One of several low-cost photography items I received for Christmas 2013 was the Westcott 23-inch collapsible umbrella with removable cover (model #2011). See the product page on Westcott's website.
For the unitiated, an umbrella — in photography terms — is either a reflector or a diffuser, or (in the case of the one I got) both. Used as a reflector, both the light source and subject are on the same side of the umbrella — the "underside". Used as a diffuser, your light source and subject are on opposite sides of the umbrella. As a general class of gear, umbrellas fall in the category of light modifiers. For more on shooting with umbrellas, see Davidy Hobby's Lighting 101: Using Umbrellas.
Westcott's #2011 model has a white satin interior, covered by a black topper. Just open it up and it's ready to be used as a reflective umbrella. Remove the black backing and then it's a "shoot-through" diffuser.
The underside was wrinkled from having been in the package so long; that didn't surprise me. What did surprise me is that it was dirty. The white underbelly of the umbrella was — in places — tinted brown/orange. At first I thought it was a stain, but it came out with some gentle rubbing from a damp cloth.
It did not feel quite as flimsy as I'd been led to believe by online commentary — I was willing to live with flimsy since it cost less than $30. But to me it felt like any normal umbrella you could buy at the supermarket or discount retailer (for $5). In other words, you could easily destroy it if you wanted to, but it won't tear apart or crumple in normal usage. (I won't use it in high winds or within reach of my very young children.)
Of course, such an umbrella can't be used alone; it requires something to hold it up and point the flash at it. Fortunately, I also received for Christmas two LumoPro umbrella swivels (see my review). And a light stand is needed; I got one of those for my birthday. I suppose you could have an assistant stand around holding both the flash and the umbrella, but you'll get more reliable results with a light stand and swivel.
It wasn't difficult to remove the black backing. The black part is sewn onto tiny metal caps at the end of each spine. Slip off each cap (eight of them). The white underside is attached to the spine just below each cap. The center-cap (not pictured) was more difficult to remove. After searching for others with the same issue, I gently used a pair of pliers to loosen it and then unscrewed it by hand.
Re-applying the black backing wasn't difficult either, but storing it is next to impossible. Even after screwing the center-cap back into place and carefully re-attaching all eight spine tips, collapsing the umbrella caused all eight tips to slide off again. Because of this, the umbrella wouldn't fully collapse small enough to fit back into its protective sheath. I'm resigned to only having the black backing in place when I'm shooting. I'll either store it separately or wrap it around the collapsed white umbrella.
Other customers reported that the umbrellas they received either had no brand logo on them, or had retailer's logo. Mine had only the Westcott logo. I wouldn't have cared either way.
I've tested it both as a shoot-through diffuser and as a reflector. I prefer the latter.
After a few months, I've changed my mind. I now generally use my umbrellas as shoot-through diffusers.
In the past, I've been using my house's white ceiling as a reflector, which has the nice effect of filling the room with light, but it's less intimate than I usually want. Using the umbrella, especially when it and the flash are relatively close to the subject, means I can (1) lower my flash power — because I'm shortening the distance and dont' have to light the whole room, and (2) emphasize the main subject by having a darker background.
Overall, I'm happy with the purchase, and will probably spring for a couple more before long. But next time I'll probably skip the kind with a removable black backing and just get a reflecting umbrella. It'll save money and trouble.
My next umbrella was a plain white shoot-through model, also from Westcott. I did indeed forego the black backing, but opted not to use them as reflectors.
(Note: I do not receive any compensation for mentioning any company or its products in this review.)