Like many, I came to off-camera flash though David Hobby’s Strobist blog, and like many tucked into his recommendations for off camera flash gear readily and happily. Among those is this, the F. J. Westcott 43-inch double fold umbrella.
Westcott offers the same basic umbrella design in 3 styles; a soft silver reflective umbrella; an optical white satin shoot though umbrella, and an optical white satin convertible shoot-through or bounce umbrella. With the latter two, being essentially the same basic umbrella either with, or without, an opaque cover included.
Since I purchased mine, Westcott has improved the basic design. Specifically, they’ve included a solid steel insert in the end of the umbrella shaft to prevent the shaft from being crushed when clamped into an umbrella bracket. My older version lacks this amenity. However, I’ve yet to crush my unreinforced shaft either.
Of the three options Westcott offers, the convertible shoot through (white satin with cover) offers an the most flexibility for shaping light. When used as a bounce source, the cover prevents spill from flooding the entire back of the room. When used as a shoot though source the cover can be partially applied to control spill on the subject. Further, the umbrella can be set closer to the flash, and the flash’s zoom adjusted to control the size of the source and thus the hardness of the shadows. I have both a convertible shoot though and a silver bounce and I find that I almost never use the bounce once.
For all the good they are, there are two downsides to umbrellas. First is that they don’t control spill well, or really, at all. Secondly, regardless of whether you’re shooting though or bouncing off the umbrella the framework will show up in reflective surfaces.
One final note, since the umbrella sits so far from the light source, and is so exposed, these can be used with tungsten hot lights, either for video work, or for the 250-500W modeling lamps of studio strobes. Pairing these umbrellas with an inexpensive work light makes a decent quality source for entry level video productions.
While I find I increasingly prefer a softbox to an umbrella for light control and spill reasons, it’s hard to deny the utility of an umbrella. For the $25-30 one the convertible shoot-through double folds run, it’s hard to recommend against having at least 1 or 2 in your kit.