Silver Umbrella | Studio Lighting Essentials

The humble silver reflective umbrella is often dismissed as a budget, no-frills modifier that’s less effective than a beauty dish. While all those things are true, the silver umbrella is still an extremely useful piece of kit, well worth adding to your collection.

In this video, I take a closer look at this simple modifier, explaining how it works and when to use it. I also look at the different types of silver umbrella and the different effects they offer. Finally, I show you how it compares with other, similar modifiers, so you can make an informed decision about whether to invest.

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Low cost, high reward

Silver umbrellas have a reputation for being affordable, and for good reason. Even models produced by top-end manufacturers like broncolor, Elinchrom and Profoto won’t set you back much more than $80. And you can pick up umbrellas from independent brands for as little as $20 or less.

They come in a few different sizes. In the video, you’ll see me demonstrating the portability of an 80cm diameter umbrella, plus the lighting effects of two different 105cm models.


Different types of silver umbrella

Useful on location and in the studio

As I mentioned at the top, people often dismiss the silver umbrella based on its inferiority when compared with the beauty dish. But I’ve used silver umbrellas for many on-location fashion shoots over the years. Portable and easy to assemble, these modifiers are nice and compact when folded up, making them easy to transport.

If you’re going out to shoot on location with a couple of lights, taking along a couple of silver umbrellas makes a lot of sense. They’ll give you decent bite, clarity, and texture in your model and their clothing.

I’ve also been known to use them for studio fashion work. For example, in Bright and Punchy Fashion you can see me using three 85cm umbrellas in conjunction with one 110cm parabolic umbrella, with stunning results. You can see me use a similar combination in Three-Light High-Key Fashion, though with a very different approach.

While I like silver umbrellas for beauty and fashion work, and find them somewhat useful for portraiture, they’re not especially suited for product photography or food photography, for instance.


Silver umbrella being used for a portraiture shoot.

Why position matters

As I demonstrate in the video, I prefer to use a wide-angle reflector on my lights when using a silver umbrella. This is to stop light spilling out into the studio beyond the umbrella. Using a bare bulb with no reflector would lead to a lot of light bouncing around, which of course is going to reduce your control.

As with the Deep Umbrella 160, it’s important to position your light the correct distance away from the reflective surface. Position it too close and the light won’t reach the edges, causing you to waste light. But position it too far away and some of the light will spill out, as it would with a bare bulb. This is another form of wastage, and a more harmful one since that spilling light will affect your shot in ways you don’t want.

These guidelines apply to all silver umbrellas. But not all silver umbrellas are the same. It’s important to understand the differences, so let’s take a closer look.


Silver umbrellas being used for a fashion shoot

Different textures, different effects

The silver reflective surface on the first umbrella I demonstrate has a texture of fine bumps that makes it resemble lizard skin. This texture diffuses the light somewhat as it scatters it inside the umbrella. Because the interior surface is evenly illuminated, it bounces the light out evenly. This softens the light bouncing out – though it is still not as a soft as the light emitted by a softbox or shoot-through umbrella.

The second umbrella I demonstrate has a smoother, more matte finish. This leads to specular highlights in the umbrella itself – visible beams of harder light running from the centre to the edges, interspersed with areas of mid-level reflection. These highlights work a bit like several little strip lights working together – a bunch of beams shining simultaneously at your subject.


Silver umbrella set up

This will give you more sparkle and bite than you’ll get from the first (textured) umbrella, but you’ll lose that nice, smooth, softer, more homogenous light. Also, your background won’t be evenly lit, so you’ll have more patchiness.

Understanding these very different effects from two versions of the ’same’ modifier will help you to pick the right type of umbrella if you decide to add one to your collection.


Lighting Comparison Visualiser

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Compare modifiers quickly and easily

In the video, I use our amazing Lighting Comparison Visualiser tool to compare a 70cm silver umbrella with an octabox. The visualiser shows that the umbrella gives a lower contrast level than the octabox.

That’s because the umbrella light is spilling and bouncing around the studio and into the shadows, reducing their density. The octabox, on the other hand, is a contained light source which suffers less spill/bounce and therefore gives more contrast.

Another factor that effects contrast is proximity to subject. With the umbrella, you have to point your light away from your subject, into the umbrella. The source of the light then effectively becomes the reflective surface of the umbrella, which by necessity can’t be very close to your subject.


Capturing business portraits with the silver umbrella

With an octabox, the light is pointing directly at your subject, which means you can position it closer. Thanks to our knowledge of the Inverse Square Law, we know that this guarantees stronger contrast. That’s why an octabox is the better modifier for, say, beauty shots.

However, if you’re not worried about getting close, the silver umbrella can be extremely useful. The sparkle you can achieve by using multiple umbrellas is really quite special – and those multiple umbrellas may still cost you less than a single ‘better’ modifier.

Understanding the complexities of Photography Lighting – the Inverse Square Law, for instance, or Angles of Incidence and Reflection – is vital if you want to take your photography to the next level. That’s why we offer hundreds of classes designed to deepen your knowledge of lighting and help you use it like a pro.


Comparing the Octabox 75 with the Silver Umbrella 70 using the Lighting Comparison Visualiser tool.

If you're enjoying exploring lighting modifiers, click here to delve into our tutorial on Silver Beauty Dish and learn how to add depth to your images with controlled lighting. Alternatively, click here to see our previous tutorial on Stripbox Lighting.

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