Reflectors in Photography, simple and yet wrongly used

Reflectors in Photography, simple and yet wrongly used

Don’t you hate taking photos of a person with that perspective you want, the right background, only to find that parts of your motive is hidden in an undesirable shadow.

The solution is terrible simple, and comes in the form of a shiny surface, also known as the reflector. With these we can redirect a beautiful patch of sunlight or bounce the light from a studio flash to the exact spot you need in your photo.

A reflector could be anything that reflects light. So anything from a white wall, white ceiling, door or any other white surface like a piece of a white carton board could serve as a reflector. The reason why we want it white is that the color of the reflector impacts the quality of the light. If you reflect light from a yellow door, your image might turn out with an odd yellowish color. For me is the biggest downside of stationary reflective surfaces like a wall is that they are stationary. This leaves you with the only and undesirable option, to move your subject. That’s why the photo Gods have invented portable and convenient flip out reflectors.

Size, Shape and Color matters

Reflectors and their effects are not equal. They come in different sizes, shapes and materials, and it is important because these factors have an impact on the amount and quality of the reflected light. Larger reflectors will bounce back softer light.

The reflector I am using is double-sided, and includes a cover to change the color. I do prefer round reflectors as they give a much more harmonic catch light in my motives eyes.

Silver is neutral towards the reflected light. It will not change the color cast of your photo. Its reflections can be rather harsh compared to the reflection given by a white reflector. Due to the reflectiveness of the silver reflector is it very easy to end up having overdone the reflective effect. Try placing your reflector at varying distances from your subject to see where you achieve the optimal effect without over-lighting your subject’s face and losing detail.

White is dual edged sword to use. It is easier and more difficult to use, all depended of the situation. When using it on a summer day, with plenty light it will reflect light in a very soft way, allowing you to fill the shadows without burning out the highlights. Like the silver one, white creates a neutral effect retaining the same light quality. In low light situations is it much more difficult to use, you will have to go in much closer with your reflector to see any effect.

Gold is almost as reflective as the silver reflector; however it will change the quality of your light dramatically. The color temperature will be much warmer, and it is very easy ending up having overdone it. Generally I avoid the gold reflector at summer time.

Black is not useful as a reflector, but it is very handy as a makeshift background. It is also possible to use this reflector to create shadow where needed. This is desirable as shadows bring depth to your photos and make them appear more three dimensional.

Silver/Gold is a reflector which is currently on my wish list, it is also referred to as “the sunlight”. It offers a better balance of the warm gold and cold silver. In theory it should be the best matches of the natural sunlight outside.

Fill light or Main source

I am sure everyone will have their own preferences when it comes to using reflectors. When using them with natural light I put the usage into two categories “Fill light” and “Main source”. It helps me structure my approach towards using them.

The majority of my photos consist of some sort of backlighting, back in the days where I shot film and didn’t use a reflector I just blew out the background and was happy with my subject being well exposed. With digital photography, a new understanding emerged. I started working with Photoshop combining backlit photos with backgrounds and frankly wasn’t at all pleased. I wanted to keep those beautiful real scenes and still have my subject well exposed. With this realization I started using reflectors. Holding a white reflector next to my face the models face enables me to light my subject as if the light source was in front from them.

As a fill light: When your subject is already receiving some decent light and you just want to enhance the light a little for a portion of your motive. Then you are using your reflector as a fill light. Where you put the reflector is not as critical as when it is the main light source. The position of the reflector is less important, as long as you are not blowing out the area you are trying to highlight. When doing portraits backlit I often place the reflector flat in front of my subject, giving a nice light under the chin and eye sockets of my subject.

As the main light: When the reflector is the main light source, you use the reflector to fully light your subject because there is no good light on them. In such a situation you carefully have to think where you place your reflector. It is actually the same considerations you have to go through as when placing studio flashes. I am not going to go into the different lighting styles and different ways to use the light here. Yet there is a few rules, which will help you, at becoming more successful. Always put the bottom of the reflector at chin height. This assures that the center of the reflector is above the pupils of our subjects’ eyes yielding a better catch light in their eyes.

Handling the reflector

My reality is that I will not have an assistant whom I can instruct on where the reflector should go and how I want them to hold it, still there is a few other options. When indoors I use a lighting stand, I got a neat holder enabling me to twist the reflector into any angle. It has its simple and secure clamps grip the frame of the reflector at each end of the arm. Other times hold the reflector while shooting all depending of the place, location and not least what perspective I want to shoot from. In some portrait set-ups I place the reflector flat in front of my subject; this will take away the shadows under their chin and eyes. This effect is also really effective when shooting portraits in backlit

Bouncing your speed light on an reflector

As discussed under bouncing your lighting, using the walls and ceiling is desirable to soften up shadows and give a natural daylight effect. However, if the walls and ceiling are not white, this will reflect in your photos. One trick I learned just recently is to hold a reflector behind/over your head, using this to bounce the light off. Obviously, you do this without the bouncer dome. With this technique, the reflector becomes your light source, rather than the flash.

A little short list of things to remember

  • Keep it in as close as you can for the soft, pretty light.
  • Keep an eye on your subjects’ eye. Use a round reflector as it creates the most natural catch light, and it ensures that your photo looks natural and alive.
  • If it’s the main light, keep the bottom of the light at chin level.
  • Try to shoot your photos in backlit when whenever you can. Use the reflector to light their faces.
  • Use Silver/gold in direct sunlight
  • The bigger the light source, the softer the light. The smaller the light source, the more contrast and filled with harsh light your subject will look.

Folding your reflector

I recall when starting out using reflectors. I looked really professional until the point where I had to pack up and fold away. That embarrassing and frustrating folding experience is something I do not want to try again. What I learned was that “Twist” method was most effective for me. It allows me to store my reflector without bending the frame of the reflector.

Use both hands and hold the reflector out in front of you.

  • It feels intuitive holding the reflector with both palms facing the same direction, but its not the way. Instead you need to take one hand off and put it back on the reflector, except with your palm facing away from your body.
  • Twist the reflector; observe that the reflector should start bending. You want to keep twisting until you see three circles in the reflector.
  • Stack the circles together, and put the damn thing in its case

DIY Section

Creating a reflector from an insulation board. A cheap option is to a purchase insulation board for next to nothing and then cover the back and edges with white duct tape.  Make sure the insulation board you choose has a reflective silver backside. The larger the better you can combine two to cover a full body length. This simple solution gives you a very large reflector that is lightweight, and you can use one side to reflect silver and the other side to reflect white.

Creating a DIY clamshell reflector which gives this unique curved catch light in your subject’s eyes. This DIY is a project I am going to try soon, as I am not eager to invest in more studio gear.

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