What Is Umbrella In Photography?


As the first thing that might come to mind when thinking about umbrellas is a stormy day, it’s time to shed light on a significantly brighter facet of these trusty tools. In photography, the term “umbrella” takes on a strikingly different relevance, but it still serves a protective function – shielding your photos from harsh lighting conditions. Photography umbrellas are not about to save you from a bout of rain, but they are, indeed, instrumental in delivering the finest quality photographs under both controlled and natural lighting conditions.

Photography umbrellas, just as their weather counterparts, come in numerous varieties and sizes but predominantly exist in two forms – shoot-through and reflective. While both these umbrellas live under the same photography umbrella—pun quite feasible—they have purposefully distinct roles and are selected based on specific lighting requirements of a given shoot. Their primary goal, though characterized differently, is enhancing and manipulating light in your favor, thus helping to elevate the artistry of your photos.

Shoot-through, or translucent umbrellas, and reflective umbrellas, though polar opposites, are the best of friends in a photographer’s toolkit. Both types bring their own distinct flavor to a photo, so understanding when to use which can boost the outcome. But, worry not, dear friend; all this and more will be covered in this article’s meticulous detail cloud.

So why not stick around? It may not be as juicy as gossip at a teenagers’ party, but this crash course promises to reveal more riveting secrets of the humble umbrella than you may have ever imagined. Along this inadvertent slide towards appreciation of the impact of the unpretentious umbrella on photography, you may even find yourself musing – Whoever knew, umbrellas could shine outside of the rain.

The Function of Umbrellas in Photography

When you step into the world of photography, umbrellas may not be the first tool that comes to your mind. But these inconspicuous devices serve a significant role, especially in lighting. In this part of the article, we will further explore how umbrellas serve functions far beyond just keeping us dry and delve into how they enhance our creative skills and the quality of our pictures.

Softening the Light

Umbrellas are employed in photography primarily for their ability to modify light. They can soften the output from harsh light sources, allowing for a gentler, more dispersed spread of light. You can think of this as the difference between on-stage performers being hit mercilessly by a single spotlight versus being bathed in a flattering and evenly dispersed floodlight — one exaggerates every flaw while the other gives an even, smooth illumination.

Studio Settings

In studio photography, you often have full control over the lighting environment. That’s where umbrellas come in handy. For example, using a shoot-through umbrella in combination with your studio lights can create a soft light. This can be particularly beneficial when taking portraits, reducing harsh shadows and highlights to create an even tone on your subject’s face.

Outdoor Settings

Umbrellas can be equally indispensable in outdoor settings. Here, you often deal with direct sunlight, which can create harsh shadows and overly contrasted images. By implementing umbrellas, you can diffuse this light and create a more balanced exposure.

Shoot-Through vs. Reflective Umbrellas

The choice between a shoot-through and a reflective umbrella depends on your specific needs. If you want a broader light spread with less control over the direction, shoot-through umbrellas are your best bet. They uniformly distribute light which softens shadows and reduces contrast.

In contrast, a reflective umbrella offers more controlled light and gives a more directed reflection. It’s excellent for accentuating textures, and producing, vibrant, contrast-rich images. Remember, the reflective umbrella is like the focused, convivial guest at a party who holds your attention, while the shoot-through is more like a gracious host, ensuring soft, diffuse light reaches everyone.

Throughout your adventure in photography, it’s vital to understand that the distribution and control of light is a fundamental aspect of capturing appealing images. Whether you’re trying to master studio portraiture, or seeking to take better outdoor photos, photography umbrellas can be an invaluable tool in your kit. So, never underestimate the power of this simple piece of equipment, and always remember – there’s more to the humble umbrella than you might think!

Types of Photography Umbrellas

When it comes to photography umbrellas, there are two primary types that photographers typically turn to: shoot-through (or translucent) umbrellas and reflective umbrellas. Each of these operates uniquely, possessing distinct features and best uses, and contributing differently to photo quality.

Shoot-through Umbrellas

Shoot-through, also known as translucent umbrellas, are usually white and allow light to pass through them. From their name, one gathered that light is ‘shot through’ these umbrellas, turning them into a large, diffused light source. The light they provide is soft and evenly dispersed, reducing harsh shadows effectively. They are generally simpler to set up compared to their reflective counterparts, partially due to their less steep learning curve in terms of controlling light placement.

Shoot-through umbrellas are excellent options when you wish to emulate natural, soft lighting. Their non-direct lighting is akin to the look of an overcast day. This type of lighting works beautifully for portrait and people photography, where mellow, universally flattering light can help keep your subjects looking their best. Meanwhile, their compact design makes them advantageous for on-location photography or smaller studio spaces.

Reflective Umbrellas

On the other side of the spectrum, we find reflective umbrellas. These umbrellas have an opaque, usually silver or gold, inner surface that bounces the light back onto the subject. Compared to shoot-through umbrellas, they offer more directional or focused light, giving the photographer more control over light intensity and positioning.

Reflective umbrellas work well when you need more cinematic, dramatic lighting. Their ability to produce a higher contrast, sharper shadowed effect is particularly appreciated in product photography and certain high-impact portrait scenarios. However, the control they offer requires a more precise setup and a nuanced understanding of light manipulation, making their usage slightly more complex and thus fitting for more advanced scenarios.

To make the most of these tools in your photography, remember the golden rule: the type of umbrella you use should serve the lighting needs of your specific shot. Experimenting with both types will help you understand their effects better, enabling you to choose the most appropriate lighting equipment based on the feel and results you are aiming for in your photography.

How to use umbrellas in photography effectively

Using an umbrella effectively in your photography sessions can significantly improve your end product, be it a subtle lifestyle shot, a dramatic portrait, or an intricate product image. Getting the most out of your umbrella involves understanding how to best position it and adjust its angle. Here are some practical guidelines to follow:

  1. Distance from the Subject: The closer the umbrella is to your subject, the softer the light will be. Mind you, it’s a direct proportional relationship; as with a campfire, get too close, and you risk singeing your subject’s eyebrows (figuratively speaking, of course). But unlike a campfire, straying too far means your subject may be swallowed by shadows. A balanced approach is the name of the game here.
  2. Angle of the Umbrella: The angle of your umbrella in relation to the light source is a major determiner of how the light spreads. Try to maintain an angle that results in optimal light distribution. Erratic angles may lead to a case of either underexposure or overexposure, both of which are as unwelcome as an overcooked dinner.
  3. Avoiding Unwanted Shadows and Reflections: This more or less relies on the blend of the two factors mentioned above. Play around with the position and the angle of the umbrella to control shadows and reflections.
    • For instance, positioning the umbrella higher and angled downwards often reduces harsh shadows under the subject’s eyes. This setup, often termed as ‘Butterfly Lighting’, is a crowd-favorite for beauty portraits.
    • For product photography, avoid shiny surfaces catching unflattering reflections of the umbrella and its structure by swaying your umbrella off to the side, rather than being directly overhead or in front of the product.
  4. Calibrating the Flash Strength: There’s no “one size fits all” here. Depending on the distance and angle of the umbrella, and the ambient lighting conditions, you may have to manipulate the strength of your flash. A stronger flash may be necessary for larger distances, while a reduced strength could suffice when working in closer proximities.
  5. Choosing the Right Umbrella: Determine which umbrella suits your situation the best. Remember, shoot-through umbrellas are akin to diffused, cloud-filtered sunlight- softer and more spread out. Reflective umbrellas, on the other hand, can bear resemblance to concentrated, direct sunlight- bright and with a distinct path. Choose as per your subject and the mood you seek to portray.

Embarking upon your shoot, laden with these guidelines, ought to prepare you for an effective and efficient session. However, note that these points are not absolute rules, but more of flexible guideways tailored to help you experiment and discover what works best for your personal style.

Remember, just as in cooking where occasionally the most delightful dishes sprout from the most unanticipated ingredient combinations, so too is photography a playground for tastefully breaking the norms. So, go forth and create— armed with your knowledge, guided by your creativity, and of course, don’t forget to bring your umbrella. You never know when it might start raining opportunities to capture that perfect shot.


So there we have it: the ubiquitous, often overlooked, and commonly misused photography umbrella. But as we’ve established throughout this article, it is not merely a fanciful accessory. Rather, it is a valuable instrument that, when used correctly, can significantly enhance the quality of your images.

To rewind and revisit, we started our adventure with the fundamentals, establishing how umbrellas bridge the gap between raw light and refined, artful illumination. They are the gatekeepers of soft, professional-grade lighting, enhancing both studio and outdoor photography with their utility.

We then dove into the specifics of the two primary types of photography umbrellas – shoot-through and reflective. Each has its own unique characteristics and, hence, its peculiarities. Shoot-through umbrellas provide a wider, softer spread of light, perfect for when a gentler touch is required. Meanwhile, reflective umbrellas deliver a narrower, more focused beam of light, ideal when the scenario calls for a precise spotlight.

The ensuing challenge, of course, is in the application – using these umbrellas to their fullest potential. We’ve discussed several aspects to be mindful of, including the optimal positioning and angles, distance from the subject, how to avoid unwanted shadows, and most vitally, the relationship between the umbrella and the light source.

While we’ve provided some guidelines for these, remember that the beauty of photography often lies in experimentation. These should serve not as unbreakable rules, but as a foundation upon which you can build your unique style. Photography, after all, blends art with technique, and mastering the use of a photography umbrella is proof of that magic blend.

Ultimately, a photography umbrella acts as an extension of your creativity. It can help mould and shape light in ways that bring your artistic vision to life. As you keep moving forward on your photography expedition, remember to experiment, explore, and embrace the subtle artistry of using an umbrella. Continue honing your skills, persist in your learning, and you’ll find that photography can indeed be a playground of light and shadow that opens up innumerable possibilities.

Remember, the landscape of brilliance can often be just an ‘umbrella away.’

The Creativv
American digital marketer and founder of TheCreativv.com with over a decade of experience in event, travel, portrait, product, and cityscape photography.