Reflectors in photography – a complete guide
The foundation of photography is light. Without light, you don’t get a photo. It also means that learning how to manipulate light is a vital step in creating brilliant images. If there’s one piece of kit that any photographer should have, it’s a reflector. They are inexpensive, simple to use, and highly effective. We’re going to look at the different types of reflectors you can purchase and how to use them. You’ll see why anyone with a camera, from an amateur to a professional photographer with years of experience, should never be without one.
Table of contents
What is a reflector?
A reflector is a reflective object that you use the bounce light from its source back into your scene. They are lightweight and easy to use. You can use them indoors or outside and with either natural or artificial light.
Different types of reflectors
Reflectors come in different colors, shapes, and sizes. You will most likely see them with white, silver, or gold surfaces. Silver and white reflectors do not alter the color of the light that they reflect back into a scene. A gold reflector will make the light look warmer, similar to sunset. A silver reflector is the most ‘efficient’ because it bounces back the most light.
Round, or sometimes oval-shaped, collapsible reflectors are portable and easy to store. They come in different sizes and can be folded into a smaller form. You normally do this by twisting them in a figure-of-eight pattern. It can feel a bit odd at first, but you get used to it. You can buy collapsible reflectors individually in just one color or as part of a system, like a 5-in-1.
A five-in-one reflector is a very good starting point. A five-in-one starts with a white diffusion panel and comes with two reversible covers. There are usually two covers: white and silver, and gold and black. And the actual frame is a translucent reflector. You can use the diffusion panel to soften light, and the black side works as a flag to block light.
A 5-in-1 reflector is typically the first reflector you’d wanna get. They are extremely affordable and incredibly versatile.
Where collapsible reflectors are usually made of fabric, bounce boards are solid. They are often made of foam or cardboard and come in different sizes. Sometimes they are hinged, which makes them very helpful for product photography or large studio shoots.
Beauty dishes, panels, and umbrellas
Beauty dishes are designed for fashion and beauty shoots. They are parabolic reflectors that you attach to your light source.
If you do a lot of food or product photography, you might want to use panel reflectors.
Reflective umbrellas are good for portraits. You aim your flash into the umbrella and it bounces out and over your subject. This light covers a large area and is quite soft.
You can even make your own DIY reflectors. For a silver reflector, cover a piece of card in aluminum foil. Use a white sheet or a white piece of paper, or a card for a white reflector.
Lastly, you may have also heard about reflectors for shooting videos. Rest assured. There isn’t any real difference between photography reflectors and video reflectors.
By Brocken Inaglory – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
In the Window by pinkpotatochips on Flickr, shared under Creative Commons
When to use a reflector
You use a reflector to redirect light in your scene. There are three main uses for them:
- For lifting shadows
- To redirect light
- So that you can soften light.
We’ll look at different ways to use a reflector later in the article.
Handling a reflector
Not only are reflectors really good at doing their job, they are easy to use. You can hold one. Your assistant can hold one. Your subject can hold one. You can prop one up against something. You can attach a reflector to a stand or a light (some reflectors, especially big ones, have a frame or a handle for that).
One thing to remember is that reflectors are typically big. You can almost think of them as sales. If you are outdoors, make sure you have a good way to shape, and anchor them. Or in other words, light stands and sandbags.
The important thing to remember is that a reflector doesn’t create light, it just redirects it. That means you need to know where your main light source is, and you position your reflector opposite it to throw light back into your scene.
How to use a reflector
We go into detail about the different ways you can use a reflector below. In short, you use them for fill light, when you’re working with backlighting, and even as a key light.
Usually, you position a reflector so that it is on the opposite side of your light source compared to your subject. If your subject is being lit from the left, then place your 5-in-1, bounce board, or panel to their right. When light is coming from above your subject, a reflector below them is what you need. In a backlit situation, a reflector in front of your subject will help to throw light back onto them.
You will reflect the strongest light if your reflector is directly opposite your light source. However, that isn’t always what you want, so playing with your angles is the best idea.
Reflectors are a great way to bring separation and depth to a scene without having to introduce another light, for example a fill light or a hair light.
If you’re working with a very narrow light source and you want to increase its spread, you can use a reflector to manage that. For example, by directing a flash onto a bounce board and then onto your scene will soften the light.
You are most likely to use a reflector as a fill light. A fill light’s job is to balance the light from the key light and lift any shadows it might make. You can use a reflector as a fill light whether you are working with natural or artificial light sources.
In bright sunlight
Model and Assistant by Garry Knight, shared under Creative Commons
The sun is an amazing light source, but there’s not much we can do to control it. But we can use a reflector to help manipulate it. Whether you are shooting indoors or outside, strong or direct sunlight can cast deep and unflattering shadows on your subject. The solution is to balance this natural light with a reflector. Position a reflector on the opposite side of your subject to the sun. So if it’s coming from overhead, place the reflector beneath them. If you are trying to balance window light coming from the left, have the reflector on the right.
When it’s overcast or in the shade
If you are shooting in the shade or when it’s overcast, the light will be lovely and soft but there might not be enough of it. You can end up with deep, dark shadows beneath your subject’s nose and chin. If you position a reflector beneath them, it will bounce some light back up into their face.
65/100 Simon by Peter McConnochie on Flickr, shared under Creative Commons
In the studio
If you are shooting portraits or headshots in the studio, some of the traditional or well-known lighting setups will make use of a reflector as a fill light. You might find that the shadow butterflies created by the overhead key light in the Paramount setup are a bit too dark. If you place a reflector with its white side beneath the model, it’ll lift those shadows a little. The clamshell lighting setup is the same as the Paramount setup, except that you eliminate the shadows rather than soften them. You can do that with a reflector on its brighter, silver side.
Reflectors can be used to lift shadows in just about any studio lighting situation. It’s a case of thinking how they fit in with the lighting effect you are trying to create. You might want to soften a side lighting effect or give a bit more sparkle to a rim light. They’re not just for portrait photography, but still life, macro, and food and product photography, too.
As a backlight
Backlighting at sunset looks magical. When light comes from behind your subject it creates a halo of light around them which we call rim lighting. The only problem is, their face will be in shadow. If you position a reflector to the front of the subject and opposite the sun you can reflect the light back onto them. This will light them and the foreground with even, soft light.
As a key light
Seeing a reflector doesn’t generate its own light but redirects existing light using it as a key light, which is a main light source, might sound a bit odd. But there’s no reason why you can’t use reflected light as your key light. This works best if you have a narrow or very hard light and you want to soften it. Rather than directing the light onto your subject, direct it onto your reflector. It then bounces this diffused light across the scene and lights it softly. You will need to experiment with placing your reflector at different angles to get this right.
Diffusers and negative fill
I’m only mentioning diffusers and negative fill here because five-in-one reflector kits usually come with a diffusion panel and a black cover, too. The diffusion panels are there to soften light, to make it bigger, if you need it. The black cover can be used as a flag to block light or to absorb light, a bit like the opposite of a key light, which is called negative fill. This will increase the contrast in a shot.
A good reflector will not cost you a lot and will last a long time, even with the almost constant use you are likely to give it. A reflector is the first thing you should buy after your camera and lens. You’ll not look back.
Reflectors are used to bounce light back from its source and into a scene. They lift shadows.
Position one so that it is opposite your light source.
White reflectors are gentle. Gold reflectors are warm. Silver reflectors are bright.
Daniela Bowker is a writer and editor based in the UK. Since 2010 she has focused on the photography sector. In this time, she has written three books and contributed to many more, served as the editor for two websites, written thousands of articles for numerous publications, both in print and online, and runs the Photocritic Photography School.