Today is Umbrella Day. Whatever you call it – brolly, parasol, gamp, bumbershoot – there’s no denying the umbrella is one super-useful accessory.
I haven’t been able to find out where it originated, but there seems to be references to umbrellas in all the ancient cultures. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Chinese all found good use for some or other form of the trusty umbrella – for protection from the elements, as a stylish fashion accessory, in religious ceremonies, even as a symbol of social standing.
But of course the main use of brollies are to keep you dry in the rain, and cool in the sun. And while they’re far from perfect (they flip inside out in strong winds, they drip, they can cause serious bodily harm to bystanders), it’s difficult to imagine how the basic design can be much improved. The last really significant design update has been the development of an umbrella with segmented ribs that can be folded in three, to create a much smaller folded unit. Not that inventors the world over are not continuously trying to come up with improved concepts – rain-forecasting umbrellas, biodegradable umbrellas, see-through umbrellas that rest on your shoulders like a backpack, two-person umbrellas, even umbrellas that can store water so you can later water your plants with them. Then there’s the Hollinger umbrella, a teardrop-shaped design with a distinctive rounded front and tapered back to optimise wind flow around it, enabling it to withstand much higher winds. The elongated back also shields your legs from rain while you’re walking.
Personally, being a photographer, my immediate connotation when thinking about a brolly is less about the weather, and more about photographic lighting. Umbrellas made with a reflective inside can reflect the light from a flash light unit pointed away from the subject you are photographing, to create a softer light than having the flash point directly at the subject. Alternatively, an umbrella sporting a translucent cloth can become a ‘shoot-through umbrella’. Placed between your flash unit and subject, this umbrella can help create lovely soft and diffused lighting.
While photographing with an umbrella doesn’t give you the same level of control that you can achieve with specialised lighting accessories like softboxes, honeycombs, and the like, their portability does make them very useful, especially when used as a makeshift on-location lighting unt when used together with an off-camera flash or speedlight.
So here’s to the brolly, the gamp, the parasol – it may be far from perfect, but it’s hard to imagine the world without it.