Photography umbrella lighting intro - how to choose and use umbrellas

Photography umbrella lighting intro – how to choose and use umbrellas

photography umbrella lighting outdoors

My first studio lighting kit came with two photography umbrellas. So, like many photographers, umbrella lighting was the first type of flash photography I tried with light modifiers. Photography umbrellas are perfect for photographers new to off camera flash! I’ll tell you why.

Even better, the photography umbrellas I started with were really versatile as they had a removable black backing, but more on that in a moment.

Types of photography umbrellas

Like with all things in photography, umbrellas come in a variety of sizes and materials for different uses and therefore different lighting effects. These are:

  • Shoot through photography umbrellas
  • Reflective photography umbrellas
  • Deep (parabolic) photography umbrellas

There’s also a fourth way to use photography umbrellas, particularly for natural light photographers, and it’s much closer to how normal umbrellas are used, as you’ll see below.

We’ll get into how to use umbrella lighting, but first, why use photography umbrellas?

photography umbrella sizes

There are a few varieties and sizes of umbrellas – here’s a 51 inch umbrella and a 33 inch umbrella.

Why use photography umbrellas?

1. Price

The reason we start off camera flash with umbrella lighting is because umbrellas are so cheap. You can pick up a set of two for as little as $19 like the white Neewer one above (click here to see it on Amazon).

As with all things, quality improves with price, so the cheapest umbrellas on the market won’t last as long as the most expensive ones, because of the materials used. Plus the bigger and better the umbrella the better the light will be. But if you’re just starting out with flash, you probably won’t yet notice the subtle difference of a better quality umbrella.

That said, through a crazy sequence of events, I broke my $365 umbrella the very first time I used it (the black one in the photo above). To make it even more painful, the price of the umbrella was the same as the excess on my insurance, so there was no point in making a claim. Even the really high build quality of the umbrella wasn’t enough to prevent it from being damaged.

The good news is that I figured out a way to fix it and I’m still using it 4 years later.

flat soft umbrella light

Lit with umbrella lighting for soft even light. While the light is quite flat on this image, it’s not always the case. It depends on how you position the umbrella.

2. Better light

Umbrella lighting is the easiest way to diffuse flash for softer shadows on your subject.

Plus, because attaching an umbrella to your flash increases the size of the lightsource, the light is softer and therefore more flattering on skin.

Further reading: Light quality & quantity of light – essential knowledge

3. Umbrellas are easy light modifiers

Umbrellas are really easy to set up. We’ve all handled an umbrella at some point, right? Photography umbrellas are no different. In no time you’re good to go.

They’re also highly portable as they’re lightweight and easy to attach to your camera bag with straps.

4. Umbrellas work with speedlights and studio lighting

One of the reasons umbrellas are so popular with photographers first getting into off camera flash, is that they can be used with speedlights just as easily as with more powerful studio lights.

You can start using an umbrella with flash and then, when you progress to bigger strobes, you don’t have to get rid of them and start over with something new. So you save time and money.

Further reading: Getting started with off camera flash

How to use photography umbrella lighting

Aside from all of the above reasons for using an umbrella, as I mentioned earlier, it’s also a really versatile lighting modifier, especially if you get the convertible type like I did in the beginning.

Like with softboxes, the bigger the umbrella the softer the light will be. However, if you’re working in a very small space, or in a room with low ceilings, a really big umbrella is going to be a problem.

small shoot through umbrella

Small, shoot through umbrella mounted on studio strobe (Profoto B1X)

1. Shoot through umbrella lighting

I think the shoot through is how many photographers start with umbrellas as it’s really easy.

The name describes how you use it.

Position your flash pointing into the inside of the open umbrella and facing towards your subject. The outside of the umbrella faces the subject.

Why use a shoot through umbrella?

  • You can get the umbrella closer to the subject, so the light is bigger in relation to the subject than if it was further away, and therefore softer.
  • If your flash isn’t powerful enough and you need more light, it helps to get the light as close as possible to the subject.

2. Reflective umbrella lighting

All reflective umbrellas have black material on the outside, but there are three types of reflective umbrellas based on their interior lining:

  • White
  • Silver
  • Gold

You’ll very rarely see a gold umbrella being used – just like with gold reflectors, the light it casts is very warm.

A silver interior is more reflective than a white interior and the light it produces is crispier, harsher and more contrasty. While the advantage of reflective umbrellas is that they bounce more light back into the subject, because it’s so reflective, the light can be a bit hard.

I prefer a white interior, because of the softer shadows it produces, but it’s down to personal style, which you’ll discover only with practice.

With reflective umbrella photography the light faces away from the subject, pointing into the interior of the umbrella, which faces the subject.

Because the light first hits the umbrella and then bounces back towards the subject, it requires more flash power than the shoot through method.

So, while reflective umbrellas are still very effective with speedlights, you might need to position the light closer to your subject, depending on the power of your speedlight.

To use an umbrella as a shoot through umbrella as well as a reflective umbrella, make sure you buy one that has a removable black exterior. Not all photography umbrellas offer both functions. Many are just shoot through or just reflective.

Why use a reflective umbrella?

  • The light can spread wider than a shoot through.
  • Softer light than a shoot through umbrella

large deep umbrella

Large deep umbrella mounted on studio strobe (Profoto B1X). Note the size difference between this umbrella and the small shoot through umbrella above.

3. Deep umbrella lighting

This is very much like the reflective umbrella, except that it comes with either a white interior or silver interior and is, as the name suggests, deeper than reflective umbrellas.

Because of the depth of the deep umbrella, it’s also often referred to as a parabolic umbrella. The light it creates is similar to a softbox in that it’s more even than a reflective or shoot through umbrella.

I go through phases with light modifiers, but I probably use my deep umbrella (Profoto deep white large) in the studio more than any other modifier.

Why use a deep umbrella?

  • Very smooth, soft light, especially with a diffusion panel.
  • The shape makes light wrap around the subject more.
  • Produces light that looks like natural light.

4. Natural light and photography umbrellas

This method of using an umbrella doesn’t require flash at all. It’s for using with natural light.

In the same way that you would use an umbrella to shield from the rain, you can use either a shoot through umbrella or a reflective umbrella to shade your subject from the sun.

Direct sunlight, especially when overhead, can cast very unflattering shadows on your subject, or make them squint. So, when you’re photographing outdoors on a sunny day with no open shade available, make your own with a photography umbrella.

Further reading: Open shade photography the right way – avoid rookie mistakes

The shoot through umbrella will of course cast a softer shadow than the opaque, reflective umbrella, because it allows some light to pass through the translucent white material onto the subject.

It helps to have an assistant hold the umbrella in the right position to over your subject so that it’s not in shot, but also shields them from direct sunlight.

So the humble umbrella is a very convenient, lightweight tool for natural light photographers as well as flash photographers.

Where to position a photography umbrella

Regardless of what type of light modifier you use, the same rules apply in relation to light placement:

1. Distance

The closer the light is to the subject, the larger it will be in relation to the subject and therefore the softer the light will be, which results in a slower transition from light to dark and therefore softer shadows.

Further reading: Soft light photography – 4 facts every photographer should know

2. Height

The height of the light and how it’s angled down towards the subject affects the portrait lighting pattern and therefore where the nose shadow will fall.

When using umbrella lighting as a key light it should be placed higher than eye level, but not so high that catchlights are not visible in the subject’s eyes.

The exact height varies from face to face. A heavier brow will cast more shadow over the eyes, so the light will have to be lower than for someone with finer bone structure.

Further reading: Using catchlights in photography to easily create eyes that sparkle

3. Horizontal position

In addition to the vertical position, the horizontal position in relation to the subject has a huge impact on the lighting pattern and therefore where the shadows fall on a subject’s face. In other words whether the light is:

  • In front (beauty lighting)
  • To the side (loop lighting, Rembrandt lighting and split lighting)
  • Behind the subject (rim lighting and backlighting)

Again, the subject’s bone structure will determine the small adjustments of the light’s position for each lighting pattern.

Further reading: 5 portrait lighting patterns you need to know

Additional photography gear for umbrella lighting

A flash of some sort – either a speedlight or a larger studio strobe.

A light stand.

Speedlight bracket with umbrella receptacle to fit onto the nightstand. It will have a hole to fit the umbrella into as well as a shoe for attaching the speedlight. Strobes don’t require an additional bracket as both the light stand fitting and umbrella receptacle are built into the strobe. Like this Westcott one on Amazon.

photography umbrella with diffusion panel

Umbrella with diffuser fitted.

diffuser isn’t essential, but it makes the light even softer and effectively turns your umbrella into something like a softbox. As a lover of soft light, I use a diffuser most of the time with deep umbrella lighting.

(It looks like a big, white shower cap with a hole in the middle for the flash and fits over the open side of the umbrella. Once in position, there’s a drawstring to pull tight and close the hole.)

Disadvantage of umbrella lighting

With so many advantages to using umbrellas it’s hard to imagine why you would use any other type of light modifier, but there’s a time and place for every light modifier.

Because umbrellas throw light around so much, except for deep umbrellas, there are two disadvantages:

  • Lack of light control and direction
  • Waste of power

It’s a very short list, so of all the potentially expensive investments in photography gear you’re likely to make, I strongly recommend giving these very affordable light modifiers a go. With a bit of practice you’ll learn when to use umbrella lighting and how to adapt to the disadvantages.

Oh and there’s one more disadvantage…

Just like normal umbrellas, photography umbrellas are tricky to use outside on windy days as they catch the wind like a sail, and the bigger the umbrella the trickier it can be.

Photography umbrella lighting conclusion

I’ve covered only the basics of umbrella photography to get you started without getting overwhelmed.

The next step is to hone your umbrella lighting skills with finer lighting control and a deeper understanding of how different umbrellas affect light. More on that in another article.

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If you have any questions about umbrella lighting, let us know in the comments.

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  1. Thank you so much, Jane, for these invaluable resources. I’ve read lots of your articles already, and always find something new to learn. Keep doing this brilliant work!

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