Let's talk light modifiers. As you know, I usually like to be creative about light modifiers. I'm a huge DIY'er. If I'm shooting products or someone I know, I like to push the limits and experiment with homemade mods. I'm known to use anything from trash bags and Tupperware, to shape light. Unfortunately, If I'm shooting a client, who is actually paying, I lean towards using actual professional photography equipment. Preparing a set with trash bags and Tupperware will, undoubtedly, make the client run for the nearest exit.
Rule of thumb: trash bags for friends, family and inanimate objects, real stuff when money is exchanged.
I've used a few different brands of umbrellas and being the cheapo that I am, I have usually bought the least expensive modifiers on the market. Today, share my experiences with my newest light modifier. It is the Calumet 45" umbrella with removable back.
I have to admit, the build of this light modifier has gone far and beyond my expectations. The first thing that I noticed was the solid, metal (unsure of the exact metal) shaft. You may be thinking, "what's the big deal?" Let me tell you, it is a huge deal.
Most of the less expensiv
e umbrellas, regardless of brand, are built with a hollow shaft. Don't get me wrong, if you are only shooting indoors, the hollow shafted umbrella will do the trick. On the other hand if you are shooting outdoors, the hollow shaft can cause disaster. Here's a quick lesson. An outdoor photography shoot will introduce elements such as light (useful) and wind (not as useful). You are using your brand new (hollow) umbrella to get create interesting light. You are prepared for the elements. Strapped to your light stand is a bag of bricks. You were smart enough to know that the umbrella will want to catch some wind and go bye bye. Now, everything seems to be stable. No wind is going to take away your 500 pound umbrella. You were correct, to some extent. Instead of taking the whole contraption, mother nature just snaps the umbrella shaft, like a twig, takes the most important part of the umbrella and leaves you with the remains of that God awful, hollow shaft. Good news is that you may be able to use shard of metal for your next DIY light modifier project, umbrella from scratch.
The DIY remedy to the crappy shaft problem? Many photographers have found that pencils fit in the shaft quite snugly. That will be a temporary fix as an umbrella shaft is only as strong as its weakest link. That weak link is were any of the pencils meet. A nice gust could still destroy that shaft.
Get the point? I'm sure the solid shaft is not indestructible but it will outlast the hollow shafted umbrella any day of the week. Don't believe it? Go to any Calumet store and feel it out yourself. You will not be disappointed.
The rest of the umbrella is put together quite nicely. The fabric quality is noticed immediately. I'm not sure if different textiles are incorporated or if it is just a more dense satin fabric. Maybe I'm crazy and it's identical to other umbrellas. Whatever it is, it just feels extra durable. Now, if I'm not crazy and the fabric is actually thicker, there could be a downside. A heavier fabric can eat up some strobe power. The difference would be so insignificant that you would be oblivious to the fact that you had to bump the flash power up 1/3 of a stop.
The Calumet logo is made of a small thick rubber rectangle, firmly sewn to the shiny, removable black back. Some brands have their logo screen printed to the fabric. And I know you are wondering what technical significance this will make in your photography career. Absolutely nothing. I just thought that it looked cool.
Does size really matter? You betcha! Bigger is better and if anyone tells you different, it is because they don't have one as big and they are jealous.
Umbrellas have numerous functions. Some are white and made to shoot through. Some are silver that are created to shoot into. Others, like my new Calumet umbrella, are capable of both. Deciding to shoot into or through is a matter of lighting style and taste. Shooting through the umbrella will yield a soft wrapping light. On the other hand, shooting into the umbrella can produce edgier, harder light. What the hell does this have to do with umbrella size? Relax, I will share.
I'm not going to get in every scientific detail about light but I will try to sum it up in a few sentences.
Flash is a small light source, even up close. A bare flash will create hard shadows.
The sun is an enourmous light source. Given that the sun is 92,955,807.27 miles away, it appears to be small. The sun, on a clear day, produces hard shadows.
On a cloudy day, shadows become softer.
Through an umbrella shadows become softer.
What has changed?
The apparent light size.
On a cloudy day, the clouds become the sun's light modifier, diffusing the harsh apparently small light. The umbrella works like the clouds on a smaller scale. The flash is, in actuality, small, regardless of distance. By shooting into or through and umbrella, you are, in essence, creating a larger source. This larger source of light will, in return, produce softer shadows.
Does size really matter?
Actually, the real answer can be debated. If you are going for large diffuse light, then bigger is indeed, better. If you are looking for edgier, hard light, then smaller is your best bet.
What does this all mean to someone in the market for a light modifier of the umbrella type? First of all, you need to consider your lighting goals, as a photographer. Don't skimp on size simply to save a few bucks. You will regret it, I promise.
Now that you understand (I hope) apparent light size, I will discuss why I chose a 45 inch umbrella. The umbrellas, regardless of brand, come in many different sizes. I thought long and hard about which size suited my needs. First, I knew I didn't want anything on the small end. I was looking into the insanely big, Paul C. Buff 86 inch PLM (parabolic light modifier). This would create a enormous light source. But would it be practical? Far from it. This light modifier would be ideal for a large studio setting but shooting on location, that beast can become very cumbersome. Paul C. Buff also makes a 64 and a 51 inch PLM. I was leaning towards the 51 inch. I thought this would be large enough for my needs but not so large to be the proverbial "bull in the china shop." As the 51 inch PLM was about to be ordered (a gift of sorts), I noticed that they were on back order. Bummer. I didn't have time to wait for them to produce more so I had to come up with a back up plan. Sorry Paul. Calumet rarely disappoints. It is the largest and closest professional photographer's retail store in town. Okay, there are a few that are closer but don't have nearly as much equipment. I figured that I could sacrifice six inches and go for the 45. This size, as it turns out, is a perfectly sized light modifier. Versatile, would have to be the best way to explain it. At 45 inches, it can create large beautiful light. If needed, I could choke the flash up to create a smaller apparent light source.
I'm not going to sit here all day and induce carpal tunnel syndrome trying to defend my point of view about this umbrella. The bottom line is that it is an awesome light modifier. And, best of all, it was only thirty bucks. Sweet.
What About the Photograph?
For all of the junkies dying to know the technical details of the photograph above. . . tough. Just kidding but I'm going to keep it short and sweet.
First of all, I wanted readers to see the actual size of the umbrella in action.
Handheld Canon 400d with battery grip.
Canon 430EX ii speedlite at 1/16.
Calumet 45" umbrella, back removed to shoot through (duh and duh).
Strobe linked via Lumopro Universal Translators.
Shutter speed: 1/60 (slow for my style but flash freezes motion, no worries, hand held too.)
Focal length: 18mm
ISO: 1600 (yes, that is uncharted territory compared to my usual ISO 100, call me crazy)
Post Processing: the usual suspects with the added black and white conversion in Nik's Silver Efex Pro.
Bruno (bottom left of frame, just below the umbrella)