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Lighting 101: Using Umbrellas

Abstract: The humble umbrella is an inexpensive and versatile lighting source. [Updated Feb. 05, 2020.]

Umbrellas are an ideal first light modifier for beginners. They are cheap and very versatile.

As you saw in the walk-through post—and can see in the photo above—an umbrella turns the harsh light of your bare electronic flash into something that approximates beautiful window light.

(Above is my daughter Emily. She was 7 years old when I photographed her for the original version of Lighting 101. She's now a software engineer at Microsoft. Damn, that went fast.)

Okay, back to lighting. 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.

Which is to say, pretty harsh light. Just like a flashlight. That may be one reason 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.

There are two general kinds of umbrellas: the reflected umbrella and the optical white shoot-through umbrella. I tend to 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.

I used to use the reflected umbrellas, but don't do that as often any more. I pretty much stick to the shoot-thru's 90% of the time. But you might choose differently, which is one reason we suggested the 3-in-1 version for your starter kit.

What You Can Create With an Umbrella

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 head-and-shoulder photos 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. A 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 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, an 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.

And umbrellas create soft light. But we can create softer light still by bouncing the light off of large surfaces.

Next: Bouncing off Walls and Ceilings


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