Not too long ago, an old friend of mine started doing portrait photography. He wanted to get an umbrella and light stand, but he was uncertain of how to put all the pieces together along with his flash. I've tried researching this myself, and the information I found was pretty confusing. I was unable to find a single article or video online that clearly demonstrated how to do this. The good news is that it's quite simple once you know what to look for.
How sturdy a light stand you choose will depend on if you plan on using it outdoors at all. If you want to use a light stand outdoors, you'll want the one that is very sturdy to withstand wind and weather issues. If you want to use reflectors or umbrellas on a light stand outdoors, they can catch a lot of wind, so you'll want to choose wisely, and it is always a good idea to use sand bags to secure your light stand. For indoor only photography, you can stick to lighter weight stands.
Choosing a light stand is pretty individual. I've typically seen them come in sizes up to 15 feet tall. Coming from a tall family, where there have been a number of people in the 6 to 6 ½ foot height range, I personally would caution against having the tallest light stand at only 7 or 8 feet tall. 8 feet sounds tall enough, but when you happen to run into a group of people who are very tall, it's simply not enough, especially if you want to do portraits of them standing up.
Some light stands are designed as background stands, which means that they will have a light on them to brighten up the background. These are always very short, because they are designed to be placed behind the subjects.
Also, keep in mind that some light stands are cushioned whereas others are not. If you accidently open a lock that holds one of the stand's sections, your flash drops down along with the section. The cushioned stands are capable of preventing the damage from the impact, and that's why they are more expensive.
What kind of umbrella you choose is up to you. Some of my friends prefer the silver reflective umbrellas that hook up above the light stand, while others primarily use the white diffusing ones that point down toward the subjects from the light stand. The main difference between the two, simply stated, is that a silver reflective umbrella will produce slightly harsher and brighter light than a diffusing umbrella. When I was starting out, I wasn't too sure which I wanted, so I managed to find umbrellas with a white interior and a removable silver exterior backing. These are also an excellent option.
Since white diffusing umbrellas point down, they require some extra height from a stand. Imagine doing a portrait on somebody who is well over 6 feet tall, and you will begin to understand why I recommend having at least one very tall light stand, in the 9 foot or taller range. Sure, you can seat somebody who is "too tall", but it is far better to give yourself the option to offer a variety of poses to all customers, regardless of height. And always remember to raise the top column of your light stand first. Otherwise, you might need a ladder to fully extend your stand.
Umbrellas are available in different sizes. The bigger ones are for softer lighting. If you are just starting out, it does not really matter what size you pick. Just get an umbrella within 30" to 50" range, and it will work fine. Once you get more skilled with it, you can start thinking about different sizes.
Once you've figured out what light stand and umbrella you want, you'll need to have an adapter to put it all together. Try doing a web search for "light stand umbrella adapter" and you'll see a variety of options. You will want one that has an umbrella opening and can tilt up and down. The tilting option is absolutely essential for umbrellas!
Many light stand adapters have a hot shoe adapter already included, as well. You may or may not want to use it depending on your equipment. The hot shoe connector is usually screwed onto a bolt that has a ¼" tripod sized screw on the end.
The umbrella opening is often a small empty hole that has a screw in it. To put your umbrella in it, you just loosen the screw, put your umbrella in, and tighten it until your umbrella is secure.
The end of the light stand adapter that attaches onto the light stand often has a female adapter in it, so it can either screw onto the top of your light stand, if that is an option, or you can just remove it, like I do, then attach onto the light stand directly.
Adapters are not limited in application to umbrella mounting. Sometimes, I put my flash on a stand with an adapter and attach other light modifiers. These modifiers usually (but not always) attach directly to the flash head. Some examples of these modifiers include colored gels, flash bulb accessories, beauty dishes, and snoots. When you have the right light stand and adapter, you can use them for a wide variety of applications.
If you have any questions or comments, please post them below.