Photography umbrella lighting intro – how to choose and use umbrellas

Photographic umbrellas are the perfect light modifiers for photographers new to off camera flash. Like many photographers, my first studio lighting kit came with two photography umbrellas, so umbrella lighting was the first type of lighting I tried with flash photography.

Because my umbrellas had a removable black backing, they were really versatile and I learned how to set up umbrella lighting for photography two ways.

Different types of photography umbrellas

How to set up umbrella lighting for photography depends on the type of umbrella you use. Light umbrellas come in different sizes, different shapes and in a variety of materials for different purposes and therefore different lighting effects.

Types of photography umbrellas include:

  • Shoot through umbrellas
  • Reflective umbrellas
  • Parabolic umbrellas
photography umbrella lighting outdoors
This was an outdoor photoshoot using natural light and flash modified with a large, deep, white umbrella with diffusion. My assistant held the light stand so that it wouldn’t blow over

Photography umbrellas can also be used by natural light photographers, and it’s much closer to how normal umbrellas are used, as you’ll see below, but first, why use photography umbrellas?

photography umbrella sizes
Umbrellas come in a variety of sizes of umbrellas – here’s my 51 inch umbrella next to my 33 inch shoot through umbrella

Why use photography umbrellas?

1. Price – photographic umbrellas are affordable light modifiers

One reason photographers start off camera flash with umbrella lighting is because it’s cheap. You can pick up a set of two umbrellas like the white Neewer one above at a very affordable price (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, long story short, I broke my $365 large umbrella the very first time I used it (the black one in the photo above). Even the high build quality wasn’t enough to prevent the shaft from breaking when it blew over. However, I fixed it and I’m still using it 6 years later.

Undecided about best type of light modifier for you? Read my article on umbrellas vs softboxes.

flat soft umbrella light
Front lit with large umbrella for soft even light. The light here is quite flat, but that’s not always the case. It depends on the light set up and how you position the umbrella

2. Soft light

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

Small light sources produce harsh shadows, so you need to increase the size of the light source. Attaching an umbrella to flash changes it to a large light source, making the light quality softer and therefore more flattering on skin.

Plus you can get umbrella modifiers for further control of light. More on this in a moment.

3. Umbrellas are easy light modifiers

Umbrella lighting is really easy to set up. We’ve all handled regular rain umbrellas, right? Photography umbrellas are no different. In no time you’re good to go – just open and fit to a flash with a flash bracket or studio strobes.

Umbrellas are 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 umbrella lighting kits are popular with photographers new to off camera flash, is that you can use them with speedlights. It’s just as easy as with more powerful studio lights.

You can start using an umbrella with flash and when you progress to bigger strobes, you don’t have to replace it with a new light modifier. So you save time and money.

5. Fill light 

Umbrellas make great light modifiers for fill light in portrait photography to soften shadows on a subject’s face, because the light they produce is soft and spreads very wide.

How to use umbrella lighting for photography

Aside from the above reasons for using a photography umbrella lighting kit, a convertible umbrella with a removal black cover is a particularly versatile lighting modifier. You can use two different ways for two types of umbrella lighting setups:

  • Reflective umbrella set up
  • Shoot through umbrella set up

To use an umbrella both ways you need one that has a removable black exterior. Not all photography umbrellas offer both functions. Many are just shoot through or just reflective.

Like with softbox light modifiers, 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 will be a problem.

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

1. Shoot through umbrella lighting

White translucent umbrellas are for shooting through and are how many photographers start, because it’s an easy lighting set up. The name describes how you use it.

Shoot through umbrella set up

  • Position your flash pointing into the inside of the open umbrella and facing towards your subject
  • The outside of the umbrella faces the subject
  • The light shines through and softens harsh light

Why use a shoot through umbrella?

  • You can get shoot through umbrellas closer to the subject than reflective umbrellas, so it’s better in a small space
  • The translucent material softens direct light from a flash for softer shadows in portrait photography

If your flash isn’t powerful enough and you need more light, move the light as close as possible to the subject. For soft light getting closer to the subject is better anyway, because further away the light will be smaller in relation to the subject and therefore harsher.

2. Reflective umbrella lighting

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

  • White lining
  • Silver lining
  • Gold lining

The color cast of reflected light from a gold umbrella is very warm, so they’re not used often (just like with gold reflectors).

A silver umbrella interior is more reflective than a white one so it produces is a crispier, harsh light that’s more contrasty. While the advantage of a silver interior is that more light bounces back into the subject, because silver is so reflective, the light can be hard.

An umbrella with white lining produces softer light and therefore softer shadows.

Reflective umbrella set up

  • Position your flash pointing into the inside of the open umbrella facing away from your subject
  • The inside of the umbrella faces the subject
  • The light shines into the umbrella and bounces back onto the subject

Because the light first hits the umbrella interior and then bounces back towards the subject, you need more flash power than the shoot through method. Depending on the power of your flash unit, you might need to position the light closer to your subject, which also helps to soften the light.

Why use a reflective umbrella?

Reflective umbrellas increase the size of the light source by bouncing it, making it indirect light, and some also soften light. 

  • The light can spread wider than a shoot through
  • White lining produces softer light than a shoot through umbrella
  • Reflective umbrellas are great for fill light that can be used anywhere, instead of bouncing light off a white wall
  • You have more options for the type of light you can produce than with a shoot through

Your modifier choice comes down to the look you want to achieve and your personal style, which you’ll discover only with practice.

large deep umbrella

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

3. Deep umbrella lighting

Deep umbrellas are often referred to as parabolic umbrellas and are set up like standard reflective umbrellas. The light they create is similar to a softbox in that it’s more even than a reflective or shoot through umbrella.

A parabolic umbrella has either a white interior or silver interior and is deeper than standard reflective umbrellas. I probably use my deep umbrella (Profoto deep white large) in the studio more than any other light modifier as either a fill light or a key light.

Why use a deep umbrella?

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

Pro tip: It’s more of a studio photography umbrella than for outdoor photography, because it’s so big and acts like a sail in the wind. So even the slightest breeze will blow over lightstands if nobody is holding onto them.

4. Natural light and photography umbrellas

This next umbrella lighting set up is actually for natural light, because photographing outdoors on a sunny day is challenging. Direct sunlight, especially when overhead, can cast unflattering shadows on your subject, or make them squint. 

So create open shade with a shoot through or reflective umbrella to shade your subject from the sun. It’s just like using a regular umbrella to shield from the rain.

A shoot through umbrella will cast a softer shadow than an opaque 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 over your subject so that it’s not in shot, but shields them from direct sunlight.

Where to position a photography umbrella

Regardless of what type of light modifier you use, the same rules apply for light placement:

1. Distance of light to subject

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

2. Height of light in relation to subject

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

When using umbrella lighting as a key light place it higher than your subject’s eye level, but not so high that you can’t see catchlights in the subject’s eyes.

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

3. Horizontal position of light

In addition to the vertical position of the light, the horizontal position in relation to the subject impacts the lighting pattern and therefore where shadows fall on a subject’s face.

In other words when the light is:

  • In front of the subject for butterfly lighting, also called beauty lighting
  • To the side of the subject for loop lighting, Rembrandt lighting and split lighting
  • Behind the subject for rim lighting and backlighting

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

Additional photography gear for umbrella lighting

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

A light stand.

Speedlight bracket (flash bracket) with umbrella receptacle to fit onto the nightstand. It’ll 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’s a great umbrella modifier that makes the light even softer and so turns your umbrella into something like a softbox. As a lover of soft light, I use a diffusion panel most of the time.

(A diffusier for umbrellas 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

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. However, because umbrellas throw light around so much, except for deep umbrellas, there are three disadvantages:

  • Lack of light control and direction
  • Waste of power, because of the large spread of light
  • Tricky to use outside on windy days as they catch the wind like a sail, and the bigger the umbrella the trickier it is

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

Photography umbrella lighting conclusion

So the humble umbrella is a very convenient, cheap, lightweight option for natural light photographers, as well as flash photographers. The most important thing is to choose the right modifier for the look you want and then position the light in the right place.

The next step is to hone your lighting skills with finer lighting control and an understanding of how to set up portrait lighting for different effects.

Leave a comment

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1 thought on “Photography umbrella lighting intro – how to choose and use umbrellas”

  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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