Why Umbrellas Enhance Your Street Photography

What is it about umbrellas that make them so photogenic?  I wish I was an umbrella…  All joking aside, have you ever noticed how a seemingly boring scene can be transformed into something interesting with the addition of an umbrella?  Is it the shape?  The juxtaposition?  The fact that we just don’t see them very often?

Lovers watching the sunset on the Santa Monica Pier – Leica M262/35mm

I scoured the Google machine looking for a good explanation as to why umbrellas make photographs look interesting and came up with nothing.  Well, I saw lots of nice pictures of people holding umbrellas and articles discussing the use of umbrellas with flash photography.  So I thought I’d take a stab at exploring the…  Rule of the umbrella?  Get it?  Like the rule of thirds, but umbrella instead of thirds, since everyone loves their photography rules so much.

Couple walking through China Town in Boston MA.

Notice, in the photo above, how the umbrella seems to pull everything together.  The shape seems to make the couple one cohesive subject while it juxtaposes nicely with the straight lines of the cross walk as well as the architecture all around them.  Granted, I’m using the cross walk as a quite obvious leading line but the umbrella really acts as a bull’s eye, screaming “here is the main subject”.

Umbrellas in Boston

In the image above it seems as though the shape of the umbrella and it’s juxtaposition from the rest of the scene is at play.  This is otherwise a very ordinary scene but once you add three umbrellas in a row like this you get something a little more interesting.  The scene kind of reminds me of skipping stones in a pond.

Umbrellas in Boston

Umbrellas often cover a subjects face which can add a little mystery to an image and create some interest.  The image above worked for me because of the juxtaposition with the hard lines in the cross walk and architecture as well as the layering of the foreground subject in front of the background subjects (it makes it look like the couple in the background are tiny and sheltered under the larger (foreground) subjects umbrella).

Umbrellas in Boston

As I write this article I’m seeing that the appeal of the umbrella is definitely multifaceted.  Color, shape, juxtaposition, and…  Well, the ability to obscure what would otherwise be a normal scene (like when it covers someone’s face).  Mystery factor?  Anytime you create an image that causes a viewer to use their brain matter to “solve” the mystery you’ve successfully engaged your viewer which should be your goal.

A woman with a red umbrella in the Charleston markets.

Umbrella, street photography, Pittsburgh, urban photography

Man walking past Tako in Pittsburgh with Pittsburgh Pirates Umbrella.

A man walking past Heinz Hall in downtown Pittsburgh while I let my shutter drag a bit to create a more abstract look.  This is one of my personal favorites.

Pittsburgh, rain, umbrella, couple, love, cultural district

A couple walking past Heinz Hall in downtown Pittsburgh.

umbrella, street photography, pittsburgh, cultural district, rainy day

Rocking the rainbow umbrella in downtown Pittsburgh…  Great example of being in the right place at the right time.

Well, you get the point…  No sense in beating a dead horse here.  Umbrellas seem to make ordinary scenes much more interesting because of their shape, color, juxtaposition, and ability to engage viewers imagination (what does that person’s head look like under there?).  I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject in the comments section below as I’m no authority of the visual appeal of umbrellas and welcome others perspective.  You can also follow me on Instagram if you’d like to follow projects I’m working on in realtime: @PhotolisticLife.

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2 replies on “Why Umbrellas Enhance Your Street Photography”
  1. says: Becky

    I do agree with your take on umbrellas making a scene more interesting. I do think it has a lot to do with the shape of an umbrella being one that you don’t see every day. My question is how did you keep your lens dry while shooting in the dark when it obviously was raining hard enough to cause people to use umbrellas?

    1. says: John Barbiaux

      I have my camera in one hand and an umbrella in the other. You can even get one of those clear half dome umbrellas that you can shoot through. I find manual focus (zone focus more precisely) to be the most effective because shooting in low light with the rain like that can cause even the best camera to hunt for focus and potentially miss a shot.

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