Photography umbrellas are useful because they soften flash, which is typically quite harsh. Soft light transitions more gradually between areas of light and dark, and therefore erases some of the hard lines created by shadow. It’s one of those frustrating instances where more accessories actually translates to a more ‘natural’ look, and not the other way around. However, umbrellas can feel intimidating for newbie photographers, probably because they remind us of waiting to get our class photos taken at school. Still, if you want to achieve a more professional look, then it’s worth learning how they work.
Figure Out How to Diffuse the Light
There are two types of flash umbrellas to choose from: reflective and shoot through. Reflective umbrellas throw light e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e. Just willy-nilly in a 180 degree radius. They have an opaque covering on the outside so that light doesn’t pass right through them. Shoot through umbrellas work the opposite way. They let you shoot a flash through a camera umbrella to expand the light source directly. Shoot through umbrellas can change the color of the final image, but this isn’t always a bad thing. Some photographers use gold-lined umbrellas to create the illusion of warmer skin tones. Shoot through umbrellas also let you shoot closer to the subject, which is great for portraiture.
Figure Out Your Preferred Shape
You’ve got some options here too. Regular silver-lined umbrellas are a classic stand by. They feature a convex shape made from triangular panels, and are good for groups and shooting fifteen to twenty feet away from your subjects. Parabolic umbrellas are usually larger with many smaller panels to produce a better focal point. Some photographers argue that they give you better control, and more natural light.
Figure Out if You Actually Want a Softbox
Essentially, the Softbox is a wire-framed box with a white or silver cloth stretched across it that directs light evenly outward (i.e. creates a larger source of light). Softboxes are super hip these days, and for good reason. Whether you use a flash or constant light for video, the softbox can, ahem, soften your images for a more commercial aesthetic. Unlike an umbrella, which bounces light every which way, a softbox helps direct it for better control. They come in lots of different sizes, so you can use them both in-studio and as portable accessories.
Ultimately, the goal here is to create softer light than flash alone. You create soft light by producing a larger light source, and there are a few ways to do that. Old fashioned umbrellas will certainly do the trick, especially for larger groups. However, parabolic umbrellas and softboxes provide more focus and better direction.