Photo Tip #202: The Best Umbrella for Natural Light Portraits

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The neon trend in portrait photography came about because it was easy. It was an offshoot of the fascination with 80s ideas. And another easy idea is that of umbrellas. We use them during rainy days, but some folks use them as protection from the sun. That’s where the shoot-through umbrella comes in. Also known as a translucent umbrella, these light modifiers take the sun’s harsh light and filter it. The result: anyone looks great, and it’s a fun accessory to play with on a shoot! Overall, it can take your natural light portraits a notch up!

Portraiture can be tough. Specifically, natural light portraiture is very limiting. Most folks only want to shoot during the golden hour or the blue hour. But if you’ve got enough shade coverage, you can shoot at any time you wish. With a shoot-through umbrella, you get that shade with you anywhere you want. 

So how does this work? Well, you basically just ask your model to hold a giant, translucent white umbrella. They can use it as a prop. And then it just naturally filters the light. Best of all, you can use it during the harshest hours of the day and still get a fun look! 

The science behind it has to do with two things. The first thing is how much light is there outside? If it’s a clear sky day and the sun is bright, then the shoot-through umbrella is a fantastic option. Otherwise, you’ll probably need to shoot in direct sunlight or find shade. But if you don’t have any shade around you, this is your best bet. 

The second important thing is how large the umbrella is. The rule of lighting is simple: the larger the light source is in relation to your subject, the softer it will be. When using an umbrella, that becomes the light source. It’s filtering the sun’s naturally harsh light. If the umbrella is six feet wide, then it’s probably going to cover most models overall. If it’s maybe around 36 inches, you’re best off sticking to focusing on the torso and head. That’s because most models are under six feet tall. And most peoples’ torsos aren’t over 36 inches long. So as long as whatever you’re shooting is smaller than the umbrella, you’ll get nice, soft light. That’s pretty paramount with natural light portraits.

The other cool thing about an umbrella is that it’s round. So you’re giving very rounded, even coverage in your natural light portraits. It’s not spotty at all. It’s very specifically tuned to just your portrait subject. 

For those of you who love to do a lot of post-production, you’re going to love this. The shoot-through umbrella has a cool feature with your camera. It diffuses all the light. Yet somehow or another, it also makes the colors in the scene pop. Red lips? They’ll pop. Green shirts? They’ll pop in the photos for sure! The images in this post were shot on both full-frame and Micro Four Thirds sensors. And if a shoot-through umbrella can do this, then you’ve got little to complain about. Mix in your own style and creativity to get something that suits you and the shoot you’re doing.

The most important part of all this, though, is to have fun. Decorate the umbrella and do cool things with it. Maybe put little trinkets on the inside. And if the umbrella gets wrecked, then buy another one for cheap.

Chris Gampat

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