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How to Use Photography Umbrellas

written by: •edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 6/12/2009

Photography umbrellas are a popular way to diffusely light a subject with any harsh brightness or extreme contrasts. But how do you decide which types to use, and how do you use them? This article provides an overview on how to use photography umbrellas.

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    Reflective photography umbrellas are a popular way of creating soft, diffused lighting effects, especially for portrait photography, and to reduce the contrast between shadow and light. However, many don't know how to properly use different types of photo umbrellas to create different effects. Here's a basic guide:

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    Choosing the Right Photography Umbrella for Your Needs

    Your first and arguably most important task is to assess the particular needs of the shoot.

    Is an umbrella really what's appropriate? Photography umbrellas provide diffused light for a scene. If you're trying to light a particular object from a particular direction, using a softbox might be more appropriate. On the other hand, softboxes take a longer time to set up, so if you need something quick, then some sort of umbrella might be a better idea.

    There are also many types of photography umbrellas to consider using. The main distinction is between “bounce" or “reflective" umbrellas, and “shoot thru" umbrellas.

    Reflective umbrellas can come in a variety of finishes. For instance, one that is finished in silver will provide a cooler light, as opposed to one that is finished in gold, which will provide a warmer light. So, decide what sort of finish would be best for the effect that you are trying to achieve. Reflective umbrellas provide incredibly diffused and subtle lighting effects for a beautiful soft glow, which is especially good for the skin of a portrait subject. If you don't have the particular reflective umbrella for your needs, here's an easy DIY guide to make your own reflective umbrella.

    Shoot thru umbrellas, on the other hand, essentially function as oversized softboxes. The light provided by shoot thru umbrellas is a little less diffused than that of a reflective umbrella, but a little more than that of a softbox. Thus, they are a good compromise between the control and directionality of a softbox and the diffusion of a reflective umbrella.

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    The Stand

    You'll need some sort of stand for your photography umbrella. Sometimes you can jerry-rig something out of the surroundings, but having a stable, dedicated stand is the better option. Maybe even use an old tripod. Whatever your choice of stand, make sure that the photography umbrella is securely fastened!

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    The Light

    The next question is: do you need a separate light source? Indoors, generally yes. However, if you're shooting outdoors on a sunny day, you can often use photography umbrellas with the sun itself as your light source. Depending on the particular situation, you might find it most useful to use a variety of photography umbrellas with both the sun and manmade light sources.

    For reflective umbrellas, you'll need to position the light source into the umbrella and away from the subject, so that the light bounces and hits your subject.

    For shoot thru umbrellas, the light is aimed through the umbrella directly at the subject, so that the light is still relatively direct.

    Make sure that everything is securely fastened before you begin shuffling things around in the next, and final step to using your photography umbrella.

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    Position The Photography Umbrella

    This is entirely particular to the subject that you are shooting. The only real advice that can be given here is to experiment to achieve whatever lighting effect you so desire. Change the angle and height of the umbrellas, or the distance between them and the subject. Are you trying to eliminate shadows? Then aim a shoot thru umbrella into the shadows. If you want to brighten your subject? Then use a reflective umbrella to diffusely light the entire subject. And so on and so forth—it's all up to you and your subject. Different combinations of different umbrellas allow for more precise lighting manipulation. The variables are endless—and some combination is bound to do precisely what you want to do.