May 29, 2013

Why Umbrellas Are Such A Great Light Shaping Tool And How To Get The Most Out Of Them

Light Shaping

As photographers one of our biggest challenges is the proper control of light so that we can create photographs that best represent our creative vision. Because of this a huge industry has exploded that specializes in providing Tools to better control Lights. Many of these Tools are expensive but there is one fantastic option that has remained very reasonable and that is the umbrella.

Umbrellas often have been given a bad reputation, though, because they can be difficult to control. The purpose of an umbrella is to send soft, high quality light bouncing all over to provide consistent, even, light throughout your scene.

Why Umbrellas are AWESOME

1:  They are cheap.

Photography can be very expensive, but umbrellas generally are not. You can purchase a 60 inch Umbrella for as little as $30! A cheap 60 inch octobox will set you back ten times that amount!

2:  They make harsh light soft.

Umbrellas do a fantastic job of redistributing condensed, directional, light so that it softly illuminates the subject.

3:  They are very easy to set up.

Unlike softboxes, which can sometimes feel like absolute torture to set up in a rush, umbrellas can be set up in one simple fluid Motion that takes no more than 5 seconds.

4:  They are portable.

Umbrellas fold down very small and can easily be stuffed anywhere that can accommodate the length of their center column. Umbrellas also are free of any additional parts or accessories that you might forget at home.

Choosing Which Umbrella to Buy

One of the first and most important lessons a photographer should learn when first exploring the use of artificial lighting is that the softness of the light is determined by the Size of the light source relative to the subject.

A 60 inch umbrella 5 feet away from your subject will have softer light than a 30 inch umbrella at the same distance. However if you were to move the 60 inch umbrella farther away to 10 feet, it would then have about the same Light quality as the 30 inch one at 5 feet.

You can never go wrong by having a variety of umbrellas to accommodate different scenarios but if you were to only purchase a single umbrella it is almost always beneficial to get the largest umbrella that your space allows. You can always move a large umbrella back to make sharper light but if the umbrella is too small there is very little you can do to make it seem larger.

It is also important to make sure that you purchase an umbrella that has a removable cover so that you can use it as both a reflective umbrella or as a shoot through.

How To Use The Umbrella

The basics are pretty simple. All you have to do is open the umbrella, attach it to your Light and start shooting. Right?


You are missing out on a crucial part of the process and it is part that many umbrella users never even consider.

The Distance from the light source to the umbrella diffusion material can play a huge role in the quality of Light the umbrella produces. The closer the umbrella’s diffusion fabric is to the Light source the less time light has to disperse before passing through the fabric.

This can pose a huge problem because if the diffusion fabric is too close to the light source the light won’t be cast on the full umbrella which would mean that even though you might “think” you are using a 60 inch umbrella you are actually only casting light on a small portion of that umbrella and essentially creating a smaller light source.

After setting up your umbrella point your camera at the umbrella and take a photo. This will allow you to evaluate the distribution of light throughout Skin of the umbrella so that you can make Adjustments to maximize the use of the Tool.

Here are some examples of umbrellas at different Distances showing how the distance from umbrella fabric to the light source can vastly change the Size and shape of the light cast towards your subject. Each is measured by how far the shaft of the umbrellas extends beyond the edge of the strobe reflector. The examples use a 48 inch umbrella attached to an Alien Bee. Each photo example is unedited save for Cropping and being made Monochrome. Distance from edge of the umbrella to the subject remains constant at 4 feet.

Shaft Length: 0 inches


Shaft Length: 8 inches


Shaft Length: 16 inches


Shaft Length: 24 inches


Shaft Length: 32 inches


As you can see by lengthening the umbrella shaft we are able to Distribute the light more evenly along the umbrellas Skin. This causes the light to be less focused and more ambient. As a result the overall Brightness of the Exposure is slightly reduced and there is lower Contrast in the Shadows. The catch light in the eye also becomes larger but dimmer.

So Now What?

Go grab your umbrella and do some experimenting. Armed with this new knowledge start exploring the different things you can do with an umbrella and observe the impact it has on your images.  A short shafted umbrellas set up isn’t necessarily wrong, it is just a different “right” when used appropriately. Often the change can be subtle but always remember that it is in those tiny details where an image finds its way from good to great!

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  • user image
    Pratik SB

    thanks for such a great tip.. 🙂
    i am new in fashion photography, n i would love to experiment this in upcoming shoots…

    • user image
      Ryan Cooper

      No problem! It is exactly how I started, although I made the mistake of buying a small umbrella to start. 😉

      • user image
        Pete Glogiewicz

        I didn’t realise it was a mistake until I read this. On the hunt now for a big one 🙂 Cool article, these back to basics things are sometimes what we need to remind us how important the little details are. 🙂

  • user image
    Elaine B

    Hi Ryan ~ I just took a look at your website and recognized your photos from todays episode of The Grid! What did you think of their critique?

    • user image
      Ryan Cooper

      Ha, finally got a chance to watch. Not quite sure what to say. I submitted those specifically expecting some harsh feedback but most of their complaints were about things that weren’t actually true hahaha. So not sure what to take from it.

      They criticized that I had the same model twice, I didn’t 😉

      The criticized that I had applied tonal contrast to one of the images, which I hadn’t

      They criticized that I had made the eyes larger in two of the photos, which I did not.

      They criticized that I had shot one image with a 50mm too close that was actually shot with a 100mm from across the room.

      So ya, hahaha, not sure, what did you think?

  • user image
    Jim Mauch

    One warning you failed to give is that when used outdoors umbrellas can do a Mary Poppins on you. Even a slight wind can catch an umbrella and go airborne taking out your model. To prevent this use a hefty stand that is firmly weighted down and avoid average windy city weather.

  • yanettzilumphotography

    Thank you for this as I am looking into umbrellas for now, yet, researching all lighting for photography and videography. This makes a great deal of sense…