What is a Reflector? Everything You Need to Know

This is a guide covering reflectors.

In this glossary definition you’ll learn about:

Ever wondered why photographers bring huge aluminum foil looking equipment to their outdoor photo shoots? Well, it’s most likely a reflector and you’ll probably need one too.

Let’s dive in.

reflector photography

What is a Reflector in Photography?

The reflector is a tool used in photography and videography to bounce light around. It simply acts as a media to bounce light and redirects it back to your subject. These handy reflectors can be brought anywhere and are also available in various shapes and sizes.

A reflector will either be artificial or natural. I count the environment as a valid member of the natural reflector group, buildings, walls, cars, roads, you name it.

As long it reflects light, you can pretty much call it a reflector. But this article, in particular, will mainly focus on the artificial ones.

In comparison, the artificial reflectors are the equipment that you bring to a photo shoot session. Two of the most common reflectors are lamp reflectors and board/plane reflectors. Each of them serves different purposes and also come at affordable prices.

Whatever your level of expertise might be in photography, you’ll most likely need a reflector. Outside or even inside your studio, there will be a high chance that you’ll need softer lights on your subjects/objects.

reflector photography
Image by JamesDeMers

What is the Purpose of a Reflector?

If you’re shooting outside, you will at some point encounter situations that need a bit more lighting. Even if you decide to shoot indoors, you’ll find that a reflector will often be just what you need to get that perfect exposure, shadow and soft lights.

The main purpose of a reflector is to bounce light, as its name implies. On the other hand, there are other purposes that shift ever so slightly with the change of reflector used.

For example, while your regular white/silver reflectors are made to bounce light around, making the light softer. The black reflectors (yes they exist) are made to do the exact opposite of it, this reflector absorbs light rather than reflecting it.

You can use reflectors to help add fill light onto your subject/object, you can add catchlights (if you use it in portrait photography), you can even prevent silhouettes from appearing. So basically, the purpose is to enhance photos by adjusting the light.

To use your reflector, you simply open it and position it based on your needs.

reflector in photography studio
Image by Carlos Alcazar

Why Use a Reflector?

Well, there will always be some cases when you need a bit more directional or soft light. Most of these cases happen when you’re shooting outside of the studio and rely on the sun as the main source of light.

Since you can’t control the sun’s brightness and direction, you will need to reflect it around to counteract the harsh light.

From my experience with experimenting with the direction of lights, it seemed that the face’s appearance “changes.” We, humans, are used to having lights above us. It’s been like that for a really long time and we get accustomed to it.

We now associate lighting that comes from above as normal. This is the main reason why lights that “fill the room” are on the ceiling, not on the floor.

The light coming from above is usually the main source of light, resulting in shadows under the nose and jaw (well roughly). If the shadows are contrasting too much, the reflector can help to act as a fill light.

As its name implies, a fill-light will fill in the shadows. This will make the shadows appear less dark, giving your subject a more flattering look.

Long story short, you should use a reflector for better lighting on your subject/object.

using reflector in photography
Photo by Flaunter

How Does a Reflector Work?

Light comes in from the corresponding light source, the reflectors reflect them onto another surface or subject, scattering the light in various directions (excluding the black colored reflector), producing a softer light.

Different colors do different things, a gold colored reflector will make a golden hour-ish type of light. On the flip side, a black colored reflector will absorb light.

Based on the position of your reflector and your light source, the results may differ. You will usually see photographers have their assistants, models, or themselves hold the reflector under the subjects eye-level.

Sadly, many beginner photographers copy this technique without fully knowing what it does.

Well, placing it under eye level will simply produce fill light and don’t forget the unnatural looking catch light.

The most ideal position of your reflector should be at eye-level or a bit higher. It imitates our sun, produces a more natural-looking catchlight, and it also fills in the shadows around the nose and eye.

Please note that you should use your reflector after assessing the situation and image theme. I mean, what’s the point of having a soft light for edgy photos that usually rely on harsh contrasts?

Anyways, it’s still your image. Have fun and experiment with the reflector all you like, the more knowledge and experience you have with it, the better.

It will also be super useful if you had an assistant or dedicated equipment to hold the reflectors in place. Before hiring an assistant and purchasing equipment, try using whatever’s in your arsenal first or use your surroundings to compensate for your lack of equipment.

Common Types of Reflectors

Purchasing reflectors may seem daunting at first, with the various shapes and sizes, even I faced the dilemma in my early days. Your main concern should be about the size and colors.

For the most part, the middle 40” reflector should be easy and versatile enough to use. To make it easier to use, most reflectors can be “collapsed” into a small circle.

Depending on your reflectors color, you can:

  • Silver: Increase highlights and create images with high contrast images. Use this for situations where you need more light and avoid using it in bright conditions. The light will be too harsh on your image and won’t look too flattering.
  • Gold: Make a golden hour-ish (yellow-er) image, giving it a more glamorous look. Photographers rarely use this reflector since it can easily make their subject/object too warm or too bronze. It’s hard to control and Photoshop does the job better and faster.
  • White: Simply add fill light. This is your default option that purely adds a neutral, natural, and soft illumination on your subject/object.
  • Black: Different from the other reflectors, the black color blocks/flags decrease light. Photographers will often use this to create a more dramatic image because of the high contrast produced.
  • See-through/Translucent: This is more of a diffuser than a reflector, but it’s common in the 5 in 1 reflector. This type produces the soft light effect, perfect for flattering portraits. Use this to convert the direct harsh light into the softer version.

As you can see, there are various colors and not all of them are always used. The 5 in 1 reflector is like a Swiss knife of sorts, you’ll frequently use two parts but rarely use the others. The other parts will come handy for those specific situations.

Most of the time, reflectors are not expensive and come in a 4 in 1, 5 in 1, or 8 in 1 format.

The various options give you more access to interesting themes and adjustments. There are expensive options that are also available, that are more convenient but not always better.

Some of the more expensive reflectors are Styrofoam sheets, foam core, and coroplast do a great job of reflecting light.

Unfortunately, it’s a huge pain to bring them around. Using them inside your studio requires an assistant or light stand, to keep it in place. If you’re outside your assistant can hold them up just fine and just fight against the wind a bit.

reflector in photography studio
Photo by Brett Sayles

What to Look for in a Good Reflector?

A good reflector should work just like a mirror, the surface should be smooth and reflects everything equally. They should also be shiny like aluminum foil.

The reflector needs to bounce back light waves at the same angle as it hits the reflector. Rough and opaque surfaces will most likely have bad abilities at reflecting light since it scatters the light everywhere.

A good reflector should also be affordable, easy to use, and allows you to easily modify incoming light in a flattering way. The material of a reflector should be lightweight while also being flexible, making it easy to collapse and carry around.

Size should be adjusted to your photography niche. Macro photographers will commonly use a 14”- 20”, photographers specializing in headshots will often buy a 20”- 30”, portrait photographers use the middle 30”- 40”, while the full-body and group shot photographers will take the largest one available which is 52” or that one reflector larger than themselves. When in doubt, go for the middle-sized reflector which is around 30”-40”.

For shapes, the classic reflectors are more favorable than the round ones. This is my personal favorite shape because it’s easier to grip and larger, but it’s not uncommon either to see a professional photographer carrying their round collapsible reflector.

The last phase is to determine the type of reflector. For the all-around Swiss army knife reflector, go for the 5 in 1 or 6 in 1. If you already know what you’re doing and want to spend more cash on an expensive reflector, then go for it!

Final Remarks

The simple reflector definition is a material that reflects light back. The material could be anything, but photographers commonly use reflectors from micro prismatic (a special shiny, smooth plastic) or glass beads. Use reflectors and it many types of colors based on your needs:

  • White to add more neutral fill light
  • Silver to add brighter light
  • Gold to produce a warmer, yellower color similar to the golden hour
  • Black to reduce and subtract light, making your images more dramatic
  • Diffuser (see-through material) to give the image a softer light

About the size, shape and price, it’s all about personal preference. If you’re confused about which size to use, take the 30” to 40”.

Regarding the shape, most photographers use round reflectors. But I prefer the square reflector because it’s larger and easier to grip.

As for price, there are plenty of DIY reflector that you can make on your own. You can use your bed sheet as a diffuser, use aluminum foil to mimic a silver reflector, and many more.

There are also affordable 5 in 1 reflector that start from 20$ with good quality and versatility. Lastly, there are the expensive yet convenient reflectors.

Don’t forget to experiment and practice using the reflectors too, because your success depends on it. Good luck and have fun!

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