Umbrella Challenge: Tips & Inspiration



walking in the rain, night time, umbrella

Award-winning pro photographer Anthony McKee shares his best tips for tackling The Mirror Challenge.

Umbrellas are ubiquitous objects that most of us own, yet hope to never use. Unless we're talking about beach umbrellas. Or those paper umbrellas they put in cocktails! (I’ve never understood what they're for – is it to keep our martinis dry?)

Anyway, the fact remains that umbrellas are a useful tool and, given the broad range of colours and styles they come in, they are also fun to photograph. One of the easiest ways to go looking for good umbrella photos is simply to wander in the rain along a busy street; people looking glum beneath an umbrella or fighting to keep their brolly intact in strong winds are two very well worn ideas, but if you push a little further there are other ideas to pursue too.

One option is to find a high vantage point and shoot down on people with their umbrellas; if you have tripod you could even lock the camera into position and create multiple exposures (either on the same frame or multiple frames) to reveal the journey of umbrellas along a street. Another idea might be to find a puddle on a footpath and photograph the reflection of people with their umbrellas as they walk past. From above or below, or from any other angle, umbrellas look interesting.


Aerial photo of red beach umbrellas by the sea

Beyond street photography, umbrellas are also a fun prop to use both in portrait and fashion photography. Umbrellas can create a natural frame about a subject, and the various colours can easily add to the mode. Given that umbrellas not only come in a range of shapes and colours, but also patterns, they can test a photographers sense of design, but the secret here is to find your props ahead of time so that you can start exploring ideas in your mind before a shoot. If you have an old umbrella lying about you can also give thought to distressing the fabric for creative effect; just remember that whatever you try, the models safety must always come first!

Chances are some of you have umbrellas for your studio lights, and these too can be a wonderful creative prop, particularly at twilight; by placing a flash beneath or within an umbrella you can illuminate an umbrella and your subject against a darkening sky (remember that adjusting your shutter speed governs the sky's brightness).

Portrait of lady with open umbrella behind her

I made fun of those cocktail umbrellas earlier, but some of you might also find these to be a useful ploy for some award-winning photographs; it is often easier to explore creative ideas on a macro level then it is to try and organise a row of large umbrellas particularly on a windy day. 

So, grab an umbrella or two, head out with a friend (or two) and see how creative you can get. And if by chance you cannot find the perfect colour umbrella for the occasion, remember that you can always tweak the colour in post!

Anthony McKee is an award-winning, Melbourne-based photographer. He studied photography at Wellington Polytech School of Design and has worked as a news and documentary photographer in Australia and New Zealand. In 2014 he was named AIPP Australian Documentary Photographer of the Year.