How to Use Strobes with Umbrellas

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Whether you use one light or four, shooting with strobes enables you to get professional-level results in whatever style you are going for. The adjustable power on the StarFlash allows precise control over your light output for creating ratios and controlling foreground and background exposures.

Let’s get started and see what the StarFlash is capable of!

Topics Covered:

  • How to properly set up an umbrella with a strobe
  • Using an umbrella as a main light
  • Using a main light and a reflector fill
  • Using two umbrellas for main and fill
  • Using umbrellas to light a background

Before Beginning

To make your setup more convenient and versatile, we have now included the Photoflex® FlashFire™ Wireless Trigger & Receiver. Using this equipment allows you to move more freely with your camera instead of limiting yourself to within a few feet of your lights.

Even adding just one trigger and one receiver you can set your secondary lights to slave so that they fire through the infrared sensor. Either way you choose to use the FlashFire, you cannot ignore its ability to provide your “tool bag” with a great amount flexibility.

How to Properly Set Up an Umbrella with a StarFlash

We started off by putting the light on the set and aligning the top of the umbrella with the top of our subject’s head and the pole of the umbrella pointing into her mid-section.

The light source, the StarFlash, is in the center of the umbrella, therefore the brightest light will be reflected from that area, falling off towards the outside of the umbrella. We set the umbrella like this first to demonstrate this concept.

The hotspot on her mid-section is obvious and the light falls off dramatically on her face leaving the top of her head totally in shadow. With this placement it is easy to see the distribution of that light the an umbrella affords us. But what we want is the model’s face to be well lit, not her belt.

To get the best spread of light from the umbrella, the light should be aimed using the umbrella pole as a guide, pointing towards what you want to illuminate. This results in the subject being in the middle of your light, fully illuminated.

Not only that, the quality of the light is much better because of the wrap around effect caused by the umbrella. In other words, since the light is going past and around the subject it appears natural, not like we were lighting her with a flashlight.

Aiming the umbrella pole at the subject’s nose places the brightest part of our strobe on the face. It is okay if the light falls off below or above because we want to draw attention to the face for a portrait.

Using an Umbrella as a Main Light

For our next shot we moved the strobe from two feet to four feet away to spread out the light. As we broaden the area that the light can hit, the more even it appears. Think of holding a flashlight close to a wall and pulling it away. When the light is close you can see the outline of the filament and the lens. But as you back away, all you have is a circle of light with no bright spots in it.

The same is true of the umbrella. When it is close, hotspots are definitely created on anything that is closer to the light, like her forehead and the tip of her nose. But when the light is backed away the light is more even, not only on the face but on the whole subject.

The lighting is continuously even up and down the subject. The quality of the light is much lower in contrast as well. So rather than appearing like direct sunlight, our lighting is more akin to the light of a large window.

Another effect we can create with just one light is to reduce the shadows on the right side of her face by aligning the light more towards the angle of the camera. This will decrease the high contrast on the subject’s face, similar to the effect of moving the light farther from the subject.

In terms of lighting pattern, this result would be more of a loop, referring to the small “loop” of shadow under the nose, and less of a “Rembrandt”, typified by the upside-down triangle of light created on the cheek from light spilling across the bridge of the nose. Her eyes appear more open as more of the whites are illuminated. The background has also been brightened a bit due to the light being aimed directly at it.

Overall this result shot is slightly more pleasing and if you were taking portraits this would be an effective use of one light that would cover most needs. Distracting shadows on the face are all but eliminated, and the subject’s whole face is shown. Not necessarily dramatic, but very usable.

Lets take a quick comparison of what we have done so far with one light. Both results are acceptable, again just be sure you try different things and be sensitive to the end use of the portrait.

Using a Main Light and a Reflector Fill

By adding a reflective surface on the dark side of our model, we can bounce light back up into those shadows and reduce their harshness. This will create a more natural look than just the single light.

We begin by putting the strobe back to the 45 degree angle position and then we placed a 42 inch MultiDisc® reflector on the right side of the subject using the white side for our reflective surface.

The MultiDisc really shines for us in this one light situation, allowing us to choose the surface most appropriate to our model and scene. By angling the light back and forth across the subject, our photographer determined the best angle for maximum reflection and took a shot.

There is a gentle reduction in the ratio, or relationship of light and shadow. This provides a more natural look similar to what we might get from natural window light. It makes our subject look like she is in a normally lit room, instead of a dark corner or near a streetlight.

This is an easy and cost effective way to create nice ratios with one light. Paired with a LiteDisc® Holder, the MultiDisc® is so versatile you can use it for many different studio and location scenes.

Using Two Umbrellas for Main and Fill

As versatile and great as the MultiDisc setup is, if you need total control of ratios and fill placement, you can step it up a notch and go with a kit featuring two StarFlash®. With two strobes of equal power, it is easy to create ratios merely by reducing the power on the fill. So, for instance, if your main light is turned up all the way, you can surmise that turning the fill down to half will give you a one-stop reduction, or 1:2 ratio. Halving the light again, to quarter power, will give us a 1:4 ratio.

To place the fill light properly, place it at the opposite angle from the main. It is important to aim the fill so that it does not spill over into the main side of the face. This will increase the control you have over the ratios and reduce strange or distracting shadows.

Here we have turned off the main so as to see just where the fill was falling. This looked about right to us, nicely illuminating the right side of the face. After taking a reading to make sure our strobes were at equal power we turned the main back on to see how we were doing.

Perfect! 1:1 ratio! The subject’s face is totally free of shadows and is presented in a very straightforward manner. The addition of the second strobe set at equal power to the main light has brightened our background.

In the following figures, we will continue to experiment by increasing the ratio as much as we can. Note the difference in background illumination and what effect each reduction in fill has on the subject’s face and the overall feel of the portrait.

Here we cut the power by half, or one stop, to give us a 1:2 ratio. The great benefit of the controllable power on the StarFlash is that you don’t have to back the light up in order to reduce power. The power is easily reduced with the power knob and the size of the light source remains intact, ensuring the beautiful wrap around light we discussed before.

Here again we have cut the power another stop for a 1:3 ratio. With the mere turn of a knob we alter the mood of the picture and change how the model looks. The power of less power, so to speak.

For this shot we turned down the fill as far as we could and got a result similar to using just a reflector. While you wouldn’t necessarily use such a powerful light for this purpose, we wanted to demonstrate the options available in a two light kit.

Here’s a comparison of all the ratios to easily see the difference between each. You can see the shadow on the right side of her face darkening with each change and the key light remaining constant.

Using Umbrellas to Light a Background

If you want to expand your possibilities for professional results, you can add a third StarFlash with an umbrella. We placed the third light, or background light, about three feet from the backdrop. Then we angled the umbrella to let the light from the edge of the umbrella feather out across the background. When this is done correctly, it will create a nice gradation from highlight to shadow on the backdrop.

We have achieved our goal and the backdrop light creates nice separation for our foreground. This makes more use of the backdrop as well instead of just letting it fall off into gray. With one more light, we can go further still…

Adding a fourth and final light, we can take total control of the background and foreground. We want to go from a dark gray backdrop to completely white, which is the color of our seamless. With two StarFlash set at one-stop over the main light, which is the exposure for the camera, the background will be completely “blown out”. Which means any detail in the background will be gone.

Here the strobes really come through in terms of flexibility. Up until now we have been shooting with our main light on at full power. But if we use the same power strobes on the background we won’t be able to get one-stop of extra power necessary. By merely reducing the power on the main one-stop since we are already shooting at 1/125 at f/11, we had plenty of leeway to stop down to 1/125 at f/8. We also turned down the fill correspondingly to maintain our ratio on the subject.

This is by far our cleanest look so far. Plus, by having the background blown out and uniform the applications of the image are increased. The subject can easily be separated in an image-editing program such as Adobe® Photoshop® and put against new backgrounds or added into a group shot of people shot with the same lighting. The portrait by itself is good and the subject is presented well.

From one light to four lights, your options can be varied depending on the look you need. Many times nice portraits can be created with just one light and a reflector and we have certainly not explored every option there. We have supplied the springboard from which your imagination can take the plunge. Have fun, experiment, and remember there are no lighting rules, only lighting guidelines.

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