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Create a White Background with an Umbrella

Updated: May 19, 2020

A simple white or black background is great way to keep attention focused on your subject. But backdrops and studios are expensive! In this post I'll show you how I shot dramatic portraits using a shoot through umbrella to create a studio style white background.

SETTINGS: 1/250 sec at f/7.1, ISO 200

Before I continue, I want you to know that Speedliter's Blog is an Amazon Affiliate. At not cost to you, I may earn a commission from items you purchase from Amazon using the links in this blog. Thanks for using our links and supporting Speedliter's Blog!

Dramatic lighting is awesome! I am fascinated by dramatic styles like Joel Grimes and Chris Knight. Here's how I created dramatic portraits with only two speedlites and no fancy studio.

GEAR: If you have read my posts, you know my main camera body right now is the Canon 6D. It's a work horse, it's full frame, and it's affordable compared to it's big brother the 5D Mark IV. When shooting a headshot or portrait at this distance, I choose a lens between 50 and 85mm. This allows some breathing room between myself and the subject. In this case I went with old faithful 50mm 1.4. If you don't have a 50mm, consider getting one. The 1.8 is cheaper and still excellent, if it's more realistic for you. I wanted to create a white studio looking background without the expense and work of the studio. To do this I used a large 43" Fotodiox shoot through umbrella lit by a Canon 600EX-RT. Make sure your speedlite zoom is set as wide as it will go to spread the light across the entire umbrella. I placed the umbrella close to my subject so that the light will wrap around their head a little. Later, I'll edit out the umbrella parts in Lightroom. For the key light I had another 600EX-RT in a Neewer 24" softbox. I love these little softboxes! They're dynamic and affordable!

SETTINGS: For studio style portraits I keep by aperture around 7-9. This aperture will create a sharp photo and is usually around the lens's "sweet spot" for sharpness. 1/250 second shutter speed is ideal for sharp portraits, but you can work anywhere from around 1/125 and faster. You should always keep your ISO as low as possible to limit noise. For these photos I kept my ISO around 100-200. When choosing my flash settings, I adjust until it looks good! I photographed my background alone first adjusting the power until it was very white but not "glowing" white. After my subject was in place, I adjusted the key light until my subject was well lit.

TIPS: Move your key light around until you get the lighting on the face just right. I wanted a little more than rembrandt lighting (triangle of light under the farthest eye), but not too much to lose the shadow on the left side of the subject's head. Try different positions and expressions with your subject. Every person is different, so be flexible and shoot while trying different poses and expressions.

EDITING: I used Adobe Lightroom to do most of the editing here and Adobe Photoshop to do some skin touch up. In Lightroom, I used the adjustment brush to remove the bones of the umbrella and create the silky white background. Check out this post to see how I use burning and dodging techniques to isolate my subject in Lightroom. See the before and after photo below for a visual. I also increased clarity and contrast to add the drama. If you want to get crazy with Photoshop, here is where I learned to use frequency separation to touch up skin. If you're curious about the workflow, I edited out the bones of the umbrella in Lightroom, moved to Photoshop for skin touch up, then back to Lightroom for final tweaks. To move from Lightroom to Photoshop, select Photo > Edit In > Edit in Adobe Photoshop. To move back to Lightroom, just save your work in Photoshop (just save, not save as).

SETTINGS: 1/250 sec at f/7.1, ISO 200

SETTINGS: 1/250 sec at f/7.1, ISO 200

Here's another shoot where I use this same technique but with a different feel to the photo. This time the 24" softbox was hanging above and in front of my subject tilted towards his face slightly.

SETTINGS: 1/250 sec at f/5.6, ISO 200

I hope this post helps you create awesome, dramatic portraits. Feel free to ask questions in comments below! If you're buying from Amazon, please click the links on my blogs before you purchase. It doesn't cost you anything and it helps support Speedliter's Blog. Thanks!


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