Umbrellas – Good for More Than Just a Rainy Day

Umbrellas. They keep us dry when it rains. They also serve a purpose for photographers from amateur to professional. No, put your rain umbrella away. Let me welcome you to the world of photography umbrellas. They can be just as inexpensive as rain umbrellas and they are portable pieces of equipment that serve to diffuse or bounce light back onto your subject when shooting in a studio or on location. Whether you are a new photographer or a photographer on a budget, umbrellas are your best bet in getting professional results in your portrait work.

 

Classification & Types of Umbrellas

 

Classifications of Umbrellas

There are two classifications of umbrellas: shoot-through and reflective. As you may have guessed, shoot through umbrellas are the white translucent umbrellas which allow you to aim your light source into the umbrella and position the umbrella with its outside aimed at your subject. This classification of umbrella not only serves as a diffuser to your light source, but it takes a small light source and spreads it out everywhere.

1. Umbrellas

Shooting through a translucent umbrella aimed at a subject.

 

The downside to shoot-through umbrellas is that the light created using this type of umbrella is hard to control since it spills everywhere.

2. Shoot-Through Diagram

Uncontained light exits the umbrella in all directions.

 

The other classification of umbrella is a reflective umbrella. With this type of umbrella, you would aim your light source into the umbrella, but turn the umbrella and light source away from your subject as the light will bounce off of the inside of the umbrella and reflect back onto your subject.

3. Umbrellas

Reflective umbrellas reflect light back onto your subject.

 

Reflective umbrellas are beneficial because the light is more controlled and can be aimed in any direction that you point it. It also retains the more power of the light from the light source.

4. Reflective Umbrella Diagram

Light is contained and directed by choice.

 

Types of Umbrellas

There are also a few types of umbrellas, all with different purposes to aid you in getting your envisioned end result in portrait and other types of photo work.

 

  • Regular Umbrellas. These standard umbrellas come in many sizes based on different manufacturers, for instance, Westcott makes regular umbrellas in 32-inch, 43-inch, 45-inch and 60-inch sizes. They also come in a variety of colors such as translucent/white, silver, gold and black.

 

  • Parabolic Umbrellas.  A parabolic umbrella typically comes in 5 to 7-foot sizes and are known for their subject wrap-around quality. These umbrellas produce a beautiful soft light that makes for soft transitions between highlights and shadows. Westcott makes 7-foot parabolic umbrellas available at Adorama in shoot-through, black/white and silver for $99.90 each or you can purchase the 3-umbrella kit for $258.99. Adorama also sells their own brand of a 5-foot parabolic umbrella in gold for $34.95.

5. Silver-Parabolic

Photo of my model Katie using a Westcott 7-foot Silver Parabolic Umbrella.

 

  • Umbrella Softboxes. This type of umbrella works similar to a softbox with some subtle differences. The umbrella softbox is known for producing a hot spot that works well when positioned onto your subject’s face, letting the rest of the image go slightly darker. It allows for the focus to remain on the brightest part of the image (your subject). Savage makes Umbrella Softboxes and Umbrella Bounce Softboxes each in 36-inch and 43-inch sizes for $21.99 and $26.99, respectively.

6. Umbrella-Softboxes

Savage umbrella softboxes in white and black.

 

Colors

 

White Shoot-Through

White shoot-through, or translucent, umbrellas are often in a photographer’s bag because their setup requires the light source pointing into the umbrella and the umbrella is positioned with its back (and light source) aimed directly at a subject.

7. White-Umbrella

Savage 43” Translucent Shoot-Through Umbrella

 

Why does this setup matter? With the shaft of the umbrella pointed away from your subject, you can move the diffused light source as close as you want to your subject without poking out their eye! This might be fine for beauty lighting, but I personally find the light to be a bit flat. In addition, light is hard to control with shoot-through umbrellas because the umbrella is translucent and light spills everywhere.

 

8. Shoot-Through-Umbrella

Since the light doesn’t wrap around, the image looks a little bit flat.

 

In the image above, I used the inexpensive JTL 40-inch White Umbrella w/ Removable Black Cover with the black cover removed, available at Adorama for $26.95 each.

 

Black/White

A white or translucent umbrella is a reflective umbrella that requires its opening (and shaft) pointed toward your subject. While you must keep the light further away from your subject than you would a shoot-through umbrella, light is much more controlled than its shoot-through counterpart.

9. White-Black-Umbrella

Pictured here is an Interfit 43-inch white/black umbrella.

 

Black/white umbrellas are a great choice for when you need to fill in shadows without it affecting the color, quality or quantity of light. In the image below, I used the JTL 40-inch White Umbrella w/ Removable Black Cover, but with the cover on.

 

10. Black-White-Reflective

The white umbrella’s super-soft light wraps around Katie making the image a bit more 3-dimensional.

 

Black/Silver

Also a reflective umbrella, a silver umbrella (with a black covering) can be used when you want to bounce in specular highlights without affecting the color of the light.

11. Silver-Umbrella

The Phottix 40-inch Silver Umbrella above provides even distribution.

 

The light will be subtly harsher than a shoot through, depending on your umbrella’s distance from your lightsource and from your subject plus the size of the umbrella, the size, of which, we’ll get into later.

 

12. Silver-Umbrella

Serving like a mirror, the silver umbrella reflects a little more light back onto Katie

than the black/white reflective umbrella above.

 

Here, I used something similar to the Phottix 40” Two-Layer Silver Reflective Umbrella available at Adorama for $17.95 each.

 

Black/Gold

A gold umbrella with black backing can be used to warm the color of an image and your subject.

13. Gold-Umbrella

Pictured here is the Phottix 40” Two Layer Gold Reflector Umbrella.

 

This umbrella color works perfectly with bathing suit shots or shots of a subject with a very fair skin tone, where a healthy warm glow might be desired.

 

14. Gold-Umbrella

Now the Katie has a little bit of a warmer glow.

 

Here, I used something similar to the Phottix 40” Two-Layer Gold Reflective Umbrella available at Adorama for $21.95 each.

 

 

Sizes

 

Depending on its maker, umbrellas typically range between 19 inches (a specialty umbrella) up to 88 inches. What size do you get? It really depends on what you are shooting. The larger your umbrella is, the more your light will be spread out. Larger umbrellas are great for full body shots, group shots and portraits, where smaller umbrellas project a more narrow focus, therefore, better for some portraits and headshots.

15. Parabolic Umbrellas -Size

I set up my Westcott 84” Silver Umbrella a few feet away from my subject for full coverage.

 

Accessories

 

For Speedlights

 

  • Speedlight Light Stand Adapter:

 

  • Speedlight

 

For Strobes

 

  • StrobeThere are so many strobes to choose from that I’m not going to recommend any here, but be on the lookout for my upcoming article on Building the Home Studio Part 5 in June involving strobes for more advice on picking out a strobe that is right for you.

 

For Speedlights or Strobes

 

 

  • Sandbags

 

What To Make of It All…

Yes, there are hundreds, possibly thousands, of choices on umbrellas and it is a tough call on what to pick. The sad thing is that I cannot tell you what to choose. I can tell you what I like, what I can afford and what works for me, but that is based on my budget, what I shoot and how I shoot. Arm yourself with your answers to those questions and check into Adorama to speak to an associate on what might work best for you. It couldn’t hurt to pick up a couple of each type of umbrella (since they are fairly inexpensive) and learn their effects and how they can benefit you. You can always upgrade when you’ve found what you really like and what you would use.

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