Afraid to open my umbrella outdoors

It seems that for a long time I fell out of the habit of using umbrellas when I shot. It was just one more thing to carry and set up, one more thing to break down or break on the job. As a news photographer I always wanted to get ready quickly and be as light and nimble with my gear as I could be. So most of the time I just used the little diffuser caps that came with my Nikon flashes or bounced them against the wall, if there was a handy wall. Lately, though, I've been using them a bit more, and I'm remembering what nice light they can produce in a very controlled way. You can get a nice soft spread if you get the umbrella close enough, though that can limit how much you or your subjects can move around. One way to get around that limitation is to create a bank of lights by putting two or more umbrellas side by side. But more about that in another post.

This photo of Catherine & Rich uses just one shoot-through umbrella a little to their left and about five feet away. My Norman 400B (which I also rarely use, for the same reasons I generally have not carried umbrellas on shoots) was triggered with a Pocket Wizard, enabling me to get back away from the couple about 60 feet and shoot with a telephoto to compress the couple and the nicely-backlit fronds and the fall foliage in the background. If you visit the link to their shoot you will see some shots from the same situation shot wide, and you don't get nearly as nice an effect from the many layers that can be had from this scene.

The results were nice, but this shoot did remind me of one more reason I often didn't use umbrellas outdoors: wind. The very gentle breeze on this autumn day was enough to topple my light stand, even with that fairly heavy battery pack anchoring the bottom. Fortunately, Rich is pretty light on his feet and was able to catch it both times it started to tip. But you'll also notice that many of the other pictures in that gallery were shot without any light supplementing the ambient.

Just a few days later, a mild breeze knocked over my
stand at a family portrait shoot and bent the umbrella pretty much past the point of repair. Bummer. And we're only talking about 5-10 mph winds here. A few years ago I had a gust of maybe 25 mph rip an umbrella right out of an assistant's hands (and out of the stand bracket) and after a 60-foot flight it landed on the hood of a very nice car during a corporate shoot. That may have been when I decided it was time to quit using. Umbrellas, that is.

Why, you ask, don't I use sandbags or weights to hold down my stands like all the big movie stars do? Again, that's more stuff to carry. My lovely wife often assists me on shoots, but just as often I'm out there schlepping everything myself. And while I've managed to reduce my load to under 20 pounds thanks to good zoom lenses and lightweight speedlights it still gets tiring after carting it around for an hour or two, and the last thing I need is another 20 pounds or more of something whose only benefit is that it's heavy.

On the shoot for Liz & Steve out in one of our lovely state parks, I felt pretty confident about setting up a light stand with two SB-800's and an umbrella out in the middle of the water.

The reason: big, heavy rocks.

Rivers are full of 'em. So after setting up my light and forcing my unsuspecting victims to balance on a nearby boulder I packed two or three large stones against the base of my stand and happily moved on down the bank to shoot them from afar. Mind you, we had darned little rainfall last year: if this river had been at its normal levels I probably wouldn't have dared plant a stand in it. And there was no wind on this day, so I could be daring. The downside: I did have to have my soaking-wet shoes on for about 4 hours until I got home.

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