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Illuminate your subject with precision using reflectors...

What is a reflector in photography?

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

A reflector board.
Reflector board

A reflector will either be artificial or natural. I count the environment—buildings, walls, cars, roads — as a valid member of the natural reflector group. As long it reflects light, you can pretty much call it a reflector. However, this article, in particular, will focus mainly on artificial ones.

In comparison, artificial reflectors are the equipment 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 comes at affordable prices.

A reflector board on black background.
Reflector board
A reflector lamp on black background.
Reflector lamp

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.

What is the purpose of a reflector?

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

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 reflects it.

Why use a reflector?

Since you can’t control the sun's brightness and direction, you must reflect it around to counteract the harsh light. From my experience 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 contrast too much, the reflector can help to act as a fill light. As its name implies, a fill light fills in the shadows. This makes 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.

How does a reflector work?

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

Different colors do different things. A gold-colored reflector will produce a golden hour-ish type of light. On the other hand, 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 subject's 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.

Take note!

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 would also be super useful to have 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.

How to use a reflector in photography?

You can use reflectors to help add fill light onto your subject/object, you can add catchlights (if you use them in portrait photography), and 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. Here are all the steps I recommend you follow in order to use your reflector effectively:

1. Choose the right reflector

Reflectors come in different sizes and colors, such as silver, gold, white, and black. Each type of reflector produces a different effect. Choose the reflector that suits your desired outcome.

  • Silver reflectors provide strong, contrasty light.
  • Gold reflectors add a warm, golden tone to the light.
  • White reflectors produce soft and neutral light.
  • Black reflectors block light and create shadows (used for negative fill).
White, silver, golde, and black reflectors.
Reflector types

2. Position your subject

Position your subject or object in the desired location, considering the direction of the existing light source (natural or artificial).

3. Position the reflector

Determine the direction from which you want to reflect light onto your subject. You can hold the reflector yourself if shooting solo or with an assistant or using a stand.

Experiment with different angles and positions to achieve the desired effect. Common positions include:

  • Front Reflector (Fill Light): Place the reflector in front of your subject, angled upward, to bounce light back onto their face, reducing shadows and providing even lighting.
  • Side Reflector (Fill or Rim Light): Position the reflector to the side of your subject to fill in shadows or create rim lighting, depending on the angle.
  • Under Reflector (Upward Fill): Place the reflector on the ground or a flat surface below your subject to bounce light upward for a soft and flattering effect.

4. Control the intensity

Adjust the distance between the reflector and your subject to control the intensity of the reflected light.

Closer reflectors produce stronger, more directional light while moving the reflector farther away softens the effect. Tilt the reflector to control the angle and direction of the reflected light.

5. Take test shots

Capture test shots and review them on your camera's LCD screen. Assess the lighting and adjust the reflector's position and angle as needed to achieve your desired look.

6. Use exposure settings

Adjust your camera's exposure settings (aperture, shutter speed, ISO) to maintain the desired exposure while incorporating the reflected light.

7. Experiment and be creative

Don't be afraid to experiment with different reflector colors, positions, and angles to create various lighting effects. Reflectors are versatile tools that can be used for portrait photography, product photography, outdoor shoots, and more.

Common types of reflectors

Purchasing reflectors may seem daunting initially, but with the various shapes and sizes, I faced the dilemma even 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.

Silver reflectors

Increase highlights and create images with high-contrast images. Use this when you need more light, and avoid using it in bright conditions. The light will be too harsh on your image and won’t look flattering.

Gold reflectors

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 reflectors

Simply add fill light. This is your default option, which purely adds neutral, natural, and soft illumination to your subject/object.

Black reflectors

Unlike the other reflectors, the black blocks/flags decrease light. Because of the high contrast produced, photographers often use this to create a more dramatic image.

See-through/translucent reflectors

This is more diffuser than a reflector, but it’s common in the 5-in-1 reflector. This type produces a 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 in handy for those specific situations. Reflectors are usually inexpensive 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, which 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 them in place. If you’re outside, your assistant can hold them up just fine and fight against the wind a bit.

What to look for in a good reflector?

1. Surface

A good reflector should work just like a mirror. Its surface should be smooth and reflect everything equally. It should also be shiny, like aluminum foil.

The reflector must 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 they scatter the light everywhere.

2. Price

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

3. Size

Size should be adjusted to your photography niche.

Macro photographers commonly use a 14”- 20”, and 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”.

4. Shape

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.

5. Type

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

Regarding 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 reflectors that you can make on your own. You can use your bed sheet as a diffuser, aluminum foil to mimic a silver reflector, and many more.

There is also an affordable 5-in-1 reflector that starts at $20 and is of good quality and versatility. Lastly, there are expensive yet convenient reflectors.

Also, be sure to check out what scrims are great for diffusing light.

Remember to experiment and practice using the reflectors, too, because your success depends on it. Good luck, and have fun!

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