Studio Basics: Working with Umbrellas

“The Camera Looks Both Ways.”—Rick Sammon

While I ponder the existential nature of my friend’s quote, I also wonder what the below portrait says about me other than just making a nice portrait of a pretty woman, which is what I always think about during these kinds of photo session. Maybe I’m wrong.

I photographed the wonderful and wonderfully beautiful Pamela Simpson using a single Elinchrom D-Lite RX One monolight with a medium-sized umbrella. Umbrellas are the simplest and most inexpensive light modifier, which also makes them the most popular. Photographic umbrellas look and act just like a rain umbrella, except they are reflective and light is bounced into them, creating a big, soft light source. You can bounce light into the umbrella for a soft effect or fire through the umbrella as I did here to create a direct (and brighter) light. Umbrellas are passive devices and don’t care what kind of light you bounce into them. The light can come from a monolight, flash head, or a continuous light source.

Here’s an import-ant  rule about lighting: The closer a light source is to a subject, the softer it is. The converse is also true because the smaller and further away from the subject the light is, the harder it becomes. In addition, the larger a light source is, the softer it will be; smaller sources will be less soft. Another lighting rule that “size matters” is important because a bigger umbrella will produce broader, softer light for your photographs.

Umbrellas come in sizes from small to large and some are even collapsible allowing you to create a compact lighting kit for the road. The main reason to select anything smaller than the biggest one you can find is space. I like to place umbrellas high but larger umbrellas can bump into ceilings on location applications, so something smaller is needed. Tip: When working in a tight space,  I place umbrellas high to keep shadows from falling on the background. (Background for the above portrait is a Savage Monsoon collapsible backdrop.) You must be careful that the umbrellas is not so high that the subject loses light in their eyes. This is harder but not impossible with umbrellas since they produce such a broad source of light.

Joe is author of Joe Farace’s Glamour Photography that features information about using minimal equipment demonstrating how to shoot glamour portraits in available light situations or using minimal lighting like speedlights. New non-Prime copies are available from Amazon.com for $19.82, as I write this, with used copies going for the bargain price of $6.75 (plus shipping.)

Author: Joe Farace

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