15 Jun Photographer Gear Tip: Umbrella Adapters
Umbrella adapters are probably the last thing, the last concern you have floating in your mind when it comes time to setup some lighting for a shoot. If you’ve bought the right equipment from the beginning, then it’s probably remained that way – just another piece of well-researched equipment. On the other hand, maybe you’ve had issues with umbrella adapters in the past, or maybe you haven’t gotten to that gear acquisition level yet, and a little insight into how these little guys can vary on capabilities and quality could help you out.
Not all umbrella adapters are created equal. I know there are other photo gear areas where the lower priced stuff is damn near indistinguishable from the super high priced stuff, and you can save a bit of money buying “smart” with quality, yet decently priced accessories. With these little guys… there is a huge difference in both construction quality and capabilities that can make your life way easier or hell when it comes time to perform. Simply put, the price tag that varies wildly for them is a good, honest platform for judging what you’ll be getting (along with your resulting happiness). We all live and learn, right? This topic is a great example of how I “learned” the hard way. Let’s look at some
Build Quality, Materials Used
What could the spendier options really have over the cheap guys? The cheap ones, well… they are definitely cheap; almost always made primarily of plastic (and not the robust kind of plastic either). It’s important to remember that not only will these guys be responsible for holding in-place an umbrella light modifier, but at times they can have a significant amount of weight via lighting gear mounted to them. This puts quite a bit of stress on 3 key points – the end of adapter mounted to light stand, the adjustable elbow, and the top mount for the lighting gear. All three of these points need to bear a lot of stress from weight and the occasional gust of wind. As a result, you really have to ratchet-down all 3 points to get a solid setup that won’t wobble, or worse, break loose under pressure. Cheap plastic is not your friend in these situations where you have to really tighten down the gear. On many occasions the points will bend and loosen on plastic-based adapters, resulting in what can be a very embarrassing and/or expensive accident. What I’m explaining right now is the story of my first unfortunate umbrella adapter set purchase. Shopping online, I saw $15 adapters and I saw ones ranging well past $40. “It’s a silly little umbrella adapter,” didn’t even put a solid thought into it and I bought the $15 ones. Upon receiving the cheapies, I immediately noticed the build quality sucked, all plastic construction, and the end points to mount the studs were not even in the standard round shape to securely tighten. What the hell, who designed this thing? I decided to try and use them anyways, it was not a good experience. My entire light setup would give under the weight on the plastic-based mounting points and literally fall halfway off at times. Not cool. I wasn’t expecting a jaw-droopingly pleasant experience from them, but at the same time I expected for $15 I’d be getting something that did the job – mount and stay put (apparently that is asking a lot…). A smarter use of my money would have been to start a fire with it, seriously. I got $15 worth of plastic, none of which should be classified as a useful tool. I keep these around the studio only to show them to workshop students for what not to buy. Here they are pictured below, notice the odd shaped mounts. These are made by a company called Interfit. They make a myriad of price conscious photo accessories, some better than others. Their umbrella adapter is worthless, don’t buy them (or any other plastic-based adapter). You can see in the photos below, it doesn’t even sit on the light stand properly, and that’s without anything mounted to it. (Disclaimer – in my haste/disgust with having to mount this terrible adapter to photograph it, I put it on upside down, but rest assured both ends equally fail to work ).
I reproached this gear purchase again now more insight and an understanding what not to get and what to look for. At times I would have $1000+ worth of equipment dangling from these umbrella adapters, it’s gotta hold, man. Spending an additional 20 bucks will get you an infinitely nicer adapter unit. The nicer, more expensive adapters will almost always be constructed of metal and tend to have a very snug fit for the studs along with the added strength.
I have a number of gear pieces made by Manfrotto. They are one of the pricier brands out there, but there is a reason for it – their stuff is excellent, every time. They don’t go cheap on any of the building materials. The Manfrotto umbrella adapter is currently priced around $35, but is rock solid. By comparing it to the cheap Interfit in your hands, you can feel the difference in build quality. The Manfrotto’s all metal construction is many times heavier and feels like a tank. As an everyday working professional, these are highly recommended umbrella adapters.
Design And Versatility
The speedlite/hot shoe lighting popularity has skyrocketed, resulting in an explosion of accessories designed specifically for the little light makers. Frustratingly, they are at much or more expensive than equipment made for the big boy lights. Good ol’ supply and demand, baby, gotta love it. Anyways… this has also spun variations of the umbrella adapter with a dedicated cold shoe mounts to attached a speedlite directly to the adapter. This is a great option if you only shoot with speedlites, not so much if you want to use it with other lighting setups.
I can’t go as far as to say the dedicated cold shoe umbrella adapter is a bad buy, but I wouldn’t call it the smartest buy for the money. Below are a great examples of why the more versatile Manfrotto adapter (or another all metal adapter like the manfrotto’s quality) is a better buy. Sometimes we don’t always use umbrella adapter strictly as a tool to mount an umbrella and a speedlite.
Here is a mobile softbox for a speedlite. It requires a stud to mount to. So you use the umbrella adapter here solely for the elbow joint that allows you to tilt the softbox setup. You can imagine that this setup puts a lot of weight on those adapter mounts. When I tried this with the Interfit adapter, it would pop off.
The universal Manfrotto adapter allows you to change out the top mount with either a cold shoe or stud mount (pictured below).
The heavy-duty Manfrotto adapter has very sturdy tightening levers that really allow you to get things screwed down solid. Pounds of gear can be mount on this thing without a problem. Another thing to look for is a the large lever to tighten and loosen the elbow joint. Many umbrella adapters will have a smaller knob, which work but are a lot harder on the hands when trying to screw them down tight or loosen a setup after shooting.
If you shoot with Paul C. Buff lighting equipment and use the Einstein strobes, you may have found that the built-in umbrella stick mount has a very thin opening. I shoot with a couple of the Westcott Apollo soft boxes, and the larger units have thicker umbrella sticks, which frustratingly do not fit in the Einstein’s mount. In order to use Einsteins with them you need to use an umbrella adapter as a middle man to make it all work. See the photo below – Einstein mounted on a Manfrotto adapter, the softbox mounted to the adapter.
I always tell photographers to spend a little extra to get a product that you’ll actually enjoy and use. Going the cheap route will result in a total waste of money with a product that is a pain or impossible to use. Buy the correct, flexible, quality adapters and enjoy years of worry-free lighting setups for years to come.
Here are some links to the various umbrella adapters.