Umbrellas are for more than just rainy days. From props to lighting modifiers, umbrellas are an inexpensive jack-of-all-trades photography tool. They’re colorful, semi-transparent, full of shape and pattern and bursting with inspiration for photographers. Don’t believe us? Here are 18 different ways to use an umbrella in photography.
1. To diffuse light.
Shoot through umbrellas are versatile and inexpensive ways to soften the light from an off-camera flash or studio strobe. While there are a number of different ways to diffuse light to avoid that obvious flash photography look, umbrellas are often favored because they’re easy to set up, portable and yet can cover a wide area.
2. To create wide light.
Reflective umbrellas, on the other hand, cast light 180 degrees, which makes them excellent tools for lighting larger subjects, such as for group photos. Unlike a shoot through umbrella, the light will face away from the subject, while the silver on the inside of the umbrella will cast it backwards, only over a much wider pattern.
3. To create a compositional frame.
Umbrellas can be just as much compositional tools as they are lighting tools — and you don’t need a photography-specific umbrella for this either. Umbrellas are great for framing the subject and drawing the eye. A big colorful umbrella just behind the subject helps draw the viewers eye. Or, a sea of several umbrellas can be used to draw the eye towards a particular part of the frame.
4. To add color.
Rainy day photos often have dark tones — umbrellas are a great way to add a pop of color. Since umbrellas are so common, it’s easy to find one in a specific color to match an idea or another prop. Used in bunches, umbrellas can create a sea of different colors, or a pattern of one single color.
5. To create a pattern.
Pattern is a powerful compositional tool — and umbrellas are prefect props for creating your own patterns where there isn’t one in the scene. Three umbrellas in a row, whether held or lying on the ground, create an instant compositional boost.
6. To break a pattern.
What’s more interesting than creating a pattern? Breaking one. Think a red umbrella in a sea of black umbrellas, or an umbrella-holding pedestrian breaking up the lined pattern in a crosswalk. People expect and appreciate patterns, but when that repetition breaks, it grabs the viewers attention in a startling way.
7. To create makeshift shade.
No, you can’t put a shoot through umbrella on the sun. But for small subjects, an umbrella can create just enough shade to work under for macro photography. You’ll likely need to rig the umbrella to hold itself (perhaps with some duct tape and a tripod) but an umbrella can help create shade if you just can’t wait for a cloudy day.
8. To block out distractions.
One of the reasons that umbrellas are so wonderful is that they’re big — which means they can help fix a cluttered background. A wide umbrella held behind a portrait subject works both as a prop and to hide an unsightly (or perhaps just boring) part of the scene. Umbrellas aren’t a total fix for crazy scenes, but they can help, particularly when used for close up shots.
9. To emphasize the subject.
On the opposite end, blocking out those distractions can help to draw attention to the subject. A large, colorful umbrella is a bit out of the ordinary and can draw the viewer’s eye to an important part of the scene, whether that’s in street photography, portraiture or even a landscape.
10. To create a sense of mystery.
Composition is just as much about what we can’t see as what we can. Try shooting from a higher angle and using the umbrella to obscure part of the scene — think a pair of rain boots peeking out from under an umbrella or a romantic kiss behind one. Leave the viewer guessing as to what’s behind that rain cover.
11. To create dramatic backlighting.
Umbrellas are semi-transparent, which means some light passes through the material. Just like backlighting a flower will make the petals appear to glow, lighting an umbrella from behind makes a spectacular effect. Backlighting makes the umbrella itself look like a light source and as an added bonus, raindrops will also pop in photos when backlit. If you can take your flash off-camera, try putting it behind the umbrella for a dramatic effect.
12. To create a silhouette.
Combine backlighting and using the umbrella to obscure part of your subject, and you have a wonderful silhouette. Unlike a silhouette created from backlight and underexposure, the black figure will appear only on the umbrella, not across the entire image, which makes for a pretty unique effect.
13. To create an artistic flare.
Lens designers and photographers alike often work to avoid lens flares, but they can be a useful artistic tool too. With the light on the opposite side of the umbrella, a flare will make the umbrella appear to almost sparkle.
14. To make an abstract scene.
Clear umbrellas can be just as useful, though in different ways. A clear umbrella in the rain can be used to create the effect of looking out a window during a rainy day — only you don’t actually need a window. Shooting through a clear umbrella on a rainy day gives an everyday scene an abstract quality.
15. To develop a better sense of the surroundings.
Umbrellas come in many different types and shapes — and just what type you choose can lend a sense of culture or place to your image. The earliest umbrellas were designed in China, and even today the paper parasols with colorful patterns offer a cultural clue. From the simplicity of a plain black umbrella to a lacy parasol, the type of umbrella you choose to use in your shots can lend a sense of place or even personality to the shot.
16. To use as a folded prop.
Sure, most of the umbrella photographs that you see are probably of the devices open, but a closed umbrella can be (almost) just as useful. A closed beach umbrella in a landscape shot can create a felling of isolation. A folded umbrella used as a walking stick can create an unusual portrait prop.
17. To create Photoshop tricks.
Umbrellas can be just as inspiring for graphic artists. With a bit of Photoshop and the right set up, your subject can appear to levitate Mary Poppins style with an umbrella in hand. The weather on the inside of the umbrella could be different to what’s on the outside. Who knows — maybe it’s not even rain that’s falling from the sky.
18. To stay dry.
Drum roll please: You can use an umbrella to stay dry. And the inventor of the umbrella rests happily in his grave. While holding an umbrella may be a bit tricky while shooting, you can wing it one-handed, bring a friend or attach the umbrella to your tripod. If you’re concerned with how a DIY duct tape solution may look, some golf cart umbrella holders will attach to tripods.
Umbrellas are great lighting tools — but they offer loads of compositional inspiration too. What ways can you think of to use umbrellas in photography?
Got an umbrella shot? Find inspiration and personalized feedback at this month’s photo of the month club — it’s umbrella themed! Along with getting print credits to keep your enlarged umbrella photos, you’ll gain valuable insight from photographers at all skill levels.