Mirrors are… well, they’re not really a modifier but they can certainly be used as one, so that’s what I’m going to refer to them as here. Mirrors are probably one of the most misunderstood and underused modifiers out there when it comes to lighting, but they can be extremely helpful.
I’ve been using mirrors for my own photography, especially small product stuff, for quite a while now and they’ve been excellent for throwing a little extra light in places. This video from Nate’s Film Tutorials shows us how we can use them for larger subjects to turn one light source into many and even to create the look of things like fake window light, complete with frames and blinds.
Mirrors have been used in photography and filmmaking to redirect light for decades. I first saw them being used in Dean Collins’ excellent video set from the 90s. But for as long as they’ve been around, they really don’t seem to be all that popular with many photographers. Perhaps it’s that when most people think of mirrors, they think of delicate sheets of glass that would be a nightmare to deal with, especially on location. If one slips out of a stand and crashes to the floor, that’s going to stall the production until it can be safely cleaned up.
But glass isn’t the only option. In the video above, Nate shows how he uses relatively small acrylic mirrors to not only bounce the light back onto himself to turn his single key light into his rim light but he also uses it to project what appears to be (to the camera, at least) sunlight streaming through a window and shining onto the wall behind him. Nate uses gaffer tape to create fake window frames and even slits to simulate Venetian blinds in the reflection that bounces off them and hits the surface of the wall behind or even the subject itself.
Using mirrors rather than multiple lights offers a number of advantages. As Nate points out in the video, one of the biggest is that it simulates the real world more closely. Much of the light that illuminates our view of the world is reflected off something else. Affordability is another big factor Nate mentions, as acrylic mirrors are very inexpensive. He managed to pick up a pack of four 8×8″ mirrors for only $11.
But there are other reasons, too. They’re small and light, making them easy to mount anywhere. You’re using less power by only using a single light source and you’re wasting less of that light’s output by converting some of the light that spills outside of your frame back into another light source to enhance your shot. It’s also a great way to reduce the light falloff when working in a small space.
If, for example, your key light (your only light) is sitting five feet in front of you and you’re filming yourself, if your mirror is 10ft behind you projecting back onto you as a rim light, then that light has had to travel 25ft before it’s actually hit you. That light is going to fall off more slowly than a rim light just placed 10ft behind you. Of course, this does mean that you’re losing a little light output in the process as a result of the same principle of the inverse square law, but who needs a rim light or background light that’s as bright as their key light anyway?
The exact types and sizes of mirrors that might best suit your photography will depend on your own needs, but acrylic mirrors are pretty inexpensive these days, easily available and they won’t smash into a thousand pieces if they fall off your stand. They’re well worth experimenting with, even if you find that ultimately, they’re not for you.