I’ve been making my living as a photographer for over 20 years, and have accumulated thousands of dollars of gear over time. I have the latest Canon SLRs, a full complement of lenses, strobes, light stands, gels, filters, soft boxes, tripods, and even some video and audio gear. But the one thing that often makes the biggest difference in the quality of my portraits is a simple $20 reflector. I never leave home without it and neither should you.
When shooting outdoor portraits, the first thing many photographers think about is the background, but the pros consider the quality of the light first and foremost. They know, for example, that a portrait with nasty overhead lighting is not going to work, no matter how cool the background.
A reflector can help you salvage bad light, and turn okay light into something magical. You can use your reflector from below to fill in shadows, or from above to block distracting light. You can bounce the sun from the silver reflector to create a main light, or you can use a reflector with a black side to create deeper shadows. You can even sit on your reflector to keep your pants clean when shooting outside, or pop it open dramatically to dazzle young children.
Most of the photos in this article were shot with a 5-in-1 reflector you can buy for less than $20. 5-in-1 refers to the fact that the reflector and cover can combine to give you five different options: white, silver, gold, and black sides, as well as a diffuser.
Here are 6 tips to help you use this versatile tool, a reflector, to transform your photos.
1. Using a Reflector for Fill Light
The most traditional use of the reflector is to simply reflect light into the shadows. I took my wife Karen out into our local park to demonstrate this.
In the photo on the left (above), she is photographed in nice soft light, but there are still pretty deep shadows under her eyes and chin. In the photo on the right, she is holding a reflector at her waist. The shadows on her face are noticeably lighter and there is a subtle catch-light (reflection of the reflector) in her eyes. If she were an older person with more textured skin, the contrast would be even more dramatic.
Of course, you may not always want to fill in the shadows in this way, but if you are trying to flatter someone it almost always helps. You don’t even need an official photo reflector. Anything that reflects light will work. In a pinch I’ve used everything from old newspapers to a nearby person wearing a white shirt.
2. Using a Reflector as the Main Light Source
This is one of my go-to reflector moves, and an easy way to wow your friends and family. You place your subject with the light hitting them from behind, then use a reflector to bounce the light back into their face. You will get nice soft light on their face, with a dramatic rim light on the back of the subject’s head. The only trick is positioning yourself so the light doesn’t go straight into your lens and create lens flare (unless you like that look, of course).
In the photo above the is sun hitting the left side of her face and arm. The light from a reflector is bouncing back some of the sun to light up her face.
You may also notice the shallow depth of field in this photo. If you are lighting with a reflector, you can jack up your shutter speed as much as you like to allow for a wide aperture (this photo was shot at 1/1250th of a second at f/2.0, with a 50mm lens). If you were using flash to create this same effect, you would have to lower your shutter speed (to 1/250th or whatever matches your camera’s maximum) to sync with the flash, requiring a larger aperture and greater depth of field (killing the whole look).
Yes, yes, some of you are no doubt thinking, “What about high speed sync?!” Well, yes, that could give you the same effect if you had the right equipment (and know how to do that). Or, you know, you could just use an old newspaper.
In the next example above, we positioned Karen against a tree and had her cousin Claudia reflect a spot of sunlight on her from about 10 feet away. At this distance, the light from the reflector looks more like it is coming from a grid spot or snoot (hard light) – in other words, it’s a focused and dramatic beam (notice the fall-off of light on her legs). It’s a cool look that you can recreate with a reflector, a few feet of aluminum foil, or your bathroom mirror. Your friends will be wowed, and ask what fancy gear you used for the shot (and your family will ask what happened to the bathroom mirror).
Using a slight variation of this technique, we moved the reflector slightly behind the subject (relative to the camera) to created a dramatic rim light on the face in a profile shot (see below).
3. Using a Reflector to Block Light
Sometimes you’ll find yourself in some beautiful shady light under a tree, except for that pesky sunbeam that finds its way through the leaves to light up your subject’s left ear. When this happens, turn your reflector into a light blocker (sometimes called a flag or gobo).
A few years ago, I was doing a maternity portrait in a local park, when a newspaper photographer snapped my picture using just this technique. If you look at the reflector, you can see the bright spots of sunlight that it’s blocking (imagine how those spots would have ruined the final image if we didn’t block them).
4. Using a Black Reflector to Create More Dramatic Shadows
Sometimes you actually want to deepen the shadows. I use this technique all the time in my headshot studio. Below is a photo of me with a white background. In one shot, I have a silver reflector opposite the main light, sending light back towards my left cheek. In the other, the reflector has a black cover on it, gobbling up reflected light, leaving a dark shadow on the cheek.
Except for the small change of literally flipping the reflector from one side to the other, the lighting setup is identical, but as you can see the difference is pretty dramatic. (For you studio lighting enthusiasts out there, my key light here is a large soft box, and there are two bare heads pointing at the background to make sure it is nice and bright white).
This is the same technique used in the famous Steve Jobs portrait where he has his hand on his chin. In addition to creating a little drama, you can also use this technique to give someone a photographic face-lift by trimming pounds from the dark side of their face and under their chin.
5. Who Holds the Reflector?
You may be saying to yourself, “But, I don’t have an assistant! Who’s going to hold the reflector for me?”. I usually don’t have an assistant either, but there is usually someone nearby who is more than happy to help, be it a family member, passerby, intern, wedding guest, etc. Sometimes you can even have the subject of the photo hold the reflector themselves (as in the photo of my wife holding the reflector at her waist in the photo above). Of course if you’re in the studio, or outside on a day without too much wind, you can just pop your reflector onto a light stand (like in the studio shots of me above).
In the photo below, I was shooting wedding portraits on a beach in the Florida Keys. My reflector assistant that day was one of the bridesmaids, who truly enjoyed helping her friends out with their portraits.
6. Reflectors in the Environment
Once you get the hang of reflectors, you’ll probably start noticing reflected light everywhere. Ever see a white building getting blasted by the sun? Well that’s nothing but a giant reflector! Depending on what’s around it, you may have found yourself a giant studio, with no rental fee.
Mind you, anything that reflects enough light can work as a reflector. A brick building, large truck, flock of seagulls flying by at just the right moment…
Although they may not be as sexy as strobe kits, reflectors can often yield similar, or superior results for your portraits, and are cheaper and easier to use. I will leave you with a few more assignment photos, shot using nothing more than a reflector.
In the child portraits below, note that there is light behind the kids in both cases, but there is still beautiful light on their faces. Same goes for the athlete portraits.
As a final image, I leave you with a group of wedding guests who were so enamoured of my reflector that they wanted a picture with it. Hopefully you will soon have similar feelings towards your own reflector!
Do you have any additional reflector tips to add? Please do so in the comments below.
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