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Video: Lighting a Portrait with Cheap Umbrella Modifiers

Umbrellas are one of the most underrated and inexpensive light modifiers you can get. For not a lot of money, you can actually get quite a bit of light control out of them. In this article/video, we’re going to apply basic concepts from our Flash Photography Training System and show you how to light portraits like a pro using cheap umbrellas.

Gear Used in Tutorial

Before you pick up your camera or reach for your flashes, check out our C.A.M.P. framework and simplify your lighting process.

  • Composition: What do we want our scene to look like? Where do we want the camera to be? What’s the angle? What do we want our subjects to be doing?
  • Ambient Light Exposure: Choose the intention of the scene. Do we want a dramatic image (darkening the ambient light and using more flash) or do we want a softer image (brightening the ambient light and using a more natural power of flash)?
  • Modify/Add Light: Are your subjects visible in the frame or do they need to be chiseled out? Do you need to add an additional light source?
  • Pose & Photograph: Take your shot!

Let’s dive in!

Step 1: Compose Your Shot

For this portrait, the composition is fairly simple. I’m using a backdrop and my subject is seated on a chair. I plan to crop the shot just around the top of the chair.

Step 2: Dial In Your Ambient Exposure

Dial in ambient exposure
Dialed-in ambient lighting on the right: 1/200, f/1.4, ISO 50

After I’ve decided on my composition, the next thing I want to do is expose for the ambient light. I’m not thinking about adding any lights yet. What I want to do is actually cut away the really bad ambient light. This means, in this location at this time, I’ll need to bring the shutter speed down to 1/200 and increase the ISO to somewhere around ISO 800. I also decided to go wide open at f/1.4 for the aperture.

I’m going to leave the white balance whacked out to make the “before” image look worse, but you can always adjust your white balance and try to get it right in camera.

Step 3: Add and/or Modify Light

light portrait with cheap umbrella add light overhead key 01

We can’t really modify light here because we don’t have enough good light to modify. So, what we’re going to do is actually add light. I’m going to start with my key light first.

For the key light, I’ll use the Profoto B10 as the key light because I want to place it up and overhead. I would normally use the B10 Plus because it’s a little more powerful (500 watt seconds vs. 250 watt seconds for the B10), but the B10 will work for this setup. We’re not going to pump out a lot of flash power, so you can literally use any flash that you have.

Light position cheap umbrella

It’s best to place the flash onto the boom before lifting it to provide a nice overhead light. Please note, people often bring the light too far in and place it directly over the subject’s head. The problem is that when the light is directly overhead, it’s going to cause very deep shadows. As you can see from the first shot above, the shadows over the eyes are extremely deep. What I want to do, then, is pull that light forward until the edge is right over the subject’s face (not her head).  Now, the light will spill forward. You can always tip the light if you want to, but I kind of want the light to have that top-down look and effect, so I’m going to just pull it slightly away from the subject and leave it pointing down. Notice the difference between the two shots. The light is set to the same power, but that small adjustment has made a noticeable difference.

cheap umbrellas to light portraits fill light

Still, we’re not going to be able to get too much light into the eyes because they’re being covered by eyelids, so we still need to add some fill light with a second flash. 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. We want shadows and highlights, so I can just move back the fill light a bit. One another option involves using a reflector instead of a second flash to add fill light onto the face, but we have a little bit more control with a second flash.

Normally, we keep our lights facing top down, but this time, I actually want to aim the fill light up at the subject. After placing the light on a short stand, I can angle the head directly up so that the light goes past her head.

[Related Reading: Photography Lighting Equipment – The Best Light for Your Budget]

Step 4: Pose & Photograph

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

This step is really self-explanatory. Direct your subject into the pose (or poses) you want and give cues to get the expressions you’re after.

Before and After

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


We hope you enjoyed this article/video lighting portraits with cheap umbrellas. If you look at the before and after images, featuring natural light vs. modified light, we’ve completely transformed this entire set. We still have the lights on, but with the way that we captured the images, the image featuring added light looks completely different. That is the power of flash. If you want to dive deeper into flash photography, check out our Flash Photography Training System, which is just one of many training systems and workshops included as part of our Premium subscription.

Be sure to catch our next episode of Mastering Your Craft on Adorama’s YouTube channel next week! If you want to catch up on all the episodes, make sure you check out our playlist!