Photography is about more than just understanding how to work a camera. Understanding light, the way it spreads and bounces, is essential too. Some objects absorb light, others bounce it back in another direction. A reflector is a tool that helps a photographer to manipulate the light by providing another surface for the light to bounce off of. Reflectors are inexpensive tools that can make a big impact on your images.
What is a reflector?
A reflector is simply a tool that reflects light. A reflector doesn’t create light like a flash does, it simply redirects the existing light, or sometimes redirects the light from a flash or studio strobe. That’s important to understand for two reasons. The first is that the light from a reflectors isn’t any brighter than what is already there, so you can’t use them to light up a night portrait unless you are also using a flash or other light source as well. The second point to understand is that the quality of the light will match the quality of the light that’s in the scene. For example, if you’re shooting at sunset, the light that bounces off the reflector will have that same orange hue.
But, there are a few exceptions. Reflectors come in different types and colours, and the colour of the reflective surface may change the light that’s bounced back. A traditional white reflector simply bounces the light, and the light is nice and soft. A silver reflector doesn’t change the color of the light much, but it is a bit brighter than light reflected off a white one. Gold reflectors are designed to change the color of the light by warming it up a bit with an orange tone.
Since reflectors don’t create light, their primary purpose is to fix shadows. If you are shooting a portrait outdoors during the day, a reflector can be used to fix odd shadows on the face, or even to prevent a backlit subject from becoming a silhouette. Basically, a reflector is used in this way as a replacement for the fill flash.
But reflectors are pretty versatile tools. There’s more than one use for them. In flat lighting, a reflector can add interest or drama to the shot. Some photographers use reflectors as hair lights outdoors. Many reflectors have a black side that can be used to block out light instead of to reflect it. Reflectors are also great for bouncing a flash when there’s nothing around to bounce off of. There are a number of possibilities in how redirecting the light can make for a better photo or replace other lighting equipment.
How to use a reflector
Using a reflector is rather straightforward—simply hold it at an angle that reflects the light the way you want it. Watch how the light changes as you adjust the angle, and find the angle that works the best for your shot. But there’s a few tricks to getting the most from a reflector.
If you hold the reflector directly opposite the light source, you’ll get the most, or brightest, light. Depending on how much light there is, you are often still able to reflect light from other angles and positions. There just isn’t as much light reflected.
Reflectors are great for fixing odd shadows. If the light is directly behind the subject, using a reflector directly in front of the subject will help prevent a silhouette. If the light is coming from one side, using a reflector on the opposite side will help fill in the shadows. Sometimes, light is blocked by large objects. Placing a reflector close to the object can help.
Don’t just limit the reflector to upright angles though. Laying the reflector on the ground in front of the subject when taking a portrait can help prevent under-eye shadows.
Of course, sometimes it’s impossible to hold the reflector at the perfect angle and still take a picture. Enlist some help if you can, or attach the reflector to a stand or prop it up against something.
Remember, distance matters too. Bear in mind that a large light source and as close light source creates the softest light. Try placing the reflector closer to the subject if the light is too hard.
What reflector should I buy?
Like every other photography tool, there’s an overwhelming amount of options when it comes to reflectors. Reflectors come in different sizes, shapes and colors, all of which influence just how it works.
The size is probably the biggest consideration. Larger light sources are softer, so if you pick up a small reflector, it will likely create harsher shadows. Pick up too large of a reflector, and you won’t be able to wrangle the darn thing and the wind will turn it into a sail. A 42” is a good middle ground, with a nice soft light and fairly easy handling.
Shape also plays a role too. Along with determining the shape of the light, keep in mind that reflectors can also be used as catch lights, or a light that’s reflected back in a person’s eyes. The shape of the reflector will determine the shape of the sparkle in those eyes.
Don’t forget about colour when choosing a reflector either. A silver reflector will bounce the most light, but may be too harsh in some scenarios. A white reflector offers softer light, so you’re not fixing the shadows with a reflector that creates its own shadows. Gold reflectors warm up the light that’s bounced, and they also tend to be bright like the silver ones. The gold reflectors aren’t used very often, and a warming effect is easier to control in Photoshop.
Four-in-one reflectors have silver, white and gold as well as a black side for blocking light. They’re usually made with two two-sided covers that are interchangeable, in order to get all four colours in one. It’s a good way to get all the options without a lot of gear to purchase and pack. Keep in mind though that white and silver are the most often used colors.
There’s a number of other factors to consider as well. Handles make them easier to use. Many reflectors are inexpensive, but there’s also fancy ones that stretch out over metal frames. An expensive reflector may last a bit longer and be a bit easier to handle, but size and color are the biggest factors in how they affect your images.
Reflectors are great tools for manipulating the existing light, as well as expanding the use of different types of artificial lighting. While excellent for portraits, they can also come in handy when shooting macro, landscapes and many other types of photos.