The Phoblographer’s Introduction to Photographic Umbrellas

Final Umbrella Image of Grace by Chris Gampat (1 of 1)ISO 2001-30 sec at f - 5.6

In our lighting guides so far, we’ve given you folks an introduction to lighting modifiers and also introduced you to ring flash. But today, we’re talking about a personal favorite: umbrellas. These lighting modifiers are one of the most versatile modifiers that can fill in the space of a softbox or a beauty dish, and they can embrace their own unique tendencies to spread light out in a large area. But because of their large size, it is sometimes very tough to get any sort of hard lighting out of them. As a quick refresher, hard light means that the shadows are very dark–where the converse is soft light, where the shadows are very light or almost non-existent.

In this guide, we’ll give you the skinny on all you need to know to get started with them.


What is a Photographic Umbrella?

Umbrellas are collapsible lighting modifiers that take your light and (in the most accepted definitions) spread the light output into many different directions. In the lighting world, this is called making the light inefficient. Inefficient light is the opposite of directional light–which means that the light is very focused. An umbrella, as stated earlier, is designed to take the light and spread it out in many directions. In practice, this often makes your light softer though theoretically it can also require more light output vs a softbox or beauty dish.

There are three main types of umbrellas:

White Interior: White interior umbrellas have a satin white interior and a solid black exterior. The black ensures that no light exits the umbrella and instead it is all bounced forward. White is often the choice of many photographers that are shooting portraits and doing any and all retouching themselves. The reason for this is because it gives the light just enough specularity to not have you need to do excessive amounts of skin smoothening. As a refresher, specularity refers to how much extra details are being brought out by the surface due to the extra light.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Impact One Light Kit Test photos (16 of 17)

– Shoot Through: Shoot through umbrellas are very often white with no black exterior. Because of this, they aren’t often used to reflect light back at a subject (though they can be if you crank up the flash output power). Instead, shoot through umbrellas are meant for you to, well, shoot through them. The light exterior is often aimed at the subject and in practice, the shoot through often acts like a softbox but with less directional quality.

Shoot through umbrellas also often are sold as convertibles. That means that you can take the black exterior off and use it as a shoot through. Otherwise, you can attach it and use it as a normal white reflective umbrella.

– Silver Interior: Silver interior umbrellas have a silver interior and often give the light output more of a brilliant punch–therefore also helping your camera and lens resolve more details on a subject. There are two main types of silver umbrellas: smooth and beaded. Smooth will give your images a punch, but silver beaded will give your images even more of a punch. IF you want to take the absolute most advantage of the resolution of your camera, spring for the silver options.

Why An Umbrella?

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Westcott 7 foot umbrella with Grace (20 of 27)ISO 1001-200 sec at f - 9.0


One of the biggest reasons why you use an umbrella is because of the inefficiency of the light output. The fact that it spreads it out into so many different directions will guarantee a softer look to your light. Umbrellas are also amongst the fastest lighting modifiers to collapse and carry around. In addition, they’re also pretty darn affordable and easy to replace.

If you choose to use an umbrella outside though, we’re going to strongly recommend that you have either a strong assistant or very good sandbags. Take it from experience: I’ve had a light fall on my head and needed to go get staples at the hospital.

When Do You Use Umbrellas?

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer FlashPipe LightCraft Workshop DigiPro HD filter review PocketWizard Plus X review (20 of 21)ISO 1601-50 sec at f - 5.6

When you use an umbrella, you have to be mindful of a couple of the flaws of the products. For example, you absolutely should never shoot with an umbrella onto a reflective surface like glass, a window, or water. The reason for this is because when your light goes off it will show the shape of the umbrella ribs: and that’s super unsightly.

When there are reflective surfaces, spring for softboxes instead.

If you want to use an umbrella, make sure that you want to create a scene where you want the light covering a very large area and not have it focused in a small spot. Once again, this has to do with the inefficiency of the umbrella’s design. The fact that it spreads light out everywhere is part of what gives it its charm.

In the end, note that an umbrella can give your photo the look of an extremely large softbox, but in a smaller form-factor. Of course, you have to trick the camera in order to do this by effectively balancing the ambient lighting with the strobe lighting, but it’s very possible.

How Do You Use Umbrellas?

Umbrellas are extremely straightforward in their use. If you’re opting for using a monolight/studio strobe (which we recommend) your strobe is bound to have some sort of slot designed for an umbrella to be slid in and locked down. For the best results, move the strobe as close to the umbrella as you can–though if you’re using a shoot through we recommend placing the strobe in the middle of the umbrella shaft.

When shooting a portrait subject, we often like to have our umbrellas directly off to the side or a little above the subject. By turning the umbrella towards or away from your subject, you can create an even more interesting look.

A good rule of thumb is to imagine a stream of water coming out of the umbrella. Pay attention to the specific shape of it when doing this because you can then get a pretty good estimation of how the light will fall.

Recommended Umbrellas

Chris Gampat Canon 24-70mm f2.8 L II USM review photos of Matt (7 of 11)ISO 100

For general use, strongly recommend the 60 inch convertible umbrella from Impact. It sports a white interior, removable black panel, and can be used in a shoot through configuration. It can tackle most jobs that the world throws at you.

For the professional though, we have to absolutely recommend the 7 foot parabolics from Westcott. You can buy three of them in a set often for $200–and the fact that they’re super large will mean that your light will also be incredibly soft.

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Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.