella is the equivalent of using a broken nozzle that pushes out enough water to get the job done, but has a crack on the back and soaks you at the same time.
This is not to say that you should never use a "brolly" (umbrella). Many iconic photographs in the history of the medium have been made using these relatively simple modifiers. It was in this spirit that I jumped at the opportunity to review Photoflex’s newest umbrella, the massive 72-inch shoot through umbrella.
72 inches. That’s 6 feet! That’s big! That’s awesome! That’s creamy soft light!
When it comes to nice, soft light, bigger modifiers are always better. The disadvantage is that bigger also costs more; my go-to modifier, a 5-foot OctoDome sells for over $350 USD or $440 CDN. If you are a hobbyist, that is a lot of money to put out! But remember how I said that umbrellas are inexpensive in comparison to softboxes and octoboxes? The new Photoflex 72″ Shoot Through umbrella retails for $50 USD at Adorama, or for the Canucks out there, it’s only $70 at Henry’s! That’s awesome!
But none of this matters if it doesn’t work. So how does it perform? You be the judge!
The best way for me to test a piece of equipment is to use it the way I normally would. I asked my neighbors Phil and Catherine if they would like to be photographed with their super-cute daughter Maya for the purposes of this review, and they were kind enough to oblige! Thanks guys!
You can easily use the 72-incher as a main light, but when I look at it, it screams huge, soft fill light!
Also, due to the size of the umbrella, the spread of light is huge making it a perfect tool to light a small group of people evenly.
The shoot was simple enough to arrange. We headed to a local waterfront with a little boat dock at around 7:30 PM. I wanted to use the sun as a side light, and we had a beautiful night to make the photographs.
I set up the 72-incher right out on the dock with us. Seeing as the umbrella acts as a huge, well, umbrella in the wind, I made sure to use a nice, heavy sandbag and a heavy-duty stand to avoid any mishaps.
Light it up! Here is a comparison shot demonstrating how well the umbrella can light up a small group of people.
As mentioned, this umbrella is a whopping 6-feet in diameter. It is big! Here is what the set-up looked like.
Once we had finished making pictures on the dock we went to a grassy area to change up the feeling of the photographs. Again, I was after flat, flattering light.
One thing I love about umbrellas is that they give a circular catch-light. I have always felt a circle is more pleasing than a rectangular catch-light. This is why I have always preferred octoboxes to softboxes. The sun, which is our biggest and most natural light source, is a circle after all.
As far as construction goes, only time will tell how sturdy a beast this umbrella really is. So far so good, but that said, I have only used it on one shoot. The ribs seem sturdy enough. According to the specs I have, they are made of real fiberglass. The center connection hub looks extremely well built.
All in all this is a great piece of gear at an extremely good price, backed with the quality you would expect from Photoflex. I am looking forward to putting it through its paces while shooting family and group shot at a wedding I am shooting in a few weeks.
Written and photographed by Tim Snow. To see more of Tim's work, visit his Pro Showcase page.