Traditional photography portraiture has long included umbrellas as light sources. These simple, effective reflectors significantly improve the quality and size of light coming from an 8″ reflector.
In this lesson we will demonstrate the Photoflex First Studio Portrait Kit, an economical lighting kit that uses two high-quality silver umbrellas to capture and spread the light for our portrait subject.
We will also demonstrate how umbrellas work, and how to correctly position them to get maximum effectiveness.
- Tips for using umbrellas
- Setting the main light umbrella
- Introducing the fill light umbrella
Years ago, photographers discovered that adding an umbrella to a light source would increase the size of the reflected light coming from their light source, greatly improving the quality of light for portraiture. The increased size gave them a broader, lower contrast light for portraiture. Remember, “the larger the light, the softer the light”. And a larger light source illuminates more of the subject, producing a natural looking result with less contrast.
Photoflex designed the First Studio Portrait Kit to enable you to achieve exceptional portrait results in quick and easy set-ups at an extremely affordable price.
The Photoflex FirstStar lights in the portrait kit have 8-inch reflectors, which are much more suitable to umbrellas, than the 12-inch reflectors on other manufacturers’ kits.
The FirstStar comes with a 250-watt halogen bulb. This is the most powerful light bulb found in these types of reflector lighting kits on the photo market. The FirstStar also includes the heavy duty, easy to adjust handle found on its more expensive, higher end, StarLite big brother.
The white interior umbrella in the First Studio Portrait Kit is the highest quality silver photographic umbrella in the world, so it reflects the highest amount of light onto your subject. No sense in developing the most powerful light source and then wasting it by having the light go through the umbrella.
All these elements combine to produce an unparalleled, affordable portrait light source that is 200% to 300% more powerful that the light sources produced by the competition. In short, even though the Photoflex First Studio Portrait Kit is comparable in price to other manufacturer’s portraits, it ain’t cheap!
Tips for Using Umbrellas
Umbrellas do, however, take a little bit of understanding so that they are aimed at the subject properly.
First you must attach the umbrella to the Photoflex FirstStar reflector correctly.
The reflector should not be positioned too far into the umbrella. If it is, the entire umbrella reflective surface will not be used, which will in effect make it a smaller reflector.
If the reflector light is positioned too far from the umbrella, light will “spill out” around the edges. This will waste the light, and reduce the effective power of your light source.
Place the umbrella on the reflector and position it so that the light from the reflector is just inside the rim of the umbrella and you can see the edge of the light all the way around the circumference of the umbrella.
Now we will show you how to aim your umbrella so that your subject is in the center of the light area created by the umbrella. The shaft of the umbrella acts as your guide. Since it is in the center, you should use it as a pointer to place the umbrella reflector in the middle of the subject that you are trying to light.
Here the umbrella shaft is pointing over the model’s head, which would be too high for the portrait that we are trying to take. In the result below, notice how the shadow under the nose is long and falls over the side of her mouth.
In this set up example, we have the umbrella aimed too low to the model.
We are not saying that the above two portraits are bad, in fact some photographers do this intentionally to accomplish what they call “feathering the light” from the umbrella.
We just want to show you the basic position that you should start with and practice, so you will understand how an umbrella portrait light set-up basically works before you try other light modification techniques.
In this set-up example, the umbrella shaft is aimed at about the model’s nose so that she will be in the center of the reflector, and the light from the reflector will hit the top of her head and her body.
This lighting progression can be more easily understood when compared to the final result. The left result in the comparison below is the umbrella set up too high, the center result is the umbrella set up too low, the right result is the umbrella positioned in the middle, which is where we want it for this lesson.
This brings up the question, “How high do I place the umbrella aiming down on my subject?”
In photography, there are no hard and fast rules. Lighting rules are more like lighting guidelines. Proper lighting is determined by the photographer’s taste or the subject’s requirements.
Setting the Main Light
For our main light, we chose a 30-degree downward tilt because we wanted some light to hit the model’s hair, and the shadow from the nose and chin to look as if they were produced by a window slightly above the model.
You may choose to raise the umbrella higher and point it down at a 45-degree angle, or you can bring it lower so that the umbrella is pointing directly at the model from the side.
When shooting, you can and should try these different light variations to see the range of results. This is what makes lighting fun and exciting. Slight changes can make dramatic results in the portrait and lead you to new things.
Another frequently asked question is, “How far away from the subject should the umbrella be placed?”
Once again, there is no exact answer to this question. However, placing the main light farther from the model will decrease the size of your light source, giving you a smaller illumination area, and a higher contrast between light and shadows.
Placing the main closer will increase the hot spots (areas of brighter illumination caused by non-diffused lights) on the model usually found on the tip of the nose, right above the eyebrow and on the cheek closest to the light.
Try these variations out so you can see these results for yourself and determine what you like in your results.
For this lesson, we placed the umbrella main about three feet away from the model so that we would have an illumination area from her waist up. Here is the setup and results of the main light only.
Introducing the Fill Light Umbrella
Next, we set up our second umbrella in the Portrait Kit and positioned it to the left of our model the same way we put up the main light or our first umbrella. How close you put the fill to your subject is up to you, again depending upon your artistic taste. If you place the fill at the same distance from the model that the main is placed, you will get very little shadowing and a lighting ratio that is commonly called 1 to 1. [figures 19 and 20] The farther away you move the fill from the model, the darker the shadows on the face get.
For this lesson we put the “fill” about four feet away from the model so that we would get less light on the left side of the model’s face giving us soft shadows along the nose and cheek.
Note: We took the main light down for the purpose of this lesson demonstration. During a portrait shoot we would never do that, we would just turn it off so we could “see” what the fill looks like on our model.
In the results you can see where the fill light is hitting the model and determine if the results are what you want. It’s important to turn the main light off, especially when you are just starting out shooting portraits, as it is much easier to see the effects of one light at a time.
The images below show you the model with the main light only [figure 22] and the results when we added the fill light to the set.
Now that you have the Photoflex First Studio Portrait Kit set up where you like the results, feel free to change the model’s poses, and shoot a variety of photos from which to choose. The following results show that you can either move your tripod closer to the model to focus more on her face or zoom in your camera’s lens.
The broad light source created by the umbrellas give you the ability to take portraits in this set-up from the waist up. So take advantage of that and try different crops on your subject.
After you have finished a shoot, it’s a good idea to take a photo of the lighting set up that you ended up with. [figure 28] Then, make a small print of the set up and put it next to a results shot in a file, so you can see the set up and the results together in the future. This way when you want to repeat a specific portrait, you will have a photo of how to set up the lights to begin your shoot. Then, you can get the lights set up prior to your client, subject, or model coming to the set.
When the portrait subject arrives, you can fine-tune the lighting by turning on the main light first, then turn it off and turn on the fill light next, to get ready for your first shot. In this way, your subject will not have to sit and wait while you set up your lights, and will be fresh when you start shooting.