How To Use a Photography Reflector to Enhance Your Photos (2021 Update)
In photography, everything comes down to light. We literally cannot capture photos without it. Both inside and outside of the studio, one of the most important (and often underrated) lighting tools you should have on hand is a photography 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 photography reflector to enhance your photos.
How to Use a Photography Reflector to Enhance Your Photos
- Choosing Your Photography Reflector
- How to Handle a Photography Reflector
- Ways to Use a Photography Reflector in Natural Lighting / Outdoors
- How to Use a Photography Reflector as a Fill Light
- Tips for Using a Photography Reflector as a Key Light
- How to Use a Reflector for Headshots
Choosing Your Photography Reflector
If you’ve never purchased a photography reflector before, the task of selecting one may seem a little daunting at first. The available shapes, sizes, colors, and features of various reflectors can quickly overwhelm, but you need to begin somewhere.
Choosing Your Photography 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, but they can be a little harder to fold and carry. I typically use a collapsible 40” reflector with several interchangeable surfaces that I can swap out based on my needs. In studio, I prefer larger reflectors. They provide ample fill light. If you plan to use them outside, however, just know that carrying them around can prove a bit cumbersome.
Choosing Your Photography Reflector Color
Many reflectors on the market, particularly of the 5-in-1 variety, include most or all of the colors listed below.
- Silver: A silver surface can increase highlights and yield a high-contrast image, which works well for video, product shots, or black and white photography.
- Gold: A gold surface produces a natural, golden warm fill light that pairs well with sunset sessions or indoor portraits. Use gold sparingly, if at all, as the color cast can look unnaturally orange.
- White: White surfaces produce an even, neutral-colored bounce light that works beautifully as a fill light source.
- Black: Rather than bounce or reflect light, black surfaces work more as a flag to block or subtract light.
- Translucent: Use translucent fabric to diffuse light, producing a broad, soft light source. You can find this material used in scrims.
How to Handle a Photography Reflector
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 for subjects who move around a lot, or for rugged locations. If we plan to stay in the same location for a while, I prefer the control of a stand, especially if the reflector falls slightly on the larger side or needs to bounce or flag light from higher up. Unless your assistant lives at the gym, holding a reflector for a long period of time over their head can wear them down and you will need to take a few breaks.
When using a photography reflector in natural light, remind your subjects to not look directly at the reflector. It is bouncing bright UV light after all.
Ways to Use a Photography Reflector in Natural Lighting / Outdoors
When shooting with natural light, take these factors into consideration, especially 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.
Overcast and Heavy Shade:
I actually enjoy shooting in overcast conditions because of the even or flat lighting it produces. Unfortunately, although the light is even, it’s also usually pretty weak. This weak light source can also create heavy shadows under the eyes and chin if you are not careful. To counter the shadows, I tend to use one or two reflectors. I place one directly under the subject (in their lap if seated) and another to either side, based on where the most sunlight is present. The side reflector serves as a key light.
If I’ve placed my subjects against a busy backdrop, I try to bounce enough light to separate them from the background. This sometimes requires moving the assistant in close to light the shot and then editing them out later. If you go this route, use a tripod, capture a plate shot, and then create a composite in post. Doing so will save you a ton of time when editing. Using flash here would be ideal, but reflectors can work in a pinch.
When in the shade you may still need to diffuse light to avoid harsh shadows or dappled lighting. You can use the sheer white fabric in the reflector to do this. Simple place the photography reflector between your subject and the sun to balance and flatten the light.
Diffusion with Flash
If you’re working with flash, you can use the translucent fabric of the reflector to diffuse artificial light as well, sort of like like a soft box. In the video below, we used a rectangular scrim to transform an outdoor portrait. You can do the same thing with a 5-in-1 reflector. Of course, the size of the reflector will affect your cropping options. We’ve linked to larger reflectors above, but I’ll include it here again for your convenience.
How to Use a Photography Reflector for Fill Light
Most portrait photographers have been in situations with unflattering, deep shadows under our subjects’ eyes. Often times it’s on cloudy days or when the sun is right above our heads. But even in well-lit scenes with directional light, a reflector “bump” can divert soft light onto our subject’s faces to help lift some unpleasing shadows.
There are two general rules we always follow when using the reflector as a fill light. The Westcott 5 in 1 Reflector has multiple reflective surfaces, and our lighting situation determines which side we want to use.
Use the Silver Side of the Reflector when Shooting in Shade
In shade, you’re limited in the amount of light you have to bounce, so you want to use the more reflective silver side in order to bounce an adequate amount of light. You can control how much light the reflector outputs by adjusting the angle of the reflector or by adjusting the distance of the reflector to the couple.
Use the White Side of the Reflector when Shooting in Direct Sunlight
If you use the silver side in the bright sunlight from below you’ll be adding too much light upwards, which can give you that unflattering “campfire” look. Even if the reflector is far away and the light is being feathered, the lighting will still likely be too harsh. So in direct sunlight, we use the white soft side of the reflector in order to soften the shadows, and not completely overpower them.
Here’s a side-by-side comparison of a portrait of our couple with and without using the reflector as a fill light.
Our couple looks younger and the skin looks softer because there are less shadows on the eyes, smile lines, and neck. The reflector brings out nice details in our female model’s hair, while decreasing the contrast in the facial hair of our male model.
The reflector also brings out beautiful details in the eyes. In the photo above, the reflector has softened the shadows and diminished the lines under the eyes. Our model’s irises are much brighter, and the reflector adds a nice catchlight in the eyes.
Tips for Using a Photography Reflector as a Key Light
By far, this qualifies as my favorite way of utilizing a reflector. One of the great features of reflectors is their portability. Sometimes, I only take a speedlight and reflector out on a location shoot. When used 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, which created a nice hair light and rim light around her body. It makes for 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 and pulled down the ambient light. 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. We often have more options at our disposal than we realize, and each lends a different look and effect to our imagery.
[Related Reading: Create a $20 Photography Studio You Can Use Anywhere]
How to Use a Reflector for Headshots
Reflectors are a headshot photographer’s best friend. The more reflectors you have, the more options you’ll have for using them as well.
You can create a more complex setup like the one featured above (which only uses one on-camera flash and four reflectors), or strip down the setup for basic fill lighting. Simply place a reflector opposite of your main light source for great, bounced 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 sharp features and shadows under the eyes and chin.
Check out our full workshop, Headshot Photography 101, for a comprehensive dive into lighting setups, posing directions, and editing techniques for this genre.
I hope you found these tips for how to use a photography reflector to enhance your photography helpful. Bouncing light off of a reflector gives a large, soft light source when working in or outside of the studio. It is one of the least expensive, yet most highly versatile lighting tools in your arsenal. With many sizes, shapes, and materials available, you won’t 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.