At the end of every workshop I inevitably get asked the desert island question. If you don’t know what I mean it usually goes something like this: “If you had your camera, one Speedlight, and had to pick just a single light modifier, what would it be?” Similar to what would you bring with you if you were stranded on a deserted island.

This is tough, but there is one tool that’s so versatile that I recommend everyone have it somewhere in their kit. That is the 60″ Umbrella with removable black cover. It’s easy to make an umbrella appear smaller but impossible to make it physically bigger, so that’s why I prefer the 60″ instead of a more common 32″ or 43″ umbrella. Versatility is the key here. Outside of using it as an actual umbrella in case it rains someday on your deserted island, it has a wealth of possible applications, overlooked by many photographers.

Lets jump in and cover the obvious ways to setup this umbrella. Right out of the box it can be used in the standard bounce position. This produces a wide spread of light capable of lighting backgrounds or groups of people. Secondly I like to remove the black cover and shoot through the umbrella for optimally soft light. This is achieved by bringing the umbrella in as close as possible to your models face, and allowing the white material to enlarge and diffuse the light before hitting the models face.

The two previously mentioned applications produce the light output needed to photograph most things, but they both lack a degree of control. When your Speedlight hits an umbrella it bounces off and flies all over the place, sometimes lighting things in the image you don’t want it to.

I mentioned that when using the umbrella out of the box, as a bounce umbrella with backing attached, it creates a large spread. This is great when lighting groups and backgrounds. What if I only want to light my subject though, and not splash a ton of light all over the wall or background behind them? I would usually employ a softbox here for more directional light control. A similar level of control can be achieved with our umbrella though. By leaving the backing attached and collapsing the umbrella down partway, we focus the beam of light, much like a softbox would. Now we can aim it at our subject with a much narrower spread, allowing us to leave the background dark if we wish.

What about the reverse now? When using your umbrella in the shoot through orientation it acts like a “light grenade”… letting light through but also bouncing it back and all over the place! If I want to light a portrait I don’t want the models shoulder or cloths to be as bright as her face. This would be distracting and take away from our models eyes, which are the focal point. To prevent this I can shoot through my umbrella without entirely removing the black cover. By leaving the cover attached to the bottom of the umbrella it blocks the light from hitting her shoulder, but still lets the light through up top. Resulting in more control, with the same quaility of light, from the same light modifier.

With these techniques you can light most anything with one modifier, so if I had the choice, I’d never leave home without a large umbrella with removable back. How many different ways can you think to use it?

Westcott Gear in Action:

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