In photography, everything boils down to light. As photographers, we literally cannot survive without it. Both inside and outside of the studio, one of the most important (and often underrated tools) you should have on hand is a reflector. It can be used to bounce, diffuse, or flag natural and artificial light. Once you pick it up, you are likely to never put it down. Here is a simple guide to selecting and using a reflector to enrich your photographs.
Choosing Your Reflector
If you have never purchased a reflector before, it may seem a little daunting at first. With shapes, sizes, colors, and features that can quickly overwhelm, you need to begin somewhere.
Choosing Your Reflector Size
If you shoot individual portraits or want a more portable option, you can go a little on the smaller side. Larger reflectors diffuse the light over a broader space, making the light softer. They can be a little harder to trek around though. I use a 40” reflector that is collapsible (for ease) and has several surfaces that can be changed out based on my needs. In studio, I prefer larger reflectors. They are great to use for fill but can be a bit cumbersome outside.
Choosing Your Reflector Color
- Silver – can increase highlights and yield a high-contrast image. Great for video, product shots, or black and white photography.
- Gold – produces a natural, golden warm fill that is sometimes used for sunsets or indoor portraits. Use gold sparingly, if at all, as the color cast can look unnaturally orange.
- White – produces an even, neutral-colored bounce light that works beautifully as a fill light source.
- Black – is used as a flag to block light or can be used to subtract light.
- Translucent – fabric is used to diffuse light, producing a broad light source and a soft effect. This is also known as a skrim.
Getting a Handle on Light
Depending on the reflector you choose, you can prop it up, have an assistant hold it, have your subject hold it (usually in their lap like a sunbathing panel), or buy a stand designed to hold and position the reflector.
I usually have an assistant hold the reflector if the subject will be moving around a lot or the location is a little rugged. If we are going to stay in basically the same location for a while, I prefer the control of a stand – especially if the reflector I am using is slightly on the larger side or needs to bounce light or flag from higher up. Unless your assistant lives at the gym, holding a reflector for a long period of time over their head is not going to be their favorite part of the job and you will need to take a few breaks.
Another important factor to keep in mind when shooting in natural light, is not to allow your subject to look directly at the reflector. It is bouncing UV light after all.
Natural Lighting / Outdoors
When shooting with natural light, there are a few factors to take in consideration when deciding where to place your reflector.
I love the effect of backlighting with the natural light source behind the subject. The effect is a beautiful rim light outlining the subject, or a soft haze in the background. The only problem is that it leaves the rest of the subject in shadow. By placing a reflector almost directly in front of the subject, you can bounce the sunlight to add soft, even lighting to the foreground. By moving the reflector to the side, you can control the amount of shadows on the subject to add a little drama and dimension.
Dark reflective surfaces underneath the subject, such as black top or brick, can bounce dark shadows or strange coloring under the subject’s eyes. To help neutralize this, place a reflector, angled up, directly in front of the subject to soften the shadows.
Overcast and Heavy Shade:
I actually enjoy shooting in these conditions because of the even lighting. The major problem is, though it is usually pretty even, it also tends to be pretty weak. It can also create heavy shadows under the eyes and chin if you are not careful. To counter balance the shadows, I tend to have one or two reflectors at work. One placed at an angle directly under the subject (in their lap if possible) and one as a key light placed to either side, based on where the most sunlight is present.
If I’m going to be further away, the goal is to bounce as much light onto the subject and separate them from the background to avoid a flat image.
Diffusion with a reflector
When in the shade you may still need to diffuse light to avoid harsh shadows. I do this by using a sheer white reflector. This technique is also helpful when shooting infant or children’s portraits outside of the studio. It is important to not have their sensitive skin exposed to direct sunlight, and using a soft white reflector to diffuse light, placed directly over or in front of them, you can accomplish a soft, dreamy portrait while still protecting their precious little bodies. You can also create beautiful catch lights from the reflection in their eyes if you are lucky enough to catch them awake.
Side note: Please stress the importance of sunscreen and always keep the little one in the shade, as well as keep the sitting as short and comfortable as possible.
Reflector as a Key Light
By far, this is my favorite way of utilizing a reflector. One of the great features of reflectors is their portability. Sometimes, all I have with me is a speedlight and reflector when out on a location shoot. When placed as a key light, the reflector can bounce any available light (natural or artificial) onto the subject and give a sense of depth to your images without having a studio kit in your back pocket.
In the example below, I used a gold reflector to bounce the sunlight and add some dramatic shadows on the subject. This allowed me to maintain the bokeh in the background without blowing out the image exposure.
Image 1 (Canon 5D Mark II w/ 50mm F/1.4 @ F/2.0) – This image was naturally lit with the sun as the back light creating a nice hair light and rim light around her body. It is a nice shot and has a great natural feel to it. However, with a simple modifier we can change the entire look of the scene as shown in Image 2.
Image 2 (Canon 5D Mark II w/ 50mm F/1.4 @ F/2.0) – The only difference between this image and the last is that we added a silver reflector as a main light 45 degrees off to camera right. We then exposed for our subjects brighter skin pulling down the brightness of the background. You can see how this image has a much more dramatic feel and the subject really pops off the background. With the reflector added, we now have a two light scene and a completely different look.
The point here is that a scene is all about the light and how we choose to shape that light. While there may be a wrong way to light a scene, there are also many right ways that each will lend a different look and effect to your image.
Artificial Lighting / Studio
Reflectors are a head shot photographer’s best friend. Placing opposite of your main light source creates a great bounce effect for fill light. You can also place a reflector in the subject’s lap, or just in front of them at an angle, to soften all of the shadows under the eyes, chin, and to soften sharp features.
Bouncing light off of a reflector will give a large, soft light source when working in or outside of the studio. It is one of the least expensive, yet highly versatile lighting tools in your arsenal. In as many sizes, shapes, and materials as you can think of, you are not likely to run out of options. Whenever a light source is available, whether it is an off-camera flash or the sunlight, a reflector will help focus and define your images.