How and Why You Should Use Different Umbrellas in Portrait Lighting

Do you shoot portraits with umbrellas? Most professionals opt for softboxes instead—but to overlook the power of umbrellas is a huge oversight. At least that’s what Daniel Norton thinks. In this video, he explains why:

Norton shoots six different 41″ umbrellas, keeping both his camera and model in the same positions to illustrate exactly how different each lighting rig is. He only changes f-stops when the exposure changes too drastically. As he puts it:

“Umbrellas are one of those things most people own but they maybe don’t use that much. They’re one of the least expensive pieces of equipment, and I find them to be super, super-great for shooting people and a lot of other things.”

how to use umbrella lighting rigs

He starts with a white umbrella, which retails for around $100 and creates a nice, soft, wrap-around lighting. It’s generally a good idea for group shots and portraits where your subjects might be moving, since it’s broadness offers that leeway.

umbrella lighting tutorial

Silver umbrellas are more common in fashion photography. They create more specular light, which makes for brighter highlights, as you can see in the image below.

portrait photography tricks

A translucent umbrella is the third main type of umbrella, though it operates completely differently: because it’s translucent, photographers should inverse the umbrella, shoot the light through it at the subject rather than against it. The result is a closer, more diffused light source that brightens up the entire image.

high fashion photos

To get opposite effect, you’d want a deep umbrella. It’s a little more expensive, but the effect is distinct—it creates a starker, tighter light with darker shadows and a moodier atmosphere.

portrait photography tips

Norton briefly switches to a smaller 33″ white umbrella to show the difference in size: this one emits a harder light, without as many shadows wrapping around the model’s body. For $20 less than its 41″ older brothers, the smaller option may be a good one for photographers who want a basic, well-rounded rig for as little money as possible.

fashion photo studio

Lastly, he shows the results of a giant 65″ umbrella, which gives off a very soft light with not very deep shadows and lots of wrap-around depth. It’s a more even-handed umbrella that’s better for large-scale fashion shoots, though at $350 it’s better reserved for special projects that can’t be accommodated by the 33″ or 41″ versions.

umbrella lighting rig

As you can see, there’s no single best umbrella to buy, but the results are as smooth as any softbox lighting rig.

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