Basic Umbrellas Part One

Umbrellas are a staple of the lighting arsenal. You can certainly see them in use more and more as they regain some respect after the decades of SoftBox as king. I love umbrellas and have quite an assortment of them.

Umbrellas come in different sizes, reflectivity and abilities. I think a variety would be something to consider and adding one or two at a time can add significant diversity to your light sources.

Silver Umbrellas are very bright. The light is contrasty and the efficiency is quite high. I am not fond of the way silver umbrellas create very bright highlights on faces, but they work well for lighting interiors and backgrounds. You should test your silver umbrellas against a white umbrella to see the difference in highlights.

White - Black

White Umbrellas are the softest. They come in flat white and ‘satin’. The satin white umbrellas have a little more ‘pop’ than the flat white, but are still quite soft in the highlights. I like large, satin umbrellas for main lights. The highlights are soft and the contrast is easily managed. (See a wide variety of umbrellas at Calumet)

Mixed Umbrellas: Silver/White, Gold/Silver. These umbrellas, sometimes called ‘Zebras’, are kind of mashups to give a photographer another light source. Obviously a zebra silver/white is more contrasty than white, but less contrasty than silver. The silver/gold adds a little warmth with a very bright light.

Shoot Thru

Shoot-Through Umbrellas are turned around so the light is shooting ‘thru’ the umbrella. this use of the umbrella is quite popular, and requires a white umbrella with no black backing. I recommend black backs that can be removed. Then you have both, a shoot thru and a bounce umbrella.

There are other umbrellas like “softlighters” and such, but we are looking only at the basic umbrellas on this tutorial.

A good assortment for a portrait shooter using studio strobes would be 1 large white or satin, 2 matching mediums white or satin, a medium silver or zebra and one small satin or silver for accents. If you are a commercial shooter who will be lighting rooms or backgrounds, your kit mav vary and lean more toward medium and large silver or zebra umbrellas.

I use fome core for my bounce cards in the studio. I also have shiny boards and a wide assortment of those fold up bounce tools for use when I need them. I have white and black (for negative light), silver, gold and satin. One sheet of fome core is very inexpensive and can be cut into several shapes of bounce cards. (See framing shops and art supply stores for fome core.)

Here are some stills showing the ways the light works when using an umbrella.

Side by Side
Side by Side for comparison.

Single Umbrella slightly to the side

Single Umbrella more to the front of model

Single Umbrella at a distance

Shoot Through, No Fill

Shoot Through, With Fill

Bounce Umbrella, With Fill


Technical: Take your own umbrella shots to compare how the use of distance, height and size matters on a face of your choosing. Then add a fill card (fomecore or cardboard or professional bounce board) Move it in close and take it out… Make a little comparison chart to see the effect of the different umbrella placement.

Artistic: One umbrella and one face. Shoot a one umbrella portrait of someone and create as much drama as you can.

We will have a fun critique and mentoring site up soon. Watch for the announcement on the home page.

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