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What is a Photography Umbrella? (And How to Use One!)

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Photography umbrellas are one of the simplest kinds of light modifiers to use. They are perfect for beginners as they are inexpensive, portable, and efficient. Umbrellas soften and spread the light, allowing for off-camera lighting without 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.

photoshoot set up in a studio with a photography umbrella
Umbrellas are a common and simple light modifier but are often misused

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What’s a Photography Umbrella?

Photography umbrellas are a type of light modifier. This means that you will need to attach it to an external lighting source. Umbrellas are also a type of diffuser, which means they spread light out over a larger area. This creates soft lighting.

Like softboxes, an umbrella is often used in portraits and other types of studio photography. While softboxes are easier to control, umbrellas tend to be more affordable and easier to set up.

For portraits, it’s useful to remember that catchlights will take on the shape of the modifier. While all umbrellas are circular, softboxes come in different shapes.

Umbrellas are great for beginners. But there are a few things that you should know before buying your first one.

umbrella vs softbox lighting comparison
See how the umbrella lights the subject compared to a softbox

Types of Photography Umbrellas

Lighting modifiers come in different types. Umbrellas are no exception. The umbrellas are white or black, and lined with white or silver.

White Umbrellas

A white umbrella (also known as a “shoot-through”) has translucent white fabric. This fabric diffuses and spreads light over a larger surface. This reduces the intensity of the light, and you may need to turn up the power on your flash or strobe to offset this.

White umbrellas are best for lighting a larger area, such as a group of people. Because they spread the light over a larger surface area, they reduce the glow of light more than other types of modifiers.

Black Umbrellas

Black umbrellas are reflective. These umbrellas keep more of the light’s power and don’t spread out light as much as white umbrellas. This makes reflective umbrellas easier to control.

The umbrella’s lining will also affect the lighting. A black umbrella with a white lining creates a softer light than the same type of umbrella with a silver lining.

umbrella with silver lining
An umbrella with silver lining

Convertible Umbrellas

Convertible umbrellas are white umbrellas with a black cover. With the cover removed, these umbrellas are shoot-through. Add the cover, and the umbrella becomes a reflective umbrella.

If you’re unsure whether to choose a reflective umbrella or a shoot-through umbrella, a convertible umbrella is an excellent option. It also won’t cost much more, either.

Convertible umbrellas also allow for a more advanced lighting technique called flagging.

Why Size Matters

Umbrellas also come in a variety of different sizes. Like any diffuser, larger means softer light. Both factors (size and type) will affect how the umbrella works.

To use a large umbrella outdoors on a windy day, you’ll need to sandbag your light stand. This will keep the umbrella from tipping over. If you don’t have a sandbag, you can try weighing down the light stand by hooking on your camera bag.

If you plan on working only in a studio with powerful strobes, you can safely use a large umbrella.

When it comes to price, there are different brands available at different price points. The perk of going with a more expensive brand is more durability and longevity.

studio with umbrella
A studio setup with a large umbrella

How to Use a Photography Umbrella

1. Mount the Umbrella to the Strobe or Flash

Most studio strobes will have a small hole to insert the umbrella’s handle, and a knob to tighten it in place.

If you are using an off-camera flash system, you’ll need a flash bracket with 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.

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 too close to the umbrella, it won’t light the entire umbrella. The result will be a light that isn’t as soft as you would want it to be.

light reflection with a white umbrella
Pay careful attention to how the light reflects on your object

2. Place the Umbrella to Cover the Light Source

The umbrella should cover the light you are using, but that doesn’t mean that it has to face the subject.

The angle of light you use will vary for creative lighting patterns. The direction of the umbrella depends on the type you are using.
We now know that white umbrellas work as diffusers. With this in mind, you will have two options for the direction. The umbrella can either face the subject directly or be placed in a way that it reflects off another object. For example, in a studio, you could use the umbrella to reflect light off a white wall and make the light even softer.

With a reflective umbrella, place the strobe or flash looking away from the subject. The point is to have the silver or white lining of the umbrella facing the subject.

adjust your umbrella for creative lighting
Adjust the umbrella’a position to experiment with creative lighting

3. Experiment With Different Angles For More Variety

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 about lighting patterns here.

Try experimenting with different angles. Facing the subject will create intense light that also illuminates the surroundings. Whereas, if the umbrella faces slightly away, you will only have an edge of the light reaching your subject. This is called feathering, which is a great technique for covering an area with softer and weaker light.

Don’t forget that you can also change the height of the light. Go higher for more dimension, or lower for more even light.

Take an experimental photo after setting the umbrella up, then adjust the light as needed.

4. Use Multi-Light Setups

Using one light is simple and easy to manage. But for more advanced lighting techniques, you will need more than one external light source.

Try combining different light sources with an umbrella. Softboxes work well as the main light, while extra umbrellas are excellent fill lights. If you have a third light, such as a flash or a strobe, you can also add it behind the subject to create a backlight.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with multi-light setups. You can even try adding coloured lighting gels or reflectors to add colour to your image.

Conclusion

Photography umbrellas make excellent diffusers for both professional photographers and beginners. They are portable, inexpensive, and easy to use.

With the tips in this article, you now know how umbrellas create softer, more flattering light.

We hope that our article has helped you decide to try out an umbrella!

If you found this article useful, check out our Photography Unlocked eBook next!

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