What’s the first lighting modifier most budding new photographers pick up? The photography umbrella.
Inexpensive, portable, and efficient, photography umbrellas are one of the simplest kinds of diffusers to use. Umbrellas soften and spread the light, allowing for off-camera lighting without the hard, harsh shadows.
As common as photography umbrellas are, they are also often misused. Here’s what you need to know to make the most of a photography umbrella.
What Is a Photography Umbrella?
Photography umbrellas are a type of lighting modifier. Umbrellas fall under the category of diffusion. All diffusers create a larger light source, spreading the light out over a larger area and creating a softer light.
Compared to a bare strobe or flash head, the light with the umbrella will have a more gradual transition between the light and dark.
With an umbrella, you can create images that don’t have that obvious flash look to them. And you can craft light that’s more flattering to most skin types in portraits.
The surface of the umbrella spreads the light out over a larger surface area, which creates a softer light. Similar to softboxes, an umbrella is often used in portraits and other types of studio photography.
The difference in umbrellas vs. softboxes? Softboxes can be a bit easier to control where the light falls exactly. But umbrellas tend to be more affordable and easier to set up.
In portraits, the catchlights will also take on the shape of the lighting modifier. While all umbrellas are circular, softboxes come in different shapes.
Lighting modifiers come in several different variation. Umbrellas are no exception. The umbrellas can be white, or black lined with white or silver.
The first type is called a shoot through umbrella, while the black-lined umbrellas are reflective umbrellas. A shoot through umbrella diffusers the light and spreads it out over a wider area. This can reduce the intensity of the light as well and require you to turn up the power on your flash or strobe.
Reflective umbrellas are a bit better at keeping the power from the light, but tend not to spread the light quite as wide.
Umbrellas also come in a variety of different sizes. Like any diffuser, larger means softer light. Both factors — size and type — affect how the umbrella works. And which one you’ll want to buy.
Choosing Your First Photography Umbrella
Photography umbrellas are one of the more inexpensive lighting modifiers out there. They are often one of the first lighting modifiers photographers new to off-camera lighting purchase.
Umbrellas may be beginner-friendly, but there are still a few things that you should know before buying your first one.
First, there are two main types of photography umbrellas, and a third that includes both types in one. A shoot through umbrella is a white umbrella. The white fabric of the umbrella spreads the light out over a larger surface.
This type is best for lighting a larger area, such as a group of people. White umbrellas don’t control the light as well as black umbrellas. Because they spread the light over a larger surface area, they reduce the glower of that light more than other types of modifiers.
A black umbrella is a reflective umbrella. The outside of the umbrella is black, while the inside is either white or silver.
These reflective umbrellas bounce the light backward instead of softening it as it passes through the umbrella.
Reflective umbrellas keep more of the light’s power, but don’t spread the light out quite as far, which can also make it easier to control.
A black umbrella with a white lining creates a softer light than the same type of umbrella with a silver lining.
Convertible umbrellas are white umbrellas with a black cover. With the cover removed, these umbrellas are shoot through umbrellas. Add the cover, and the umbrella becomes a reflective umbrella, bouncing off the white surface.
If you’re not sure whether to choose a reflective umbrella or a shoot through umbrella, a convertible umbrella is an excellent option. It also doesn’t doesn’t cost much more either.
Convertible umbrellas allow for a more advanced lighting technique called flagging.
Besides choosing the type of umbrella, size matters as well when choosing a photography umbrella. The larger the umbrella, the softer the light. Too large, and the umbrella will be difficult to control.
If you’ve ever used a regular rain umbrella in a storm and struggled to control it in the wind, you already have a preview of working outdoors in windy conditions with a photography umbrella.
For a large umbrella or windy day, you’ll need to sandbag your light stand. This will keep the umbrella from tipping it over. Another option is to hook your camera bag to the light stand to weigh it down.
I use a 45-inch convertible umbrella. It’s large enough for small groups and soft enough for individual portraits, but small enough to use for onsite photography.
If you plan on working only in a studio with powerful strobes, you can likely get away with an even larger umbrella.
Different brands of umbrellas will sit at different price points. Typically, the perk to going with a more expensive brand is durability and longevity.
In some cases, particularly with silver-lined umbrellas, the brand can slightly affect the quality of light.
How to Use a Photography Umbrella
1. Mount the Umbrella to the Strobe or Flash
Besides popping open the umbrella from the closed, storage position, how do you properly set up this type of lighting modifier? Most studio strobes will have a small hole to insert the umbrella’s handle into and a knob to tighten it in place.
If you are using an off-camera flash system, you’ll need a flash bracket that has an umbrella holder. The flash bracket screws into the top of the light stand and the flash or off-camera receiver slides into the receptacle at the top.
Like with a strobe, there’s a small hole on the bracket that the umbrella handle can slide into. It has a knob at the side to tighten it in place.
Pay attention to how close you place the light to the umbrella. If you place the strobe or flash up close to the umbrella, the light will be too close to fill the entire umbrella.
The result will be a light that isn’t as soft, because the light isn’t as large as when it’s filling out the entire umbrella.
For the softest light, mount your umbrella so the last half of the handle is inside the holder, not the first half. If you want the look of a smaller umbrella with a bit harsher light, you can mount the light closer to the surface of the umbrella on purpose.
2. Place the Umbrella to Light the Subject
Many new photographers end up accidentally pointing the light away from the subject. The angle of light that you use can vary for creative lighting patterns. But make sure you’re not placing the light backwards.
With a shoot through umbrella, place the light so that the light source — the flash head or strobe — is pointing at the subject. With a reflective umbrella, the light hits the silver or white and bounces backwards.
With a reflective umbrella, place the strobe or flash pointing away from the subject. Place the silver or white side of the umbrella pointing back at the subject.
Besides placing the light so that it’s facing the correct way, there are two options when it comes to how you are placing the umbrella. The first is to place the umbrella so the light is pointed directly at the subject. The light will hit the subject and probably much of the surroundings.
The second is to angle the umbrella away from the subject. The edge of the light, rather than the whole light, lights up the subject.
Rather than placing the center of the umbrella towards the subject, in this method, you place an edge of the umbrella towards the subject. This is called feathering.
When photographing groups with an umbrella, you can feather the light. That way one person on the end gets that edge of light. The rest of the light is still spreading out through the rest of the group.
3. Continue to Light the Rest of the Image
First you have to make sure the umbrella is mounted correctly, facing the right direction, and determining whether or not to feather the light.
Using an umbrella follows much of the same process as using any other light. Adjusting the angle of the light to the subject will create different creative lighting patterns. These include split light, Rembrandt, loop, and butterfly. (You can learn more on lighting patterns here).
Remember as you create the light that bringing it closer to the subject will soften it. Moving the light farther away will create harder light.
Don’t forget that you can also adjust the height of the light. Go high for more dimension, lower for more even light.
Shoot — then adjust the light as needed. You can try more or less feathering, bringing the light closer, or changing the height or angle of the light if it isn’t quite right.
4. Use Multi-Light Setups
Using one light is simple and easy to manage. But you can also work with more than one light.
You can use the umbrella as the modifier on a key light or main light. You can also use umbrellas for the fill light and on any light in the setup.
It will diffuse the light without the additional control of a softbox or beauty dish.
Photography umbrellas make excellent diffusers for both professional photographers and photographers new to off-camera lighting. Portable, inexpensive and easy to use.
With a few basics, you can create softer, more flattering light in your images with the simple accessory.
Photographers should first understand what umbrellas do. You need to know what features to look for before purchasing, and how to correctly set up and place the modifiers for the shot.
With these basics down and a bit of practice, it’s easy to create soft, beautiful light for your photographs.
Featured image by Neon Brand