Long ago I'd bought a used silver umbrella at a camera store. However wasn't sure of how or when to use it, so it just sat in my closet collecting dust, while my white, shoot through, umbrella became my go to for portrait shoots. I finally learned the great uses for a silver umbrella and recently read an awesome post by Chris Gampat, at The Phoblographer, that describes them in detail. After reading his post I decided to shoot a couple of photos of little Flint here to illustrate Chris's points.
First let's talk about the silver umbrella. I was really intrigued by the explanation Chris gave on using silver umbrellas to "give the light output more of a brilliant punch" and so be able to pick up more details from your subject. This also gave me some great ideas for some action shots for a future post. But for now, take a look at this photo of Flint.
Notice how the shadow behind him is soft, since the light from the umbrella still wraps around him pretty well. However, there is definitely some good contrast on his face and we’re able to see the great details on his nose and whiskers. Additionally, I found the following post from Dpreview.com where Chuck Gardner mentions the lightly cooler color shift that silver umbrellas can create. If you compare the photo above with the rest of the photos in the post, you'll notice that it is a little bit cooler in temperature.
Now, let’s compare this to an umbrella with a white interior. We can definitely see a softer quality of the light when compared to the first photo, and this is due to how much the light is diffused by the white satin surface of the umbrella. This surface is more "rough" and diffuses light more than the smoother, shinier surface of the silver umbrella. The shadows on the left side of Flint's face are lighter, as well as the shadow on the sofa behind him.
Finally, I flipped my umbrella and shot through it. In this case, I moved the umbrella a bit closer to my subject and so the light did not wrap around as much. So we see darker shadows on the far side of Flint’s face, as well as a more defined shadow behind him.
In conclusion, we know that silver umbrellas provide great wraparound coverage by spreading light in many different directions, while still creating a bit of contrast due to the specular reflection they create. Additionally, the light from a silver umbrella is slightly cooler than a white umbrella. On the other hand, white reflective umbrellas also cover but soften the shadows a bit. Using a shoot through umbrella allows you to get closer to your subject and so make the background a bit darker since not much light is falling on it.
So, what do you think? Do you use a silver umbrella for your shoots? I look forward to hearing from you in the comments. Take care!