When it comes to light shaping, I have always gravitated towards the control and direction of soft boxes. Less spill, more definition. The umbrella, with its parabola construction, has always had its place, such as for groups, or as a last chance, desperate reach for a big drape of light to hide my ineptitude on any given disaster of a location day. But lately, out in the world, I’ve used an umbrella a lot.
I’ve found that a threesome gaggle of Speedlights into a big umbrella has real promise. I use the umbrella in shoot thru mode, and work it as close to my subjects as I can. Out in the street, or field, the excess umbrella light that typically goes sideways, bouncing off the studio or office wall and bestowing upon your photo an unwanted flatness (always a vexation in a confined space) simply disappears over the hill. The remaining lovely wash of light wraps the subject(s) up in very forgiving fashion. For just plain folks, it’s real nice light. Given the movie star quality of Natalie and Cali, above, it’s damn near rapturous.
Works up close, and retains its essential “niceness” even when you pull back. The source below is pretty far away from the high flying Natalie.
It doesn’t take up much room in the kit bag, and affixed to a pole, it is quite mobile. The three Speedlight arrangement gives you enough punch to go high speed sync without breaking too much of a sweat, and now, with radio TTL nature of the SB-5000, there are no line of sight issues. It’s light, fast and damn handy. The rig consists of a Lastolite 4 in 1 umbrella, which is 51″ across, and has four distinct ways of using it, coupled with a ratcheting Tri-flash. The ratchet feature, along with the swivel heads of the Speedlights, enables you to “weight” the shaper with more or less light by clicking the flashes up or down or side to side, pushing more or less light into a quadrant of the umbrella. Pop the whole thing onto a boom pole extender, and you’ve got a very mobile, very beautiful light source. Works terrific with a Profoto B-2 as well. Great for moving fast and lighting well.
Both pics above shot on a D5 and my go to lens, the 24-70. All shot in Tuscany! Many thanks to all our participants, and to the wondrous pairing of Liza Politi and photog Ari Espay, who between the two of them run the aptly named Fancy Girl, Street Boy Productions. They did the heavy lifting of making sure we had great opportunities for pictures out there in the beautiful environs of Italy.
Irene A, Boudoir Photography Maryland says
Interesting post – interesting because I seem to be moving in the opposite direction. I have been using a quad flash bracket with 4 speedlites and an umbrella outdoors for years, whereas in the past 1-2 months, I have started gravitating towards using a westcott rapid box with a 40 degree grid and single speedlite outdoors. I’m finding the single speedlite is fine when photographing in shade or later in the day. I am really enjoying the more directional light! In fact, I very much wish that Westcott made 10 or 20 degree grids for their rapid boxes as well.. (I am still using the umbrella setup, though, for 3 people or more.) Thanks for sharing your experience, as always.
Robb McCormick says
I’ve been following you since I was an amateur photographer and over a decade ago I quit my day job to pursue a successful career in photography. I love your use of light and the basis of all my photos start with the right light. There are just so many types of light, both naturally and artificially. I agree and would prefer to work with lights where you can control the spill.
Working with constant lights has really taught me to “see the light”. But, there really is a light for every job. It all just depends on what you’re shooting.
I mainly use Elinchrom Quadras, Canon Speedlites, Westcott IceLights and some special use stuff like a Lowell Spot Light.
I love the IceLight when shooting on the fly for a wedding day in low light. It’s great for placing shadows on the cheek bones and having the ability to quickly place light in the right spot. For large jobs I have had a ton of luck with the Elinchrom quadra. I use a deep octa for singles and couples. I have a square modifier that is great for family and group shots. Lately, I’ve been loving the MagMod Grids and I’ve been using them extensively for receptions. They really make the bride and groom pop out of the image when you are a stop or two brighter than the background. It almost turns into a spot light. Combine it with a back light and it’s pretty magical.
Anyways, I just wanted to say thanks for the inspiration and teaching very technical thinking. I grew up playing classical piano, was obsessed with chess and taught piano for 15 years before start my life journey with photography. I know everyone is different, but your analytical way of approaching photography really resonates with me. My whole philosophy is based on creating dramatic light and providing a wonderful experience……good light and genuine moments.
Thanks for all you do for the photography community. You are truly an inspiration and have been a huge influence in my work.
Joe McNally says
Wow, I’m honored, Robb, by the thoughtful and kind nature of your note. I really appreciate it. Makes all the difference, knowing that, at least occasionally, as a teacher, or just in the course of passing on experience, someone is picking up on it and there is impact. I’m glad you are doing so well. I dropped by your website and you are shooting really nice stuff. Many thanks, your note made my day….best, Joe
Mads Pallesen says
Hi Joe, love your work and your blog posts.
Being an amateur photog, I’m dreaming of a Nikon pro body instead of my current D750 (which is a great camera too). Now the D5 looks amazing bt quite $$$. So I was thinking of a used D4, D4s or even D3s. Any thoughts or recommandations? Are they still nice today or will they feel like a step down from D750 being slightly older?
Which would be your recommendation/ which is the sweet spot of the above mentioned bodies?
I mainly do reportage style people photography in natural/available light. So, fast and accurate AF and great AWB and JPEG engine are high priorities.
Thanks once again,
Joe McNally says
Hi Mads….The D750 rocks as a camera. Had a couple and really enjoyed them. Dunno on backtracking. The D3s was my favorite camera for a long time. Tough, great hi ISO, really just a solid, go to camera. But that tech is now two generations ago, and you may find ultimately some issues should it need repairing. D4s is an excellent camera, for sure, but I’m pretty sure (and I don’t completely know this) that D750 AF is probably very close in terms of performance with D4s. In the neighborhood for sure. It’s hard, of course, cause the technology just keeps marching forward. Sure I’m not being particularly helpful here, but I do remember the D750 when I used it being a good performer. Best, Joe
Mads Pallesen says
Just something really alluring about trying a pro body with the rock solid build, more direct controls and quick AF. I heard that D4s AF should be better performing in real world use than D750 although they look similar on spec sheet.
How is AWB and JPEG in the pro bodies?
Thanks for getting back to me – much appreciated and honoured.
Vanilla Gorilla says
Look at Cali expanding his skillset. Photographer,vidieographer and now model, Mr. Joe you have one talented assistant!!!
Pankaj Aneja says
Wow Joe McNally! These photographs proves that, you are an expert photographer. These all the photographs are amazing.
Brown Roz says
Hello Joe McNally,
I always read your blog at daily basis your blog is really nice amazing write up by you thanks for share your information with us
vineet k says
Umbrellas are good to use as it ensures right amount of light. Your method of using them is really good. I am professional photographer in India. Learnt something new.
Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with us, your tips will definitely help a lot.
Beau & Belle says
If your a location or wedding photographer in a hurry then an umbrella is a great tool to help get you some good light quickly. Great photos to make the point as always Joe.
Hi Mads….The D750 rocks as a camera. Had a couple and really enjoyed them. Dunno on backtracking. The D3s was my favorite camera for a long time. Tough, great hi ISO, really just a solid, go to camera. But that tech is now two generations ago, and you may find ultimately some issues should it need repairing. D4s is an excellent camera, for sure, but I’m pretty sure (and I don’t completely know this) that D750 AF is probably very close in terms of performance with D4s.
william h carter says
Hey Joe. Where you goin’ with that camera in your hand. Joe. We do not know you. But you make it feel like we do. Always great watching your videos, and you haven’t a problem showing all what you do. And how you do it. Always an honor watching a master.
Joe McNally says
Hey William! Thanks so much for the kind words! We are all in this together, and the photo community is an awesome group of folks. Proud to be a part of it….
William Carter says
Hi Joe. I emailed you on a question I had. With beauty lights. I have a lastolite pro octa
On a beauty dish it has the disk inside for bouncing light around inside. Is not an octabox basically the same excepting for the beauty light producing a harder image? Anyway. Be safe and I wish you your family, Happy holidays. And a good new year. Be safe, and be well.
Joe McNally says
Hey William….thought I had answered. I remembered writing to you about the beauty dish, but now, given my computer expertise, I have no idea if it was sent. I will answer on email, give me a bit, cool? best, Joe