Everything you need to know
about umbrella lighting

Umbrella lighting modifiers
Umbrellas are popular lighting modifiers that come in three different variations — shoot-through, reflective or deep.

In any photography studio — amateur and professional alike — you’ll probably find at least one or two umbrellas. These lightweight and affordable modifiers can be used to achieve a number of different results, which is part of the reason they’re so widely used.

In our previous ‘Umbrella Lighting’ live show, I took a closer look at these popular modifiers, exploring the science behind them, demonstrating how they work and showing you exactly how to use them. For those of you who haven’t yet seen the show, I’ve broken down the most important need-to-know information in this post.

Studio portrait using umbrellas

Umbrella Lighting

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In this live workshop Karl takes a closer look at when and how to use umbrella lighting modifiers.

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What are umbrella lights used for in photography?

If you've ever bought a studio lighting kit, chances are a couple of umbrellas were thrown in too, which means you'll have at least some knowledge of what they are and how to use them. If you're totally new to studio lighting, umbrellas are lighting modifiers that are compatible with both studio lights or speedlites and can be used to achieve a few different looks.

Available as shoot-through, reflective or deep, umbrella modifiers are most commonly used for portrait or fashion photography due to the soft, diffused light the shoot-throughs produce and the more contrasty sparkle on reflective silver umbrellas.

Portrait with umbrella lighting
This high-key style of this portrait image was achieved using three umbrellas.

Advantages of umbrellas

The main advantages of umbrellas are their versatility, portability and, of course, affordability. Because they’re available as reflective or shoot-through, they can create a variety of results. They are also incredibly portable, which makes them ideal for photographers working on location. The fact that they’re one of the cheaper modifiers is another point in their favour.

Disadvantages of umbrellas

Despite the numerous positives of umbrellas, they do have a few downfalls. The main disadvantage is that the majority of umbrellas cannot be modified. Unless you’re using a deep focus umbrella like the broncolor Focus 110, where you can adjust the position of the light within the umbrella, you can only get a single result. Modifiers such as softboxes and beauty dishes, which come with additional modifiers such as grids or additional diffusion, offer far greater versatility. The other main disadvantage is light spill. Because there is nothing to contain the light, as there is with a softbox, for example, a lot of light is lost around the studio. This can make it particularly difficult to control the light when working in smaller studios.

Umbrella lighting setup
Umbrellas are a popular choice of modifiers for portrait and beauty photographers as they can be used in a number of creative ways.

Different types of photography umbrellas

As I’ve already touched on, there are a few different types of umbrellas. These include shoot-through, reflective and deep (sometimes referred to as parabolic) umbrellas, each of which are often available in different sizes.

Shoot-through umbrellas, as the name suggests, are made of white, translucent material which allows you to shoot the light directly through them. This diffuses the light and creates the soft light that makes them so popular.

Reflective umbrellas have a black outer material and either a white, silver or gold interior lining. With these umbrellas, the light fires into the silver lining and reflects outwards towards the subject. The silver and gold coated umbrellas give more contrast than their white coated or shoot-through counterparts.

Deep umbrellas are similar to reflective umbrellas in that they have a black outer coating and a silver inner lining but despite sometimes being referred to as parabolic, they are rarely truly parabolic. However, because they are closer to a parabola in shape than the other types, the light they produce comes out much more evenly than other reflective umbrellas. With these umbrellas, you can also often control the position of the light, which means you can adjust the contrast.

Types of umbrella modifiers
Shoot-through, reflective and deep umbrellas all produce different results based on the way they reflect light.

How to use a photography umbrella

How you use umbrellas depends on the type you’re using. With shoot-through umbrellas, the light shines through the umbrellas, which means the light needs to be pointing at your subject. With reflective and parabolic umbrellas, the light fires into the umbrella and reflects out towards the subject, which means the light is facing away from the subject.

As with any lighting modifier, key things to consider when using umbrellas include the distance from your subject, the size of the umbrella, the position and height. Each of these factors will have an impact on the result. This is covered in much more depth in our ‘Introduction and understanding light’ chapter, which, if you haven’t already watched it, provides essential information on light and how to control it. You can also find a number of examples showing exactly how to use umbrellas in a number of different scenarios throughout our site.

Portrait image using umbrella lighting
Lightweight, portable modifiers, umbrellas are great for work in the studio and on location.

Umbrella alternatives

Umbrellas vs softboxes

If you're using a shoot-through umbrella, the result you'll get is somewhat comparable to that of a small softbox. Both modifiers diffuse the light and result in smooth, soft shadows. A reflective umbrella on the other hand, will produce a slightly more sparkly light than a softbox.

The biggest advantage umbrellas have over softboxes is the price. They're also slightly more portable, too. However, when it comes to versatility, because of the additional modification available with softboxes, umbrellas often come out second best.

Softbox lighting example

Softbox lighting & theory

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In this live workshop Karl takes a closer look at softboxes, explaining how they work and what sets them apart from other light shapers.

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Umbrellas vs beauty dish

Also popular among portrait and beauty photographers, beauty dishes are known for their beautiful, sculpting light. They're highly effective modifiers both in terms of light and cost, but they can't compete with the affordability of umbrellas. Although they too can be used with speedlites or studio lights, they come with a variety of different modifiers, which means they offer a greater degree of versatility than umbrellas.

Beauty dish lighting examples

Master the beauty dish

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In this live workshop Karl demonstrates some of the most effective ways to use the beauty dish.

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Umbrellas vs ring flash

Ring flashes, which are typically used from a frontal position, often produce an even illumination with very few shadows. Although they’re largely considered a great choice by many photographers, umbrellas are a much cheaper option which can, at times, produce a better result.

In our Legs Eleven live show, I demonstrate exactly this, providing a direct comparison between a ring flash and deep umbrella. You can watch the full show here, or, if you’re not yet a member, sign up here.

Ring flash lighting example
Ring flash lighting example

These images were taken during the 'Legs Eleven' live show, where I compared a ring flash and deep umbrella.

So whether you’re a fully-fledged professional or aspiring amateur, there’s no doubt that having an umbrella or two on hand will be a great asset to your studio as they not only provide a portable alternative to other commonly used modifiers, but at times, they produce even better results too.

Remember, the information in this post only touches on all there is to know about umbrella lighting. To learn more, sign up to Visual Education and get access to thousands of courses and live shows, where you’ll learn both the theory and practical of studio photography.

This article covers only a small portion of information relating to umbrellas and studio lighting available on our site. To access all of this information, make sure to sign up to Visual Education, where you’ll find thousands of courses that teach you everything you need to know to improve your photography.

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