Lighting Tools: Shooting with Umbrellas

by | Apr 29, 2019

Today’s Post by Joe Farace

This is a follow up to my Welcome to My Studio: Video and I hope to write several more posts where I take a look at some of the specific lighting tools that are used in my home-based studio. Today’s it’s umbrellas…big umbrellas.

New studio shooters can sometimes be confused when selecting lighting equipment. Some photographers think that understanding portrait lighting is complicated and the required gear is too expensive but in reality it can be neither. Part of this misunderstanding is created by a bewildering array of products and buzzwords. To avoid getting list, here’s an important lighting rule you should keep in mind:

The closer and larger a light source is to a subject, the softer the quality of the light will be. Conversely, the further away and the smaller the light source is, the harder it becomes.

That’s why the size and shape of your light source are part of what determines the quality of lighting for your portrait, glamour or boudoir photographs.


Photographic umbrellas produce a broad, soft light source and their construction is not all that different from those designed to keep you dry when its raining. Umbrellas are available in different fabrics and sizes and some are even available as collapsible models that let you to create a compact lighting kit you can take on the road.

The color of the fabric has a bearing on the color temperature of the output and in addition to neutral-colored white umbrellas, there are gold umbrellas that can be used to “warm up” a portrait subject. There are even zebra umbrellas that alternate stripes of gold and silver to give some warmth but not too much. Shiny silver fabrics create sparkly looks and soft white does just what it sounds like.

How I made this shot: In this lighting setup (above right) a large white parabolic umbrella was mounted with a Limelight LED light and placed at camera right. Another LED unit is located at camera left to provide some side lighting. Background was a collapsible Retro 60×72-inch blue Accent backdrop from Savage. Camera was Canon EOS 60D with EF-S15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM lens and an exposure of 1/40 sec at f/5 and ISO 640.

Some umbrella’s thinner fabrics allow you to reverse the umbrella and use it in “shoot through” mode. Paul C Buff’s white 51-inch PLM umbrella only costs $29.95 and can be used as a shoot-through, diffused light source or a soft, bounced light source. It provides a wide, unfocused spread of light covering a 150 degree area for low specularity lighting with large round catch lights and soft shadows. Other sizes (64- and 86-inch) of PLM umbrellas are available in white and silver at similarly affordable prices.

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My book Joe Farace’s Glamour Photography is full of tips, tools and techniques for glamour and boudoir photography with new copies available from Amazon for $27.48, as I write this. Used copies are selling for the hard-to-beat price price of $8.91 and the Kindle version is $11.99 for those who prefer a digital format.