A reflector does exactly what the name promises - it reflects light! Reflectors are usually made of a fabric stretched over a ring, but can also come in the form of strong card, or large polystyrene boards.
A reflector is an indispensable tool for any photographer who uses natural light. Natural light doesn’t always do what you want it to, so reflectors can be used to manipulate the quality or direction of this light, either by redirecting, diffusing or cutting it out completely.
Types Of Reflectors
There are many shapes, sizes and styles of reflectors available, and each has its own specific use. When starting out, choose one that’s large enough to be useful for portraits, but not too large that it’s bulky and cumbersome. A collapsible one tends to make for more convenient transport and storage. As a general rule, the larger the light source, the softer the light, and this is true of reflectors too (i.e. the larger the reflector, the softer the light it will reflect.)
Reflectors also come in different colours, and each colour has a different effect on the light. The most common reflector is white, but you can also get double-sized reflectors which have white on one side and black on the other. Also popular are 5-way collapsible reflectors, which have a reversible zip-on cover, allowing you to change the colour easily.
White: Produces a neutral-coloured light. Great for using as a natural fill.
Silver: Produces a harder light than white, for a higher contrast result.
Gold: Produces a golden/warm light.
Black: Subtracts light, making shadows deeper. Can also be used to block light.
Translucent: Used to soften the light by diffusing it.
How To Hold A Reflector
Depending on what effect you want to achieve, and what kind of reflector you have on hand, there are a few ways that you can prop it up. I find the best way is to have an assistant hold it, so that you can ask them to make any adjustments quickly, and can see the results through the lens. It also allows both yourself and the model to focus on what you are doing.
The most basic use for a reflector is to fill in shadows, which may appear unflattering, or simply too dark. This is done by using the reflector to bounce light (either from the sun, or an artificial source) back onto the subject. The amount of fill depends on how strong the original light source is, how close the reflector is to the subject and the angle at which you reflect the light.
When shooting outside, in the middle of the day, our subjects can sometimes get some unwanted shadow from the overhead sun. In portraits, for example, this gives shadow underneath the eyes, nose, and chin. A reflector placed beneath the subject will help bounce light back into these shadows, making for a more flattering portrait.
Using Reflectors With Backlighting
Backlighting a subject can give some beautiful results, including soft hazy backgrounds and gorgeous rim-light. But backlight can also introduce some exposure issues. When backlighting, we usually have to overexpose to ensure our subject isn’t too dark, but this often tends to blow out (overexpose) the background. However, by reflecting light back into our subject, we can reduce the difference in exposure between subject and background, and thus retain detail in both.
Choosing a large reflector, positioned in front of the subject, will make for a soft, even fill light. You can then choose to add a little more contrast to the image by changing the direction of the fill light. Having the fill come from the side, rather than the front, will add shape and form.
Reflectors In Conjunction With Flash
Portable flashes (or speedlights) add more light to a scene, but sometimes that light can look too hard or too ‘flashy’. Indoors, we can usually bounce the flash off a wall or the ceiling to soften it, but this is not always possible outside. A reflector can be used as a bounce when outdoors, which results in a much softer, more flattering light. Because the reflector has a larger surface area than the flash head, the light is diffused more and becomes softer - essentially becoming a larger light source. We can move the reflector both vertically and horizontally, as well as changing the angle of it, and this means we have an infinite number of ways to direct light onto our subject.
There are two ways to combine a portable flash with reflectors;
1) Firing the flash at the reflector, bouncing the light onto the subject.
2) Firing the flash through a diffuser, onto the subject.
Experimenting with flash and reflectors can give you a ‘studio’ look, as they replicate studio light shapers and modifiers. Of course, using these techniques subtly can create a very natural result too.
Making A Flat Image Pop
Reflectors are fantastic for adding a bit of extra contrast to flat images. We know that even lighting is beautiful for portraits, and that overcast days give us beautifully soft light. But there are times when ‘soft’ light can become a little too soft, and the resulting image becomes flat and dull. This is where reflectors come in. By using a reflector to bounce some light onto the subject, we can add contrast and make the image ‘pop.’ This also helps to separate the subject from the background, which can happen easily in even lighting conditions.
Reflectors do not have to be high-tech, and if you are on a budget, there are many ways to make your own reflector that will work just as well as a professional one. To begin with, you will need a sturdy base, perhaps some stiff cardboard, or a hula-hoop. You want something that’s firm, but not too heavy, as you’ll be holding and transporting it. Then, you need your reflective material. For a white or black reflector, paper or fabric will work well. Simply glue it onto the card (or secure it to the hoop if you are feeling creative), and you are done! For a silver reflector, aluminium foil works well. You can also buy silver and gold cardboard from craft stores, although these will not create as strong a reflection as the foil.
If you are out on location and realise you’ve forgotten to bring your reflector, you can utilise your surroundings too. Buildings, statues, and other man-made structures can work very well as fill or bounce. Look for light-coloured parts, as light doesn’t bounce off dark tones.
There are a few pitfalls to be wary of when first experimenting with reflectors:
1) Correct distance is key! Try to find a balance between filling the shadows, and leaving enough shadow to retain a sense of shape and form. You want to soften the shadows, not remove them completely, as this can look unnatural. However, this does depend on the look you are going for as well.
2) Try not to reflect too much light from below. If reflected light (from below) is stronger than the key light (from above), you can end up with an unnerving ‘campfire ghost story’ effect.
3) Make sure the light is actually hitting the reflector. If the reflector doesn’t seem to be doing anything, ensure that light is actually reaching it, and that it’s not in shadow. The reflector can’t reflect light if there is no light to reflect!
4) Try not to blind your subject with the silver and gold reflectors. They can get incredibly bright, particularly in strong sunlight, and you don’t want to reflect that into someone’s eyes.
5) Don’t go overboard with the gold colour. This can look very ‘blingy’ and strange, especially if the colour temperature of the background does not match the warm light that the gold side of a reflector provides. Use with caution.
6) Experiment with your angles and distances. There is not one set direction, height or distance for ‘correct’ reflector usage. These are all variables that depend on your subject, the result you are hoping for, and of course, the light.