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Small Lights into a Big Source

Apr 18

In Lighting at 9:47am

Ah, the lowly umbrella. Simple, relatively cheap, no frills. I have often denigrated umbrella light as being a bit boring, while at the same time praising it for being utterly reliable, producing predictable results time and again. In other words, boring. It is a very basic light shaping tool, often the very first one in a photographer’s arsenal. Light, cheap and collapsible, it’s easy to see why.

But lately, I’ve been using bigger umbrellas more and more in all manner of situations, and have been collaborating with Lastolite to perhaps produce a couple hopefully advantageous wrinkles in the lighting options an umbrella presents. We’ll see where that goes. But in the meantime, I’ve been having fun using speed lights, and firing them into umbrellas that are about the size of a small midwestern city.

Shot the above in Saudi Arabia a couple weeks ago, and the shaper is an jumbo Lastolite umbrella box type of light, the type with a soft piece of frosted material over the umbrella scoop. I’ve got three SB-910 speed lights on TTL firing into it, all hung on a ratcheting tri-flash. The results from this are generally soft and wrapping–a very easy going quality of light that has a lot of forgiveness in the shadows.

Now, could you do this with a single big light? Of course. Just didn’t have one of those with me. But the nice thing about having small, multiple sources pointing into this Sasquatch of a light shaper is that they do all combine to produce a large, lovely volume of light. And, given the vagaries and alchemy of TTL, I can send a signal to those lights via the commander flash, and they resolutely (well, sometimes reluctantly) follow me to f1.4.

The other thing about using small, position adjustable flash guns into a giant shaper is that if you need to sequester the light into a certain quadrant of that shaper, you can do it by clicking the speed light heads in different directions. Say you want more light being produced out of the lower scoop of the umbrella. Just take two of the flash units and click them downwards into that area. The effects are subtle, but definitely visible, thus giving you a another fairly easily accessible element of control over the broad brush of flash lighting you are painting the scene with.

At PhotoShop World in Orlando, and demonstrated this type of approach on stage, albeit with a big shoot through umbrella. Found a wonderful member of the audience, and asked her to come up.

From ten feet, it looked like this…


From five feet, it looked like this….


Then, by redirecting the speed lights inside the brolly, and pushing them towards the right hand side of the umbrella, the shadow side of my subject’s face opens up, just a touch….


Small adjustments inside a big light….more tk….




Pierre says:

on April 18, 2013 at 10:08 am

I’m just experimenting with 2 SB800’s and a few umbrellas. Slowly getting the hang of it and it’s good fun. Of course i’m using “normal” sized one’s, not the metropolitan sized versions you carry around Joe 😉 But it’s indeed amazing what one can achieve with just 1 or 2 umbrellas

Teknik Fotografi says:

on April 18, 2013 at 10:13 am

This article makes me amazed, yes i strongly agree about umbrella is simple, relatively cheap, no frills.

Josh says:

on April 18, 2013 at 10:18 am

Nice post Joe, with great example images. As of yet, I still haven’t put more than two SB-900s through a single umbrella. This makes me want to try for three and vary the positions!

When you say a “big” shoot through, is that something like 65 – 85″ or larger?

JimO says:

on April 18, 2013 at 10:52 am

No pictures of “Sasquatch”? :)

Bojan says:

on April 18, 2013 at 11:13 am

Great post Joe! Were the sample images taken at PhotoShop world shot on TTL as well?

Joe McNally says:

on April 18, 2013 at 12:54 pm

yep, all ttl….Joe

Joe McNally says:

on April 18, 2013 at 12:54 pm

yep, was about 65″ range or so….Joe

Ken Toney says:

on April 18, 2013 at 9:33 pm

Joe, I hate I’m missing Orlando PSW but I’ll see you and Moose in Vegas!

Brin Reynolds says:

on April 19, 2013 at 12:41 am

Great advice for sure, amazing what difference a modifier makes.

Val says:

on April 19, 2013 at 1:12 am

How do those flashes stay on the triflash? I’ve had Nikons fall off brackets that rely on a gripping action and haven’t found any that have the lock hole required.

Rey Cuba says:

on April 19, 2013 at 8:15 am

Is important to understand this alternatives for me living in a poor country and subject to limitations, sometimes an umbrella and small flashes is all I found at my reach, this is why I want to thank you for your always incisive way of portrait light.

Tom McKean says:

on April 19, 2013 at 8:22 am

Hi Joe. Wonderful article on umbrella lighting. Especially using the larger sizes. I have been experimenting with a 60″ octa, and am getting some very nice results.

Thanks for your very nice article on umbrella lighting. Can’t wait to see what you and Lastolight come up with in new designs.

Nate Parker says:

on April 20, 2013 at 2:54 pm

I don’t usually shoot flash as a landscaper, but when I read about it: the best lessons are here. Good stuff Mr. Joe. Thanks man.

Sebastian says:

on April 20, 2013 at 6:25 pm

Hi master Joe,

I know this may be hard to explain with just a few lines of words. But please try. I really like the retouching of the pics from Saudi Arabia. Like the colors that blend together nicely. What are the basics of how to retouch this kind of image?


Nikolay says:

on April 21, 2013 at 8:57 am

Lately my umbrellas are remaining in my bag unused most of the time, but after going through this post I feel like taking them out and giving them a second chance 😉
For my latest photo shoot instead of the umbrellas I decided to go for the White Bed Sheet as my feel light (initially I was planning to use 2-3 umbrellas to cover the job).
I’m really glad Joe that you are the kind of person that like to share your own experience which very often gives me the inspirational spark to try different approaches to my lighting and also to think out of the box.

Stevie Purves says:

on April 21, 2013 at 12:45 pm

Hi Joe, Brilliant article, I’ve just started with using umbrellas for a light source with an SB600 in TTL and have been experimenting with your help here and on Kelby Training – amazing work, thank you!

Cynthia says:

on April 21, 2013 at 4:57 pm

I use umbrellas almost every time for portraits- easy to transport and don’t cost a lot to replace when they get knocked over. I never thought about moving the speed lights inside them to mold the light (duh!) Thanks for the article.

Karen says:

on April 22, 2013 at 9:45 am

Looks like you made it onto the BBC news feed today, Joe. Or at least the “Day in Pictures” pic of photographers shooting Maria Sharapova sure likes you aiming into the Porsche.

Shannon Doser Real Estate Group says:

on April 23, 2013 at 4:31 pm

I absolutely love these pictures. Way to break away from the traditional.

Ken Tan says:

on April 27, 2013 at 4:57 am

Great advise, Joe! Gonna definitely take out my umbrella again and start using them.

imageCORE says:

on May 2, 2013 at 11:00 am

Joe! This is great! Thanks for the post. I will be following this blog from now.

Jonathan Ellul says:

on May 2, 2013 at 8:56 pm

you are a rockstar. thanks for all the fantastic info.

london wedding photos says:

on May 3, 2013 at 6:42 am

shows you you don’t need a ton of kit

Ian Hamilton says:

on June 14, 2013 at 5:36 am

Knowledge, not kit ….. :)

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