When I decided to become a professional photographer in college, I knew fashion and beauty photography were my calling. Even though I grew up in a small town, I read all the women’s fashion magazines I could get my hands on and I knew it was the area of photography that would allow me to indulge my imagination the most.

These days I focus mainly on beauty and product photography but I still shoot fashion and continue to love it. Rather than over-complicating an assignment with a lot of lights, my style for approaching fashion is to go simple. My favorite set-ups utilize one light and with the right modifier, one light is all you need. My favorite fashion modifier is the photographic umbrella. They’re versatile, lightweight and super-affordable.

Silver Bounce Umbrella

Lately fashion lighting has moved away from the heavy use of umbrellas in favor of soft boxes and large octabanks. These modifiers are great for creating beautiful light but I love the wrapping quality of a good umbrella. The bounced light of a photographic umbrella is high-contrast and dramatic while still creating flattering shadows.

In the example above, a large silver-lined bounce umbrella was placed directly in front of the subject. I like to use a silver umbrella when I need to light a model head-to-toe. The wide light spread of a large umbrella illuminates the subject as well the backdrop and the silver lining helps to throw the light further compared with a white umbrella.

I favor umbrella bounce lighting when I want an image to really have “pop”. The dramatic, yet flattering shadows are perfect for accentuating muscle tone, bone structure and body shape.

Shoot-Through Umbrella

Another great modifier for fashion lighting is the white satin shoot-through umbrella. Compared with a bounce umbrella, the diffused light of a shoot-through umbrella is very soft and shadows are more feathered on the edges.

Due to the parabolic shape of an umbrella, using it in the shoot-through position creates a “hot spot” of light with gentle fall off. I like to embrace this effect and center the hot spot on my subject’s face and chest. This creates buttery highlights and the natural fall-off helps to gently light the subject’s surroundings. For a very soft and feminine lighting look, I prefer extra-large shoot-through umbrellas such as 60 or 70 inches.

Umbrella Diffusion

In recent years, umbrella diffusion panels have become available and make photographic umbrellas even more versatile. These stretchy diffusion panels fit over the opening of a bounce umbrella, essentially turning it into a soft box. I really like these panels as you still achieve the wrapping effect of umbrella lighting but with the diffused look of a soft box.

One of my favorite approaches for fashion lighting is to use a white-lined umbrella with diffusion and place the light far off-center. In the example above, the umbrella was placed to the right of the subject to create shadows on the face and increase drama in the image. To me this look is “classic fashion” lighting.

I hope that this article will inspire you to consider all that umbrella lighting has to offer. The more my work takes me on the road, the more I reach for my favorite umbrellas as they travel easy and offer so much versatility. Whether you are shooting fashion, portraits or something else, don’t underestimate the power of the simple umbrella.


Fashion Lighting In-Studio & On-Location, learn more.

Date:Saturday, September 23rd
Time:10am - 4pm
Location:Canon Live Learning, 201 California St., Suite 100, San Francisco, CA 94111

Born and raised on the West Coast, Laura Tillinghast began making art at a young age. She explored many mediums until finally discovering photography when she was 17 years old. From that point on, she knew she had found the tool she was looking for to bring her imagination to life. Shooting primarily advertising and editorial content, you never know what you will find in front of Laura's lens. Whether it is a gorgeous model, a rock band or a bowl of oatmeal, she shoots with the same goal in mind; make it beautiful. See more of Laura’s work at her website.