Does the vast selection of studio umbrellas in the world have you wondering where to start? Here we narrow the list down to four umbrellas that can benefit any photographer, exploring the practical differences and the kinds of results you can expect.
Lighting For a Rainy Day
The earliest recorded account of a collapsible umbrella is from China in 21 A.D., when an emperor reportedly used one in a ceremonial carriage. These days, of course, as a standard household item for protection against rain and sun, umbrellas are no longer reserved for royalty. Silver-screen stars have danced with them, pop stars have dedicated songs to them, and miniature parasols have been used to decorate mai tais.
Somewhere along the way, some resourceful guy-with-a-camera needed something—anything—to soften his light source, so he reached for a common umbrella he had lying around. Maybe it was a white parasol that he pinched from his wife’s closet. Whatever the circumstances were, he rigged the umbrella in front of his light source, popped the flash, and voila! His light source was suddenly larger, softer, and thus more flattering to the young lady sitting in his studio. And everyone lived happily ever after. (Of particular interest is a 1907 U.S. patent application by a certain North Losey of Indianapolis. His description of a “photographic light-diffusing apparatus” sounds suspiciously like that of a collapsible umbrella.)
Of course the practice of using umbrellas in photography is now commonplace. Portable, inexpensive, and versatile, they’re often photographers’ default option when it comes to modifying their light. The difficulty, however (and probably the reason you’re reading this article), is that the basic photographic umbrella has proliferated into many permutations of size, shape, and color to serve photographers’ varying needs and preferences. Impact alone offers over a dozen styles, not including our many size options for each. So, assuming you don’t want to buy every umbrella at once, how do you know where to start?
To simplify things, we’re narrowing our discussion to just four distinct umbrellas that do a good job of achieving some of the various kinds of light you can create. While the differences in results between umbrellas can be somewhat difficult to define, we’ll show some concrete examples of images and do our best to summarize what makes each umbrella distinct.
At risk of bad luck from opening all these umbrellas indoors, let’s get to it!
43″ White Translucent Umbrella
Versatile, very soft, non-directional. Great for portraits.
Let’s start with the most common umbrella out there: the white translucent. This umbrella is especially popular because of its versatility. With its white translucent surface, it creates a broad, generous, soft light source for very flattering portraits. Because it actually allows the light to pass right through its material, this is a very inefficient (read: soft) modifier, throwing the light around in every which direction. Unlike other umbrellas, it can also be used in two ways: by shooting directly through the umbrella as a diffuser, or by turning it around and using it as a reflector for a smooth wraparound effect.
The most common way to use a white translucent umbrella is by shooting through it. In the example below, you can get a sense of the softness of the shadows created by the light. The umbrella is set at a good distance from the light, allowing the light to fill up the entire umbrella for a very broad light source.
Now watch what happens when we choke up on the umbrella, positioning it closer to the light.
Because we’ve effectively reduced the size of the light source here, you can see that the light is just a drop harder, meaning a little more contrast and faster falloff from highlight to shadow.
What happens when you turn the umbrella around and use it reflectively? Because you’re now bouncing the light, and because the translucence of this particular umbrella makes it quite inefficient as a reflector, you now have an even more inefficient light source than before. Observe:
As you can see, the inefficiency of the light makes it significantly softer. Not only is it bouncing off the interior of the umbrella onto the subject, it’s diffusing through the umbrella and bouncing off the surrounding walls onto our subject for a much broader light source. As a result, the light has more of a wraparound quality, with generous illumination and subdued shadows. Notice that the background is better lit due to the wide, omnidirectional throw of light.
43″ Silver Beaded Umbrella
Highly efficient and directional with a touch of diffusion. Great for dramatic portraits and product photography.
If the white translucent umbrella is extremely inefficient, the silver beaded umbrella is its polar opposite. Think of it as close to 100-percent reflective efficiency. One of the giveaways is its black exterior: If an umbrella has a black top, it doesn’t lose light; instead it catches the light and throws all of it right back at you. The other giveaway is the silver interior, which maximizes the reflectivity. The combined result is a fairly hard, dramatic light with strong shadows. Compared to the wide throw of the white translucent umbrella, the silver beaded umbrella has the directionality of a lighthouse.
You can see here that the light is brighter and harder, leaving a fairly dramatic shadow on the subject’s face. This makes it useful for beauty shots of a model with flawless skin or a dramatic shot of a boxer to emphasize a chiseled physique. It also tends to be great for inanimate subjects, such as car and product photography. Again, it all depends on what you’re shooting and the look you’re going for.
Because they’re simple, standard-size umbrellas with virtually opposite qualities, the white translucent and silver beaded umbrellas tend to be staples in a studio photographer’s collection. Now that we’ve gotten those covered, let’s talk about a couple of umbrellas that are a bit more specialized.
Soft, generous wraparound light with directionality. Great for portraits and subtle subject isolation.
Ready to start climbing up the size ladder? Not only is the width of the white deep umbrella close to the height of the average adult human being, it’s also unusually deep—probably deep enough to take a bath in if you were to fill it with water (not recommended). This is a big umbrella.
What the diameter (along with the white interior we chose for this umbrella) achieves is a very large, efficient light source, resulting in soft wraparound light that leaves very little shadow. The shadowless effect is especially pronounced when the light is moved close to the subject like this:
With the light angled for a bit more of a head-on illumination, all the dark shadows on the subject have been erased. You’re getting a bright, generous light that bathes the subject in illumination all the way across. Even behind the subject, you can see only faintest amount of shadow.
Now check out the difference when the light is positioned more to the side. We’re also setting the light slightly off-angle this time, relying on the spill of light for a softer feathering effect.
The shadows are back, though they’re still relatively subdued because of the sheer size of the umbrella.
In both of these shots, you’re also seeing the effect of the umbrella’s increased depth. The extra depth helps to focus the light, giving you a more dramatic sweet spot in the center and faster fall-off everywhere else. In these images, that means the subject, who’s roughly in the center of the illumination, is more generously lit and isolated from the background than he would be with a more traditional umbrella.
To illustrate the focusing effect of a deep umbrella, here’s a look into the interior of the umbrella.
With the umbrella choked in close to the monolight, notice the way the light pools in the center of the umbrella. While all umbrellas will do this to an extent, the deep umbrella’s extra depth makes this effect especially pronounced.
7′ Silver Parabolic Umbrella
Highly efficient with a very wide throw of hard light. Great for dramatic portraits and strong outdoor illumination.
With a diameter of seven feet, we’re now competing size-wise with some of the tallest NBA players. What makes the silver parabolic umbrella distinct is its unusual shallowness—basically the opposite of a deep umbrella. This gives it a very wide throw of light, resulting in a much larger shooting zone with very little subject isolation.
When you combine this trait with the ultra-wide diameter, a black top, and a non-beaded silver interior for maximum efficiency, you end up with a wide, powerful light source.
As you can see, this oversized umbrella provides strong highlights with fairly stark shadows. Unlike the smaller silver beaded umbrella, you also get more-than-ample coverage of your subject, illuminating him from head to toe as well as the background. The high specularity of this light modifier again makes it useful for boxers and beauty queens in the studio. The high efficiency also makes it useful outdoors to light your subject against bright sunlight.
But let’s say you have this umbrella but find its light too hard for the given situation. Fortunately, Impact offers an optional fabric diffuser.
Throw that diffuser on the front, and, suddenly, with the help of the umbrella’s reflective interior, you have what amounts to a seven-foot softbox, taming all the harshness and contrast you saw earlier. The shadows are nearly gone, and you’re left with soft, even illumination that flatters any model. It’s a nice two-in-one.
Understanding the Nuances
While we’ve tried our best to explain what exactly makes each of these umbrellas tick, the differences aren’t always so clear-cut. With so many variables involved, including hardness, intensity, efficiency, directionality, specularity, and falloff, comparing the results of one umbrella to another is often subjective.
These samples should help give you a general idea, but truly knowing whether to reach for one umbrella over another in a given situation will ultimately come down to experience, intuition, and personal preference—and even then, experimentation will always be part of your process. So don’t be afraid to test your model’s patience: Pick up an umbrella or two, shoot a lot of frames, and see what happens! Good luck!
Have anything to add? We’d love to see your umbrella collection, comparisons, test shots, and success stories. Chime in below!