Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Ultimate Handheld Umbrella - Propet Umbrella Bracket

OK, I'm fessin up.  When I compiled a list of small umbrellas, I came across the unique Propet Umbrella Bracket on ebay.  After considering the advantages offered by its design, I went ahead and purchased it despite some reservations about the offered price.  That's why the link to that item shows that it wasn't available anymore :)  But as of the time of this writing, there's another unit being sold.

So I finally got the umbrella and did a few tests.  Although it isn't perfect, I think this is pretty close to the ideal handheld umbrella.



DESIGN



The Propet umbrella consists of a bracket ("Adapter G Type") and an umbrella ("Mini Parasol C Type").  It was manufactured by Propet Corporation (www.propet.co.jp), a Japanese company specializing in lighting products since 1977.

Bracket
The bracket consists of a short 1 inch tube to hold the umbrella which tube is attached to a grip at a fixed 90 degree angle via an L-shaped arm.  The bracket is made of a nonferrous metal (perhaps heavy duty aluminum?) and seems very durable without being too heavy. 

The tube for holding the umbrella is about 3/8 inch in diameter, has the usual screw to secure the umbrella, and fits standard umbrellas.  The tube is closed off on one end, therefore unlike typical umbrella brackets, you will have limited ability to adjust the umbrella's position within the holder.  The inability to adjust the umbrella position along the holder may make larger umbrellas too heavy to be handheld.

The grip has a grooved nonslip texture (like the grip of a handgun) and holds a removable tube with a cold shoe.

The cold shoe seems to be made of steel and has the standard ISO size that fits most hot shoe flashes (note: Sony/Minolta uses a different size hot shoe).  Because the cold shoe is made of steel, there may be a risk of shorting the flash.  However, the middle part of the cold shoe is empty to avoid contact with the pins on the flash hot shoe.  Some flashes have a locking pin to lock the flash into the hot shoe.  The cold shoe on this bracket does not have a hole to accomodate such a locking pin.  However, the SB-800 appears to stay fixed on the hot shoe when the locking pin is engaged.


The tube to which the cold shoe is attached can be adjusted in height so that the distance between the cold shoe and the height of the umbrella tube can vary from 1.75 inches to 3.5 inches.  At 3.5 inches, an SB-800's flash head will be almost squarely at the same height as the umbrella tube.  The bottom of the grip has a hole to mount it on a tripod (1/4" 20 threads per inch).  The bracket comes with a removable strap that is screwed on to the tripod mounting base, but my unit did not come with such a strap.

Umbrella


The umbrella is a reflective type, around 19.5 inches in diameter (measured as a chord from tip to tip on the underside of the umbrella).  When folded, the umbrella measures less than 12 inches long.  The umbrella is among the smallest I've found for photographic umbrellas.


The umbrella canopy material is not the typical nylon used in umbrellas.  Instead, the canopy is made of a woven synthetic fabric (I'm guessing polyester) and looks more like a parasol.  The top of the canopy appears white, while the bottom looks shiny.  Although the canopy looks more well made than a typical nylon umbrella canopy, it also looks like it can be damaged more easily, and sharp objects may snag instead of sliding off it.

The umbrella tips are rounded as is the umbrella tube, which I thought is a nice touch. I'm in favor of anything that can reduce the chance of scratching my lens, my camera or my kid.

PERFORMANCE
Effectiveness at Softening Light
I was concerned about the umbrella's ability to soften light due to its small size.  I found however, that the umbrella is far more effective at softening light compared to many flash modifiers I've tried.  Here's a test shot. Although I held the umbrella as far away from me as I could, the shadows (especially those on the wall) are still very soft

Flash zoom
I tried to determine the optimal zoom for the flash to cover as much of the umbrella as possible without spilling light unnecessarily into the background. I found that 105mm covers just as much of the umbrella as 24mm.  In the shots below, flash was set manually at 1/128.


Efficiency
Compared to a bare flash, the light loss is approximately 3 stops.  With an SB-800 at full power and a distance of around 7 feet from the subject, it is possible to get enough light at ISO 200 at f/5.6 (there was slight reduction of power because I forgot to remove the 1/4 CTO gel from my flash).

My testing method was to fire the bare flash at full power at 200 ISO and at 1/250 sync speed, then find the aperture that will result in the histogram maxing out without lost highlights.  I got f/16.  From the same distance as the bare flash, I fired the flash at full power with the umbrella, also at 200 ISO and 1/250 sync and tested various apertures to get the same peak as the bare flash histogram.  I got f/5.6, a difference of 3 stops from f/16.  Note: I did not move the umbrella closer than with the bare flash because I reasoned that for handheld use, the flash would be held at the same position.







SUMMARY
Strengths:
  • Much more effective at softening light than most other speedlight modifiers.
  • Aims flash head at umbrella's center for greater efficiency
  • Tripod mounting hole allows bracket to be mounted on tripod or light stand.
  • Design does not restrict flash head rotation.  Flash head can be rotated to allow concurrent use without the umbrella (e.g. for bouncing).
  • Very compact umbrella size yet still effective at softening light.
  • High quality construction and materials.
Weaknesses:
  • Hard to find.  Even the manufacturer's own website doesn't seem to list this item.  Possibly discontinued.
  • Umbrella canopy material looks like it can be damaged much more easily than nylon.
  • When umbrella is fully inserted, the umbrella cannot be closed fully.  Umbrella's runner should have been shorter, or the tube could have been slightly longer.  Workaround: I don't insert the umbrella fully, allowing me to close the umbrella with the bracket attached.
Neutral:
  • Removable cold shoe creates potential for modular components. However, no such components appear to be available anywhere.
  • Adjustable cold shoe height can accommodate flashes of varying sizes but lowest cold shoe height may still be too high for tall flashes or flashes that are mounted on accessories such as TTL cord or radio trigger.
  • Cold shoe has space to avoid contact with pins on flash but cold shoe material is conductive (might short the flash). Workaround: put tape on the cold shoe.
  • Locking pin on flash seems to work but is not secure because there is no hole for the locking pin. Workaround: attach a strap to the flash just in case the flash falls off.
Conclusion:
This is one sweet modifier.  It gives you the ability to have soft, directional lighting anywhere in a very compact package. It doesn't have glaring weaknesses, except maybe I won't have any excuses any more for not consistently producing decent shots. :)

Test shot taken outdoors, daytime, in open shade. D300 + Tamron 17-50 VC, manual exposure with matrix metering, 1/250, f/9, ISO 200, ambient underexposed 2 stops; SB-800 w/ umbrella triggered via CLS in TTL -0.3 FEC. popup flash covered with SG-3IR. Post processing via picnik.com: straightened and cropped slightly, reduced exposure slightly with a curves adjustment, removed hot spots on my (oily) face with the shine-be-gone tool, added vignette. Note: the shadow on the lower left part of the image is my shadow from the umbrella (not postprocessing).

Want to buy one but can't find one available? Or you don't want to buy one just yet?  Perhaps you can try this handheld umbrella from parts that you probably already have.

Update: "real world" sample shot here.

6/10 UPDATE: posted sample shots of the Propet bracket used with a 25" shoot-through here