Sunday, November 21, 2010

Substituting an Umbrella for a Ring Light

Just a quick-hit post today on when and how to use your umbrella as a faux ring light -- and when it may be even better than the real thing.

Save some bucks, and/or get a completely different look, inside.

I usually use some kind of fill light on, or near, the optical axis. The classic solution is a ring flash, but an umbrella right behind the camera can be a good substitute.

A ring flash will give you a signature wrap-around shadow on any background near your subject. This can be true even if your ring is only being used as a fill. It is just the nature of the beast. Sometimes that works for you, but sometimes you want to get rid of it.

One way to nuke that shadow is to throw a little light on the background just to overcome the shadow being created by the ring. Such was the case in this portrait (left) of Ian in Leeds last spring. You can overpower it, as here, or you can just give it enough oomph to fill the shadow without leaving a glow of its own.

Another way to get away from the ring shadow is to use an umbrella behind the lens. Generally, you are going to have a little more light up top only because you will be blocking some of the light that coming from the lower half of the the umbrella.

Consider the photo of Lem, at the top of the page. This was an instance where an on-axis umbrella was not only cheaper, but absolutely better than a ring would have been. Any shadow on the wall being created by the umbrella is happening below Lem, and is blocked by the chair.

The background light is a bare speedlight being skimmed across the wall at a hard angle from back camera left. The key is just a gridded, 1/4 CTO'd speedlight coming in from back camera right, just raking his face. Everything else is being lit by the umbrella behind the camera. It's such a big light source -- and so close to the axis -- that it does not call attention to itself.

If you want to create soft, on-axis fill much like the light on Dasha (left) you can do that with an umbrella, too. Although this photo was made with an ABR-800 and a Moon Unit, you can approximate this single-light look with an umbrella right behind your lens.

You'll just need to do two things -- make sure the shaft of the umbrella is right on the lens axis, and get your light-blocking butt out of the way.

Easy answer: Use a tripod. A camera on sticks with even a small umbrella exactly behind the lens will get you some pretty cool light. And a big umbrella will really make something special. You may want to cover your eyepiece (shutter on a Nikon, cap or gaffer's tape on other cameras) to keep that light from influencing your chip from the back.

Experiment with the exposure, too, as putting someone on white seamless with this light and giving a little extra exposure can give you a very etherial look. Especially cool, when you consider you can do it with one, cheap light.


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Blogger Paul Bennett said...

I think that portrait was actually taken in Leeds.

November 21, 2010 8:41 AM  
Blogger Sean said...

Are you shooting thru the umbrella or reflecting off the umbrella.

November 21, 2010 9:04 AM  
Blogger Victor said...

I come to expect genius from your site but this is utterly awesome!
I'm off to try it out now....

November 21, 2010 9:33 AM  
Blogger LudaChris said...

It's almost as if you are reading my mind.
I consistently find myself wondering about certain lighting topics, check Strobist blog, see exact thing I was wondering about. Your blog is the best, most helpful, and most enjoyable thing on the web.
Was just kicking around an Orbis purchase but wondering how an on axis umbrella would do.
Thanks 10 million times.

November 21, 2010 10:07 AM  
Blogger fishtoprecords said...

Would live a setup photo of the shot of Dasha. Or a bit more explaination.

You write that the umbrella was right behind the lens, and that the umbrella shaft was right next to the lens. With no mention of the camera body. Unless I'm confused, usually behind the lens is a body.

Did you have the umbrella behind the body, on-axis with the lens centerline?

I could imagine that with a big umbrella, the body would not block much of the light, leaving a while (or CTO'd) ring of light for the subject

November 21, 2010 10:28 AM  
Blogger David said...


Indeed. Fixed (thanks!)


Shooting through. As almost always.


Thanks for the kind words. And you are welcome, ten million times.


Second sentence in the Dasha section is:

"Although this photo was made with an ABR-800 and a Moon Unit, you can approximate this single-light look with an umbrella right behind your lens."

[smartass] In the post, some of the type in that sentence is set in blue. If you move your curser over that type and click, it will take you to a different web page altogether. That web page will probably help. [/smartass]

November 21, 2010 11:30 AM  
Blogger RayPlay said...

Short, sweet and brilliant.
Thx so much.

November 21, 2010 11:51 AM  
Blogger Eric Duminil said...

Thanks for the post.

I'm not sure I understand : why would the "light influence the chip from the back" ?

Isn't the lens the only way for the light to hit the sensor?


November 21, 2010 4:01 PM  
Blogger Ernie said...

Another terrific post - thanks. Would love to see an example of the etherial look you mention - maybe an idea for a new post.

November 21, 2010 6:19 PM  
Blogger Adam Swords said...

Used this method today for some full length portraits of mountain bike racers but used a 5ft octa behind me instead. Makes for some really attention grabbing, yet subtle light when complimented by another more obvious key.

November 21, 2010 6:20 PM  
Blogger p. said...

David, could you please share your thoughts on the Orbis vs. Juergen Specht's Helmet Umbrella for on-axis fill? Many thanks.

November 21, 2010 7:44 PM  
Blogger David said...


No, I won't be doing that, thank you...

November 22, 2010 1:00 AM  
Blogger alim said...

Great post David, thanks!

I find the tapered light on the arm of the chair very interesting.
I really love how it fades down the chair. This coupled with the gridded key, really makes the subject pop!

This leads me to the question of the on-axis umbrella fill. I would have thought with the shoot-thru that the light on the chair would have been more even across the face of the chair, as light is being thrown all around.

Was the umbrella positioned much higher than Lem, throwing the "hot" spot onto the wall behind him? OR is the flash powered low enough that it naturally tapers?

Could the same effect be accomplished by leaving part of the umbrella cover on?


November 22, 2010 2:08 AM  
Blogger Emmanuel said...

What a great post! I am so gonna try this today !

November 22, 2010 5:57 AM  
Blogger Lola said...

Any chance of a bit more info on the background spot light? Im not having much luck getting the right effect with mine. So you bare bulb it you say to skim across the back wall? Any chance of a pic of where you place this light? and what your beam is set to ?

November 22, 2010 10:25 AM  
Blogger David said...


I (as in my XL butt) am blocking a lot of the light that would be hitting the chair by shooting from in front of the umbrella.


Try zooming it to its most tele setting, and/or snooting the flash. Barebulb is not the answer.

November 22, 2010 11:14 AM  
Blogger Jake said...

Great idea, thanks for sharing.

Actually, it's a great idea for as much as I think I understand it. But I have to ask (as I imagine others have before), why not shoot a pic of the setup to include in articles like this one? One fuzzy camera phone picture of what you're talking about would increase clarity and understanding 1000%


November 22, 2010 12:18 PM  
Blogger glenn kaupert said...

using the technique of this post would work well with shooting tethered, making the exposure from the computer.

November 22, 2010 12:32 PM  
Blogger Darryl said...


Light can enter through the eyepiece as well. Normally, your eye is blocking it. It's usually not an issue unless like in this case you are flashes a bright light right into it. The other times are long exposure at night.

November 22, 2010 12:56 PM  
Blogger Joel said...

I think you had mentioned this technique before, and it's a great idea!
Photovision just finished up their 2011 tour, and as I was looking through their pictures on facebook, this picture jumped off the screen at me. Talk about a HUGE ringlight!!
(apologies in advance if you don't like to link to facebook, but I thought this illustrated your point perfectly!)

November 22, 2010 5:09 PM  
Blogger steven rix said...

Awesome! I'm gonna try as soon as I can.

November 22, 2010 8:43 PM  
Blogger Eric Duminil said...


Thanks a lot for the explanation, I never thought about it, and will definitely use your advice for long exposures.

I'll try to take a picture with the lens cap on while firing a strobe at full power into the eyepiece.
Who knows, it might even be useful for white vignette/high key pictures?

November 23, 2010 7:49 AM  
Blogger Ken said...

@Dave @Daryl @Eric The eyepiece blind must have to do with ambient part of the exposure since the mirror would be up when the flash fired.

November 23, 2010 11:20 AM  
Blogger tim said...

Folks - I'm not trying to be rude, so please understand my tone.

Many of the questions you guys are raising for diagrams and clarity on what's going on in Dave's post shows that there is a lot of very basic light know-how that you're not understanding. He's provided more than enough info in this post to communicate the concept at hand: how you apply it using your particular gear then becomes a minor issue (and while the specific implementation of your specific gear will vary, the overall result will still be essentially the same).

Your real challenge is not that you need a diagram - you need basic education in how light works. A diagram will help you understand this specific principle, but your true solution lies elsewheres.

Thankfully, David has already provided a stellar remedy for your situation. Click on the "Lighting 101 Archive" and start reading - strike that - start studying. Devour this info, and other sites/books like this. Your skills in photography are *directly* related to your knowledge of how light works.

Your studies will pay off in droves!

November 23, 2010 4:00 PM  
Blogger Eric said...

... how about a picture diagram of the behind the lens...?

November 24, 2010 9:43 PM  
Blogger ShotsbyRick said...

Pretty cool, thought about it before but have never tried it. So, this afternoon, I set it up (5 minutes) took a few photos and wow, works great!

November 25, 2010 8:24 PM  

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