White Shoot-Through Umbrella | Studio Lighting Essentials

The white translucent umbrella is one of the most most basic and inexpensive diffusion modifiers on the market. But what is it good for?

In this video, I take a look at the pros and cons of using a white shoot-through umbrella so you can make an informed decision on whether or not it's the right tool for your photography.

(Enjoying this tutorial on how to manipulate light using this simple yet powerful modifier? Check out our collection of 20 + FREE lighting modifier tutorials here.)

Shoot-through vs bounce-back

Before we go any further, let’s clarify something. The translucent white “shoot-through” umbrella is not to be confused with the opaque white “bounce-back” umbrella.

The latter, which I’ll cover in a future post, has a black coating on its outer surface. It’s called a bounce-back umbrella because the light from your flash reflects off the white underside of the umbrella, onto your subject.

With a shoot-through modifier, the light passes through the translucent umbrella, which diffuses the light before it reaches your subject.

Now we’ve cleared that up, let’s look closer at the shoot-through umbrella.

White umbrella setup for portrait of female model
Karl using a white shoot-through umbrella for a studio portrait.

The basics

When I say these modifiers can be very inexpensive, I mean it: you can sometimes find white-shoot-through umbrellas priced as low as $10 new.

The umbrella I demonstrate in the video is 105cm in diameter, which is about 33 inches. Larger sizes are also available.

The concept and physical properties are relatively straightforward. The single layer of umbrella material is very similar to softbox diffusion material. By shining a light through this layer, with the top of the umbrella facing your subject, you create a large, soft light source.

Karl Taylor discusses white umbrella with studio light
Karl demonstrates how a white umbrella works.

Setting up

Using the umbrella is simple. Attach it to your light and turn on the modelling light to get a sense of what you’re working with.

You can use a bare bulb if you wish, but you’ll notice a lot of light escaping, diminishing the efficiency and precision of your lighting.

A better bet is to put a standard reflector on your light. The reflector will have a small hole for feeding the umbrella handle through.

Though a P70 is my go-to reflector, the angle of the light it emits is really too narrow for use with an umbrella. A shorter, stubbier reflector with a wider angle works much better.


Soft, Warm and Glowing

Watch Karl demonstrate how to use a white shoot-through umbrella to capture a lovely portrait in the studio.
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Here’s the important part

Depending on how close your light is to the umbrella, you will notice darkening at the edges of the umbrella. The closer the light is, the more darkening you will see.

The trick is to push the umbrella out away from the light so that the spread of light reaches the very edge of the umbrella (or, put another way, so that the entire umbrella is within the beam of light) while minimising the light spilling out sideways via the wide-angle reflector.

Example of the closer the light is, the more darkening you will see around your subject.
A soft, warm portrait captured using a white shoot-through umbrella.

How to use a shoot-through umbrella

The most common method is to position your umbrella in the same way you might position a beauty dish – in front of, and slightly above, your subject.

It will give a pleasant, diffused light, plus nice round catchlights in your subjects’s eyes.

Shoot-through umbrella portrait
The umbrella is typically positioned in front of and above the subject.

Disadvantages of the shoot-through umbrella

The main drawback with the shoot-through umbrella when comparing it to a softbox is the amount of light energy that bounces and spills back out.

This can be particularly problematic in a small studio space, as the light spilling out will reflect off the walls and onto your subject, making it harder for you to control your lighting and shadows.

Another potential problem is the fact the umbrella offers only one layer of diffusion material. This means the light it produces is less homogenous than you get with a softbox, which has two layers.


Umbrella Lighting

Take a closer look at umbrella lighting as Karl explores how these affordable modifiers work, what makes each of them different, and how you can use them.
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Things to keep in mind

When selecting a shoot-through umbrella, remember that the bigger the umbrella, the softer the light.

Pay attention too to the build quality, particularly in the opening and closing mechanism. If you plan to use your umbrella a lot, you don’t want it to start jamming up before you’ve got your money’s worth.

Likewise, make sure the diffusion material built in to the umbrella is of sufficient quality to resist reasonable wear and tear.

White translucent umbrella can be fragile.
A short, stubby reflector with a wide angle works best.

Lighting Comparison Visualiser

Use our awesome tool to try out every modifier in our studio and compare the results.
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Compare 25+ different lighting modifiers

To compare a white shoot-through umbrella with a bare bulb, a softbox, and many, many other modifiers, check out our amazing Lighting Comparison Visualiser.

This useful tool allows you to quickly and easily understand how different modifiers give very different effects. Don't have a big studio full of professional equipment? No problem – use ours!

Looking to expand your lighting knowledge? Watch our next tutorial on Octabox (75cm) and discover new techniques for shaping light in your studio. Or review the previous tutorial on Octabox (150cm).

If you'd like to learn more about lighting modifiers, we've got dozens of classes on Photography Lighting for you to explore.

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