how to use umbrella lights

If you’re just getting into the world of off-camera lighting, you’ve probably heard of light modifiers. Commonly-used light modifiers include umbrellas, softboxes, and beauty dishes. While they all share the same purpose — to diffuse harsh light originating from a bare flash — each modifier comes with distinctive qualities that you should be aware of. Today, I’m going to show you how to use umbrella lights to create professional-looking portraits.

Why Should You Use Umbrellas?

Do you remember the last time you tried to take a group photo at the bar using your smartphone? Unless you disabled it beforehand, the flash probably came on to help light the photo. The problem is that compared to those taken with sunlight only, flash-assisted photos tend to have that deer-in-the-headlight look to them.

Why does this happen? Small light sources such as your on-camera flash produce hard light, which is not ideal for portraits. In contrast, large light sources create soft light that wraps around the subject, bathing them in a gentle glow. The general rule is: the larger the light source in relation to the subject, the softer and more pleasing the light quality will be.

Even though the sun is huge and would be thought of as soft light, it actually is considered hard light because it’s so far away, and therefore small in relation to the subject. When sunlight is coming through a window, however, the window itself becomes the source of light. Since it’s large in relation to the subject, it produces soft light.

Now that we’ve established the benefits of using soft light, how can we produce it artificially? That’s where light modifiers come in. Modifiers such as umbrellas diffuse light and allow you to achieve soft light in your photos. To put it simply, think of it as window light that you can take anywhere.

Compared to other modifiers such as softboxes and beauty dishes, umbrellas offer less control, spilling light everywhere if you’re not careful. They are also much more prone to falling over and breaking when shooting on windy days. However, due to their affordability, portability, and versatility, umbrellas are the modifier that I use most often.

how to use umbrella lights

How to Use Umbrella Lights

Perhaps the most important thing to consider when using umbrella lights is the type of umbrella that you will be using — reflected or shoot-through.

I started off using shoot-through umbrellas but found that they kept getting in the way of my wider shots. To fix this issue, I’d need a taller light stand (which are harder to adjust on the fly since I’m not super tall), or I can switch over to using reflected umbrellas instead. The latter simply made more sense.

Aside from choosing between reflected and shoot-through umbrellas, you’d also want to choose a good size for your umbrella. Umbrellas come in many different sizes. You can get them in 32’, 45’, 60’, and probably a lot larger as well. I’m a big fan of the larger ones, which can be placed farther away from the subject while still providing soft light. However, they are more expensive to replace and are more likely to get knocked over by the wind.

Unless you consistently shoot with an assistant (or you don’t mind using a bunch of sand bags), I recommend you start with the Westcott 45-inch Umbrella. It comes with a removable black cover and can therefore be used as either a shoot-through or reflected umbrella. Also, it is large enough for lighting full body shots while still being friendly to the wallet.

Now, let’s talk about some ways to get professional results using your new umbrella!

1. Crosslighting

Crosslighting is a technique where you place two lights in opposing directions. It is a highly popular lighting method, and probably the one that I use most often in my personal work.

While this technique requires two light sources, in reality, you only need one flash to make it work. If you’re shooting outdoors, the sun counts as the second light. For this reason, I tend to schedule all my shoots on days that the sun is out in full force and to avoid cloudy days if I can help it.

Keep in mind that crosslighting is very different than using your flash as fill-light and just lifting the shadows. This technique produces a much more edgy, polished look. You want increase your strobe’s power and make it your main light. By doing so, you also have the added benefit of motion stopping, even if your shutter speed is limited to 1/200.

Start by facing the subject away from the sun. You don’t necessarily have to position the sun directly behind them; it can even be slightly outside the frame. The most important part is just making sure that the subject’s front side is not being lit directly. At this point, they should look almost like a silhouette.

The next step is to set up your strobe in front of the subject, but on the opposite side of the sun. After exposing for the background in-camera, increase the strobe’s power until your subject is properly lit and well balanced against the background.

Here is an example of crosslighting.

how to use umbrella lights

In the picture above, the sun was coming from behind the model at camera right. Since I was using a fairly short focal length, I got up close and stood right next to my strobe, positioned camera left.

Here is a variation of the technique where both the front and back light sources are coming from the same side.

how to use umbrella lights

In the photo above, both the sun and the strobe are coming from camera right. To ensure even coverage, I feathered my umbrella to the left and asked my model to angle her body towards the light.

While these examples involve balancing the subjects with the backgrounds, you are encouraged to play around with lighting ratios to get different effects. There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to off-camera lighting.

2. Overpower the Sun

One way to get very edgy, dramatic portraits is to overpower the sun. Unlike the previous examples, we want to underexpose the background by one or two stops. For this technique to look cool, make sure that you face your subject in a direction where the sun hits the backside only, creating sort of a halo around the edges. Ideally, the sun itself would be part of the background.

When you shoot straight into the midday sun, there will be a large amount of contrast between your subject and your background. Since you will be using your strobe to light the subject, you want to properly expose for the background using spot metering on camera.

Remember, you’re not trying to balance the background with the subject. For best results, make sure to underexpose by one or two stops. If you did indeed choose the sky as your backdrop, it should now look very deep and blue. Bonus points if you got some clouds in the frame as well.

how to use umbrella lights

Now, place your light source on the opposite side of the sun (crosslighting), and crank up the power until your subject is properly lit. If your strobe has ETTL capability, it will automatically calculate the right amount of juice for you.

In certain situations (especially with heavy backlight), your ETTL strobe may consistently overexpose or underexpose. If this happens, make sure to adjust the exposure compensation setting accordingly.

3. Clamshell

Fashion and beauty photographers use clamshell lighting to create flattering light that emphasizes facial features as well as makeup. In this setup, there are two opposing light sources in front of the model. The one coming from above is the main light, while the one below serves to minimize shadows under the chins, nose, and eyes.

While the clamshell seems pretty simple on paper, there are quite a few variations when applied in practice, depending on the type light source and their positions in relation to the subject. Although this technique often involves a beauty dish or two softboxes, the good news is that you can also achieve similar results using just an umbrella and a silver reflector.

Whether you’re using a reflected or shoot-through umbrella, you’re going to want to position your light a specific way. Place your umbrella centered in front of the subject, slightly above eye level out of the frame. It should generally be pointed downwards so the light hits the subject at around a 45-degree angle.

This first part might look something like this.

how to use umbrella lights

However, the above isn’t a set-in-stone type of rule. Moving the light up or down in relation to the subject will affect the interplay between light and shadow. I recommend that you experiment and see what angle you like best. Just make sure you don’t move the light too high up or you’ll lose the catchlights in the eyes.

The final part of the clamshell requires placing a reflector beneath your subject’s chin. This will cause some light to bounce back upwards, softening some of the shadows under the eyes, nose, and chin. Similar to your main light, you can adjust the light-to-shadow ratio by moving the reflector closer or further away from the subject’s face.

After adding the reflector, it will look like this.

how to use umbrella lights

Note: You can identify clamshell lighting by two catchlights in the eyes — one at the top and one at the bottom.


Well, that wraps up my introduction to using light modifiers. I recently asked several experienced photographers in my circle what they thought was the most important aspect of photography. As you probably guessed, most of them said, “lighting.” If you want to become a successful photographer, you have to develop a keen understanding of this subject.

If you’ve only shot with natural light, light modifiers will open doors to an entirely different world of portrait photography. So, let’s do a quick recap of the 3 off-camera lighting techniques in this article.

Crosslighting involves placing your subject in between two equal-power light sources, in this case the umbrella light and the sun. One way to create edgy portraits using this technique is to underexpose the background and overpower the sun. Another technique that’s specifically helpful when shooting indoor headshots is to emphasize facial features by using clamshell lighting. Simply center your main light source above your subject’s head, and place a reflector under their chin to minimize shadows.

The cool thing about light modifiers is that you don’t have to choose just one. In fact, mixing several types together can result in uniquely beautiful photos. After learning how to use umbrella lights, I’m sure that you’ll be curious to learn more. The next article in this series will be on beauty dishes and fashion photography. Make sure to follow us on social media and you’ll be the first to know when!