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13 Jun 2024


Term: Photo Umbrella
Description: A photographer's umbrella is much like a standard umbrella you'd use to stay out of the rain, only it is made of a material which makes it useful to photographers as a light modifier. Umbrellas come in many shapes and sizes and are a popular choice for both studio and location photography. Deep, parabolic, shoot-through, bounce, enormous, pretty small - there are many options for many uses. Some photography lighting umbrellas feature a mildly opaque white material so that light can pass through them in a diffused manner, while other lighting umbrellas are used to bounce light. The "bounce umbrellas" typically feature a solid black material on the outside (the side rain would hit if used for traditional purposes) with either a soft white or shiny silver color on the inside.

Photography is all about capturing light, and one of the most powerful tools for controlling light is the flash. While flashes are essential for many types of photography, they can also be tricky to use, especially when trying to achieve a specific look or effect. That’s where flash modifiers come in, and one of the most versatile and underrated modifiers is the photo umbrella. In this article, we’ll explore the benefits of using a photo umbrella and how to use it to achieve different lighting effects in your photography.

Why Use An Umbrella in Photography?

The photo umbrella is a simple and affordable accessory that can transform the look of your flash photography. Here are the primary benefits of using a photo umbrella

Softening and Diffusing

Light One of the primary benefits of using a photo umbrella is that it softens and diffuses the light from your flash. This is particularly useful in portrait photography, where harsh or direct lighting can create unflattering shadows and highlights on the subject’s face. By diffusing the light with a photo umbrella, you can create a more even and natural-looking illumination that flatters your subject’s features.

Creating Even Illumination

Another advantage of using a photo umbrella is that it creates even illumination across your subject. Without a modifier, the light from your flash can be harsh and uneven, creating hot spots and dark areas in your photos. However, by using a photo umbrella, you can spread the light more evenly, creating a more pleasing and balanced look.

Adding Fill Light to Subject

In addition to diffusing and softening the light, a photo umbrella can also be used to add fill light to your subject. Fill light is a secondary light source that fills in the shadows created by your primary light source (in this case, your flash). By bouncing the light off a white or silver umbrella, you can create a natural and flattering fill light that adds depth and dimension to your photos.

Types of Photo Umbrellas

Umbrellas come in many shapes and sizes and are a popular choice for both studio and location photography. Deep, parabolic, shoot-through, bounce, enormous, pretty small – there are many options for many uses.

Reflective Umbrellas

portrait lighting umbrella largeReflective umbrellas are made with a reflective material on the inside of the umbrella. When used with a flash, the light bounces off the reflective surface and back towards the subject, creating a soft and even illumination. Reflective umbrellas are often used in portrait photography, as they create a natural-looking light that flatters the subject’s features.

Shoot-Through Umbrellas

Shoot-through umbrellas are made with a translucent material that allows light to pass through. When used with a flash, the light passes through the umbrella and diffuses the light, creating a soft and even illumination. Shoot-through umbrellas are often used in product photography or still life photography, where a soft and even illumination is desired.

White Umbrellas vs Silver Surfaces

White umbrellas are made with a white translucent material that diffuses the light and creates a soft and even illumination. They are often used as fill lights or to bounce light off walls or ceilings. Silver Umbrellas on the other hand are made with a reflective silver material that creates a brighter and more specular light. They are often used in fashion photography or commercial photography, where a more dramatic and intense light is desired. However, the bright and specular light can create harsh shadows, so it’s important to position the light carefully when using a silver umbrella.

Softbox vs Umbrella

While a traditional softbox must be assembled by sticking slightly flexible spokes into a speed ring and attaching inner and outer diffusion material, an umbrella just pops open in an instant, exactly like the ones meant to protect from wetness outdoors.  While Softboxes provide more directional control, a photographer can often achieve a similar look as the lighter, cheaper umbrella.  For a full comparison, see our article on Softbox vs Umbrella.

Lighting Techniques with a Photo Umbrella

The Photo Umbrella can be used as a main light, a fill light, and even a kicker.  Here are some examples of how to use a Photo Umbrella.

Umbrella on Location as a main light

Let’s take a look at an umbrella used with a speedlight on location in action. For this urban nighttime couple’s shoot which we dive into in full detail in our Premium tutorial, Lighting 201, a 43” Westcott umbrella fits the bill. Its portability made it a good choice for carrying to the location, and the scattered light of an umbrella worked to illuminate some of the area around the couple.

Going into a shoot with a vision makes a huge difference, and this shot was envisioned to be taken with a wide angle lens from a low angle, with the cityscape behind the couple providing context and leading lines.

The lens for the job was Canon’s 24-70mm f/2.8L II, used at its widest focal length to capture the large buildings for the environment while keeping the scene fairly sharp when shooting wide open at f/2.8. Shooting wide open with a higher ISO of 800 are needed to let in plenty of light from a small flash.

With framing and lens choice taken care of, we move on to lighting and method of capture. The light used was an inexpensive manual Neewer speedlight with the aforementioned Westcott 43” shoot-through white umbrella held on a light stand by an assistant.

The speedlight is attached to the stand via a standard umbrella bracket – a piece that sits on top of a light stand with a cold shoe on top to hold a flash and a small hole underneath to put an umbrella shaft through to hold. The assistant is holding the light higher than the stand will reach, but another important reason to use an assistant with an umbrella outdoors is that they can quickly become a sail when with a breeze. No assistant? Drag along a sandbag. You may bemoan the excess weight, but not as much as you’d hate a broken speedlight because the wind whisked yours away and came crashing down.

Note the distance from the flash to the umbrella – you want to make sure it’s pulled back far enough to ensure the umbrella is filled with light. Too close, and you’ll only be illuminating a small portion in the center of the umbrella, effectively making your umbrella a smaller light source. On the same note, manually zoom the flash as wide as it will go to help spread the beam.

Rear curtain sync was desired, in order to enhance any movement the couple made during the 1-second exposure used to let in ambient light in a dark scene. However, the Neewer flashes being fairly basic, rear curtain sync off camera wasn’t an option, at least when used as directed. Where there’s a will, there’s a way though. Rear curtain sync can be used during a long exposure with flashes that don’t have this feature – manually. To do this, take the trigger off the camera and hold it in your hand. Start the exposure and simply pop the flash via the handheld trigger toward the end of the exposure. It’ll likely take you some practice to get the timing right, but it can be done.

To enhance the deep blue dusky sky, a combination of a CTO gel on the flash and a manual white balance in-camera of 3K were used.

Case Study 2 | Photo Umbrellas in Studio with Overhead Light Direction

Gear Used for Shoot

For this look, place the flash onto the boom before lifting it to provide a nice overhead light.  Place a second flash below the subject at an angle to act as  the fill.  Your exact settings vary, but the fill light should require less power than the main light. If we start filling in the scene with equally bright light, we’ll remove all the shadows and end up with images that aren’t that interesting to look at. We want shadows and highlights, so I can just move back the fill light a bit.

cheap umbrellas to light portraits fill light

Sample Photo Using This Technique

Pose and photograph cheap umbrellas to light portraits
85mm, 1/200, f.1.4, ISO 50

Before and After Photo Using This Technique

Before and after using cheap umbrellas to light portraits
Final image edited with Visual Flow Presets

Case Study 3 | Photo Umbrella with Directional Light

In this video, we’re going to show you the power of an easy one-light setup using a large flash and umbrella to go from boring to beautiful in just a few minutes.

Gear Used in This Tutorial

People often disregard umbrellas because they spill light everywhere, but when used well they can be incredible modifiers. This technique uses a single flash with a photo umbrella along with a V-Flat to help fill the shadows.

Sample Image With This Photo Umbrella Technique

2 large flash umbrella


In conclusion, the photo umbrella is a versatile and underrated flash modifier that can transform the look of your flash photography. By diffusing the light, creating even illumination, adding fill light, and bouncing light off walls or ceilings, you can achieve a variety of different lighting effects that enhance your photos. With a variety of types and creative techniques to choose from, the photo umbrella is a valuable tool for any photographer looking to elevate their lighting skills.

So now you’ve seen what one cheap little umbrella can do. You can learn even more off-camera flash tips and tricks in our Premium tutorial, Lighting 201.

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