I recently said that if I were allowed only one light for the rest of my life I’d choose a huge white umbrella. But if you’re just getting started with off-camera flash, I highly recommend a small collapsible white shoot-through umbrella. OCF with an umbrella is forgiving and highly versatile. Let me tell you about this shot.

Soft light and drama with an OCF umbrella

I had the pleasure of photographing this jazz band several years ago. Naturally, the bass caught my eye as an intriguing object that we were photographing in a grungy alley. I knew I wanted a dramatic look, but I also knew we needed a soft light so there wouldn’t be shiny spots on the instrument. Who am I kidding? I always look for soft light anyway. And did I mention that it costs $9?

Directional light

The umbrella was a good choice here because it’s very soft, but still directional with a gentle falloff. Directional means it puts light where you point it. Unless you try to use one of those silver reflective umbrellas; those disperse light everywhere with little control.


Falloff describes the edge of the light on the subject. The light through a white umbrella is brighter in the center and fades toward the edges, but doesn’t have a distinct edge. You can even accentuate that bright spot in the center. Positioning the light deeper in the umbrella and closer to the fabric will make the center brighter than the edges. In this case, I had the light far back from the fabric but still connected to the stick.

You can see the light is pointed at the player’s head, which gives a lovely light on the neck and head of the bass, but falls off toward the bridge and his other hand. That leaves some mystery and keeps high contrast in the photo without harsh light. That high contrast yields the dramatic look I was going for.

OCF umbrella is a good start

Whether you’re new at off-camera flash or you have loads of experience, using a white shoot-through umbrella is a simple way to get lots of drama and soft light without spending a lot of cash. It’s directional and gentle and easy to use. The falloff of light can add drama to your composition and your clients will love it.

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