How to Use Umbrellas in Flash Photography

Umbrellas are one of the most essential light modifiers that flash photographers use to shape light.  As simple as umbrellas are to use with a flash, it can seem intimidating to a new flash photographer to know how to set up an umbrella for a photography shoot.

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In the video, we go through the various types of umbrellas that can be used in flash photography, and what each of them are used for.

Learn how to use umbrellas in flash photography
Learn how to use umbrellas in flash photography

The white shoot-through umbrella

White translucent umbrellas are used as an inexpensive and effective way to spread out a light that will cover approximately a 1.5 yard (1.4 meter) area.

Shoot through umbrellas are, in our opinion, the best type of lighting modifier for beginning flash photographers.  The reason we like using these umbrellas is that they create very soft light, they are inexpensive, and they have a wide enough lighting pattern that they are easy to position and aim.  Using a shoot through can cover up a lot of rookie mistakes made by newer flash photographers.

The drawback to this and all types of umbrella is that they are easily breakable.  If there is any wind when using these on-location, the spokes can be broken, or it could catch the wind and knock over the light stand.

One tip to keep in mind when using this type of umbrella is to flip down the small on-flash diffuser onto the flash head so that the light is spread across the entire size of the umbrella.

The silver reflective umbrella

Silver reflective umbrellas throw light EVERYWHERE within a 180 degree radius.  The wide and even pattern of light created by a silver umbrella makes them perfect for lighting groups, though they have less application for shooting portraits of individuals or couples, because it is difficult to achieve good shadows with this type of umbrella.

Unlike shoot-through umbrellas that are placed between the flash and the model, silver reflective umbrellas function by pointing the flash away from the group, and then the silver umbrella bounces the light back onto the people.

Silver umbrellas are my go-to tool for shooting family reunions and groups.  I simply set up the camera on a tripod about 15 to 20 feet (6.1 meters) from the group, then I set up one reflective umbrella on a light stand to either side of me.  This setup always produces simple even lighting for larger groups.

The parabolic umbrella

Parabolic umbrellas have become very fashionable in the last few years.  Pioneered by Paul C. Buff, this type of umbrella focuses the flash pattern and creates a quality of light with high specularity.

Should I buy an umbrella or a softbox?

Newer flash photographers are always eager to spring for the softbox.  Honestly, I think it is because softboxes LOOK more professional than umbrellas.  While it isn't terribly difficult to work with a softbox, I still find that most students do better by learning with an umbrella first.  Umbrellas cover up many mistakes that newer flash photographers make in positioning the light, because umbrellas throw a wider pattern of light onto the subject.  If you're looking for exactly which lighting modifiers we recommend, check out this article.

19 thoughts on “How to Use Umbrellas in Flash Photography”

  1. Alisson Silveira - BR

    Excelente!!! Ganhei um kit com 1 Sombrinha Branca e uma Prateada, Porém não tenho experiência com esse tipo de iluminação, esse artigo serviu justamente para isso, me esclarecer como usar cada tipo, e sua aplicação. Muito Obrigado,Ótimas Dicas, Bom Trabalho. TKS

  2. Audio tip. You guys need to make your voice volume the same in each channel by using a pan/expand effect or by making them mono. It’s a lot easier on the listeners.

  3. “Umbrellas cover up many mistakes that newer flash photographers make”

    I prefer to teach people to learn from their mistakes and not hide them. If the new flash photographers don’t know they made a mistake how will they know they made them or what the mistake was.

    The main reason I tell newcomers to get the umbrella (before getting a softbox) is because they are cheaper. The softbox has slightly steeper learning curve but they will see their mistakes and (hopefully) learn from them straightaway.

  4. Great help in explaining the different uses. I received a free transparent umbrella and wasn’t sure how to use. Thanks!

  5. I bought a shoot through umbrella that didn’t come with set up instructions. It wasn’t until I saw Jim holding the shoot through that I realized how to properly assemble it. Thanks! That was much appreciated.

  6. Javier Rodríguez

    Cierto brother, los softbox se ven mas pro, pero son algo complicados al inclinarlos. Las sombrillas siempre han funcionado bien. ok

  7. One reason your light was uneven is because your umbrella is backwards. The mounting hole for the umbrella is tilted so the center of the light from the flash can be aligned with the center of the umbrella (the tip of an acute triangle). By tilting the umbrella the wrong way, the center of the light hits the top of the umbrella, as we see in your example. Your use of the diffuser spreads out the center, but it would be better to just reverse your umbrella.


    I want to know why these white umbrella are used in photo lab?
    how they work ?
    if we not use these what the effect will come in picture?

  9. I am getting spoke marks in the highlights on my photos from shooting through my translucent umbrella. How do I overcome this problem, please?

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