Lighting 101: Using Umbrellas

Okay, now is where things start to get a little more interesting. Let's talk about your first "light modifier."

An umbrella will almost certainly be your first light mod. (It is included in the jump starter kit, if you presently have one on the way to you.) Think of your flash as a very brief-but-powerful flashlight. And like a flashlight the business end of your flash is only about two square inches in area.

Thus, while it gives out a lot of light instantaneously, that light is very harsh. To some degree, that may be why you previously have been unhappy with your flash photos.

An umbrella takes your harsh flashlight and essentially turns it into a window. Except we are talking nice, soft window light that you can position and control—in intensity, in location, in angle, even in the color of the light itself.

Photo umbrellas are cheap, portable and super useful. Which is why you'll want want an umbrella as your first soft light source.

There are two general kinds -- the reflected umbrella and the optical white shoot-through umbrella. I strongly prefer the white (shoot-through) version as it is more versatile. In particular, because you can bring it right up next to someone's face for both power and softness.

If you are going with the compact light stands, you'll probably want a 43" shoot-through umbrella, which is pictured above. It folds down to about 14" so it transports very easily along with your compact stand. You can ball-bungee it to your strapped stand and have a nice, transportable light kit.

They are cheap (less than $20) small and easy to transport. Because of the telescoping shaft, they can be a little fragile. But use care, and they will last.

I used to use the reflected umbrellas (they have a white or silver lining and a black backing) but I almost never do any more. I pretty much stick to the shoot-thru's 99% of the time, which is why we chose the white shoot-through model for your starter kit.

Now, let's look at how to use them. (Ahh, the new gear finally begins to transition into technique—and results!)

Shoot your harsh flash through an umbrella and you get softness and control. Stick it in close and you get light that is tailor-made for portraiture.

This is a very simple way to make your mugshots look more like they were shot by a professional and not by someone from the Department of Motor Vehicles. With a short telephoto, and umbrella'd strobe and awareness of your ambient light, you can make any headshot look more like a cover shot.

Back it up a little bit, and your new "portable window" can also light some of the environment:

It is safe, classic-looking light that is easy to tote around. Total no-brainer in the bang-for-the-buck department.

In the photos above, the umbrella is being used from what can be considered to be a "classic" position -- 45 degrees up and over to one side. There's nothing wrong with this, and it is probably how you will start out using the light source.

The danger is, you don't move past that and your photos start to all look alike. That is the blessing and curse of an umbrella -- it is easy to look good with it, and it is a very safe light source.

But, as seen above, umbrellas also can be used to create more unusual and dramatic light. And that's where I like to hang out now.

The portrait of cellist Caleb Jones is a great example. (Click here to have that assignment -- including a behind-the-scenes video -- pop up in a new window.) We were flying the umbrella just over and behind his head. By doing that, we created a light that was less predictable, and more ethereal.

An umbrella on a small light stand is light and portable enough to be flown over someone by using an assistant as a "voice activated light stand". This gives you all kinds of opportunities for different lighting directions.

Work the angle. Try different orientations. Get out of the 45-degree rut. You'll be surprised at what an umbrella can do.

Take this portrait of Pat Morrissey, above, shot in Edinburgh.

By flying the umbrella out over him (but, unlike the cellist, slightly in front) we create a more mysterious "character" light. You can see the location of the light by looking at the reflection in Pat's eyes.

Again, atypical position for an umbrella light. But, I think, more interesting than the standard "45."

For Dancer Kassi Mattera, above, we took an opposite tack. The umbrella is being used not as a key light, but as a "fill" light. (Don't worry, you'll learn more about multi-light setups soon enough.) The umbrella is coming from below. It is actually positioned on the ground in front of her:

Not typical, but interesting. That umbrella is filling at about two stops under the main exposure level. Kassi is being lit by another, hard light source at upper right.

The umbrella, on the floor, is bathing Kassi in soft, "bottom light" and keeping all of the hard light's shadows from going to black. (Click here to see a full run-thru of this shoot in a new window.)

Long story short, umbrellas are a great choice for a first soft light modifier. But even better—and if you allow yourself—you can grow with them and get into far more interesting light.

Next: Bouncing off of Walls and Ceilings


Brand new to Strobist? Start here | Or jump right to Lighting 101
Connect w/Strobist readers via: Words | Photos

Comments are closed. Question? Hit me on Twitter: @Strobist


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The effect of this website seems to be spreading. It is now impossible to find these unbrellas in stock anywhere! Now I need to figure out another place to get one!

August 04, 2006 8:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just wondering - should I get the one in White Satin or the one in Silver ?

August 04, 2006 6:16 PM  
Anonymous midwestphotoexchange said...

We have 40 instock right now. $19 each. We also have the Dynalite compacts in stock, but they are much more expensive, I'm not sure why.
We are interested in becoming a sponsor or advertiser in/of this group, if someone wants to contact me with any such opportunities!

Moishe Appelbaum
Midwest Photo Exchange

August 12, 2006 1:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not understanding the difference between a double fold umbrella and a collapsable one. Is there a difference?

January 06, 2007 4:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I got one from MPE, and I'm happy with it, but calling it 43" seems a little generous. It measures more like 38" across the opening, and to get 43" I had to measure all the way around the curve over the top. Is that what I should expect?

January 07, 2007 5:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You mention a size of about 43 or 45" inches for umbrellas. Many stores seem to have kits with 32" umbrellas. Are these too small for starters?

April 09, 2007 6:29 AM  
Blogger David said...

How far should the umbrella be from the strobe?

May 29, 2007 12:24 PM  
Blogger Q-Master said...

How about this umbrella ?

It's a Adorama 40" White Interior Umbrella with Removeable Black Cover.

If you got any experience with it please let me know.

Also I see that David is using a silver one but can he shoot true it ?

October 01, 2007 3:13 PM  
Blogger John said...

There ought to be a link to the new article on reflecting vs. shoot-through umbrellas so here goes.

Rethinking the Umbrella

Personally I have a set of silver, gold and shoot-through. After some trial-and-error I prefer the shoot-through followed by the golden on. The silver type gives a really hard light IMHO.

I got the set for €55 from foto-walser

April 12, 2008 10:10 AM  
Blogger twinsrus said...

How do you measure the light to get a decent picture from the umbrella? Am I missing something here

April 23, 2008 1:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I just wrote an Instructables posting on how to modify a reflective brolly into a square softbox. Essentially a mimic of the Westcott 26" Apollo, which is foldable and attaches to a lightstand with a regular umbrella bracket.

Check it out:

Let me know what you think.


sdhigbee at a place called hotmail dot com

July 10, 2008 1:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's pretty windy outdoors around here, and the legs on my light stands don't spread out very far. As a result I've used umbrellas outdoors and had my flashes blow over so many times....

December 23, 2008 9:44 AM  
Anonymous GSlusher said...

Re: windy conditions. The solution is to make the setup weigh more. Use a sandbag for this. You can buy sandbags or make your own from plastic bags--you may need to use several to handle the weight. Carry them empty and fill them with dirt, rocks, even water on the site. Close them/tie them and either lay them across the legs of your stands or tie one or more onto the vertical column of the stand at the point where the legs meet it. You want the weight to be as LOW as you can get it (lower the center of mass--simple physics). A sandbag will be more effective part-way out the leg, rather than in the middle, but, if the wind changes direction, you may need to move the bag.

Also, note which way the stand tends to tip and rotate the stand so that a leg points out in that direction. Put sandbags on the OTHER legs.

February 15, 2009 3:03 PM  
Anonymous Angel D. Flasher said...

I use a 15 lb and a 10 inch bungee cord to weigh down my stands

May 19, 2009 9:50 PM  
Blogger All-That-I've-Got said...

Hi i've just bought an umbrella i have a pic for the difference on using an umbrella and using the pop up flash. please view thanks!

November 25, 2009 3:22 PM  
Blogger RanJan said...

First time post on your awesome awesome site. I am just moving from landscape and nature photography to using flashes and strobes. This is just a bible for that kinda stuff.

Now to my question. I bought a 43" shoot through umbrella with a black cover which can be removed. This was from B&H. The umbrella has some black dirt on the white part of it, maybe the black part "leaked" over? not sure. Will the dirt affect my lighting? It covers about 25% of the area of the white shoot through portion. Please let me know. Thanks.

January 31, 2010 9:32 PM  
Blogger All-That-I've-Got said...

i think there is gonna be a little of effect if your subject is white. But for portrait under sunlight it wont really effect your picture.

February 05, 2010 3:23 PM  
Blogger Irene Abdou Photography said...

Help! I've just bought the Westcott 45" Optical White Satin Umbrella with Removable Black Cover (

However, I can't figure out how to remove the black cover! It appears to be attached to the umbrella (threaded through the spokes), and not removable. Can anyone explain to me how to remove it?


April 07, 2010 11:01 PM  
Blogger Irene Abdou Photography said...

OK, on my earlier post, I wrote to Wescott to ask how to remove the black backing. I feel silly; it's actually very easy. But in case anyone else has this same question, here are the instructions:

While umbrella is open, gently pull out on each tip removing it from the rib. The cover will then lay loose on top of the umbrella. Once all tips are separated from the ribs, pull the ring at the top of the black cover up and slide it off of the top of the umbrella.
To put the cover back in place, again have it fully opened and do the above in reverse order. Work your way around carefully pulling the cover out enough to slide the tips back on making sure not to miss any ribs.

April 08, 2010 10:23 PM  
Blogger Yue Edwards said...

Thanks for the article!! i am considering buying an umbrella, it's useful!!

September 02, 2010 6:40 PM  
Blogger Cassandra said...

Thanks so much for the update.

May 23, 2011 2:22 PM  
Blogger D. Travis North said...

Great update that seems to be hitting at a very opportune time. Shooting for many years, but I've only recently started getting into lighting. Read a ton of your blog and a lot between the lines and opted for a convertible umbrella but shoot mostly as a shoot-through. Anyhow...if I had procrastinated a few months, I would have found myself coming to that conclusion much easier after reading this new updated article. Thanks for updating the L101 guides.

May 23, 2011 3:08 PM  
Blogger I happy dirt said...

David, Nice update, but the gem of the article is the 2006 Moishe comment asking to become a 'sponsor of this group.'

Okay, the real gem is making sure we don't settle for easy light.

BTW, the flash bus was awesome and a bargain worthy of this site. Thanks again to you and Joe for that huge undertaking.


May 25, 2011 12:28 AM  
Blogger I happy dirt said...

David, Nice update, but the gem of the article is the 2006 Moishe comment asking to become a 'sponsor of this group.'

Okay, the real gem is making sure we don't settle for easy light.

BTW, the flash bus was awesome and a bargain worthy of this site. Thanks again to you and Joe for that huge undertaking.


May 25, 2011 12:32 AM  
Blogger Charlie in Central Florida said...

Appreciate the update... I still have my Square Larson Lectrasol umbrella I bought in the 1970's! Plus several new ones. :) ONe question I have is the comment that a shoot thru conserves W/S compared to a soft box. It seems to me that a lot of the strobe energy is lost by being reflected and scattered behind and all around when used as shoot thru, with only a portion actually lighting the subject.

May 25, 2011 10:08 AM  
Blogger Dave Stanton said...

your site has cost me a heap of money but I am not complaining. I now have a few shoot throughs, stands and 3 pocket wizards. The experimentation continues...

May 30, 2011 6:25 AM  
Blogger damonrickett said...

Hi everyone,

I was just looking at getting into off camera flash by using a flextt5/430ex ii/43 in. umbrella combination when a sales rep mentioned that I might want a bigger umbrella as the tt5 might cause my flash to not hit the middle of the umbrella causing uneven light. Does anyone out there have experience with this? Is this a concern? Thanks and love all the posts! Keep em coming! I'm learning soooo much!

June 07, 2011 1:00 PM  
Blogger Matt Chesebrough said...

Thanks for the excellent posts. I have a question (not related to umbrellas) but something pointed out in the article.

In the post "With a short telephoto, and umbrella'd strobe...." What is the advantage / purpose of using a short telephoto for portrait photography? Also, what is considered short?

Sorry for the random question. Thanks for the help.

January 04, 2013 4:24 PM  
Blogger Aya Santos said...

Assuming you use a full frame sensor, a short telephoto would be in about the 70mm to 135mm focal length, which is a favorite for a lot of portrait photographers, specially for head and shoulder shots. He also mentioned he preferred shoot through umbrellas over reflective ones. This could be just a matter of preference.

However, an advantage of using a short telephoto is that you get to take full advantage of the light due to the distance you are from your subject. If you use a long telephoto lens, you would have to stand a great distance from the subject and would require a very steady hand. If you use a wide angle, you might need to do some cropping or if you shoot too close, you'd get a lot of distortion in the face. A normal lens could probably do just as good a job though.

February 10, 2013 2:00 PM  
Blogger Paul Monckton said...

Does anyone make a folding photographic umbrella?

I'm talking about the kind of umbrella where the spokes fold in the middle so the umbrella is more compact when retracted.

I'm trying to put together a very small lighting kit which I can take with me wherever I go. So far none of the photographic umbrellas I've seen have collapsible spokes or telescopic handles.

July 01, 2013 3:44 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


You might re-read the post above, concentrating especially on the 7th paragraph.

July 01, 2013 4:21 PM  
Blogger Liz H. said...

Just an FYI ... you write "I pretty much stick to the shoot-thru's 99% of the time, which is why we chose the white shoot-through model for your starter kit."

The links you provide to Midwest Photo exchange include the black and silver umbrella, not the sheer one. Not a huge deal and I should have noticed when I ordered, but I got excited and just clicked, clicked BOUGHT!

You might want to update your links or your text. Love the info in this blog, thank you so much!!

January 13, 2014 1:42 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

Hey Liz-

Furst, I am so sorry you got the wrong umbrella! Could it have possibly been a Midwest problem, or maybe you linked from another page? I am just asking because I am trying the link on this page and it is pointing to the correct, translucent umbrella.

Please let me know!


January 14, 2014 1:25 AM  
Blogger the trev said...

David, Liz is wrong. I clocked on the link on your site for the OCF starter kit, and it has the shoot-through one with the removable black backing.

February 24, 2014 7:49 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home