Umbrellas are for rain!

I was never a big fan of flash photography. When I got my first DSLR, the D60, I got the most basic available flash with it (the $100 SB-400) so that at least I could try and bounce light off the ceiling, and avoid the reflections and highlights that are inevitable when you flash something head on. I greatly preferred not to use flash at all, but the high ISO performance of the D60, and relatively low speed of the 18-200 lens I used exclusively on the D60 didn’t really make this possible. Indoors, flash was required, though fortunately the SB-400 was a cheap and competent performer. With the D60, 34% of the pictures I took used flash.

The D90’s improved high ISO looked like it would allow me to avoid flash even more, especially because it coincided with getting my first prime lenses, the 50/1.4 and 85/1.8, which do much better in low light situations. But this was mitigated by a couple of things. First, besides being relatively dark inside, the quality of light in our home was poor – ISO aside, things looked better and colors looked more natural with flash. Second, Greg convinced me I should get the better SB-600, which I did; the ability to bounce at any angle and remotely trigger the flash from an off camera position caused significant improvements. Thanks Greg! With the D90, 40% of the pictures I took used flash.

Moving to the D7000 offered even better high ISO performance, but was so clear at ISO 100 that staying low using flash was also appealing. Most of my time with the D7000 has seen in paired with the SB-600, though I did recently go to the marginally better SB-800 (which also provided two flashes in total), after picking it up in that lot sale I mentioned earlier. So far, I’m a good bit lower at 33.5% flash with the D7000, though this is artificially low because I spent winter (usually a high-flash situation) in Asia, often outdoors, with flash not being necessary. So interesting that my flash use seems more or less consistent!

One thing that didn’t change, though, is where I used flash – almost all indoor photos, if light was poor, used flash, and virtually all outdoor photos did not. Fill flash even outdoors can be recommended, but I rarely used this for three reasons – it’s usually head-on (no walls to bounce off outdoors!) so it has that direct flash look I don’t like, it adds too much bulk if I’m not carrying a camera bag (which I usually don’t), and perhaps because of different light temperatures, I just never liked the actual color that was created.

This past weekend was the first real exception to this rule; Wen and I dragged some flash gear to Edwards Gardens to try things out, and the results were interesting! We brought the umbrella I got recently (and had only used it to shoot the pictures of the Lensbaby I mentioned in this post), but with the top removed for use in shoot-through mode, paired with an SB-800. It’s a matter of taste, but I liked the result:

An unexpected side effect of this was that the output duration of a flash is so fast (typically 1/700th – 1/1000th of a second) that it freezes those ever-moving kids, often much more than is possible with available light shooting (natural light allowed for 1/60th, f/4.5, ISO 200). In conjunction with the awesome sharpness of the 70-200/2.8 used to take the above, the amount of detail captured was pretty stunning (a 100% crop of the eye area):

Greg commented that it looked like the umbrella was too close, and he might be right, though I actually don’t mind the effect and indeed think I prefer it. I actually thought it should¬†be close, both from the few explanations I’ve seen of how people light a scene, and from this very helpful article for beginners by David “Strobist” Hobby, “Lighting 101: Umbrellas” – well worth reading – in which he states a preference for shoot-through umbrellas “because¬†you can bring it right up next to someone’s face for both power and softness“. Of course, just do what you think looks good!

We tried a few other things, like using a second SB-600 from behind to create some hair highlights; this picture wasn’t focused well, but does demonstrate the effect:

A more subdued version of this with Linxi:

It was actually impossible to really adjust this because you had to get lucky to get the kids in the frame at all and to have both flashes fire (with no walls for reflections, the rear flash often won’t fire). Still interesting, though!

You might look at this and say hey, this (and several recent posts) don’t look at all like supposedly non-photographer stuff; walking around a public park with multiple remote-triggered flashes and a shoot-through umbrella seems to cross some sort of “seriousness” line. I’ll comment on this separately at some point, but will just mention a couple of things:

  1. I agree! This was just a fun experiment, and has zero chance of becoming part of my regular kid-shooting routing. It doesn’t work at all if there aren’t two of you taking pictures, and believe me, Valerie is not going to ever help me with something like this!
  2. I still prefer natural light, since as a non-photographer I want to capture a memory as opposed to creating a photo that isn’t what things actually looked like. That said, we go out when it’s convenient for the kids, not when the light is good, so having this as an option is a good idea.
  3. If you already have a flash, a shoot through umbrella is actually just about $25-30, and is actually more portable than a regular umbrella. We did have a bracket for the flash, but didn’t bother with a stand and often just let the umbrella sit on the grass. This is a pretty cheap way to get a lot more out of your existing flash!

Olivia’s reaction to the whole umbrella thing was funny, of course, she was convinced we were just bringing it along because it was going to rain – even though there was barely a cloud in the sky! Of course, then she proceeded to show who’s the boss, by making it rain grass on the umbrella!

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