How to use a reflector to enhance your photography: a beginner’s guide

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How to use a reflector to enhance your photography: a beginner’s guide

One of the most important elements of photography is, of course, light. If you like taking photos outdoors, one of the challenges you will face is that you can’t adjust the light sources so much. The sun and street lights can’t be moved, so you need to find the way to make their light work for you. Sunlight is also influenced by the time. For example, if it is high noon our light is coming from right above us and it is a very hard light. But if we are taking a photo at sunrise or sunset, the light will come at an angle. Light intensity also varies between sunny days and when the sky is hazy, foggy or cloudy.

Light variance allows us to take spectacular and diverse photos. However, sometimes we want to have a bit more control over the lighting. One of the simplest and most efficient means to do it is by using a reflector.

What is a reflector?

In my opinion, the best photography equipment that I ever got is my reflector. It took me several years into photography to get one. I guess that I always saw reflectors as something that only professionals use. In fact, reflectors are one of the most affordable pieces of equipment a photographer can have. Mine have cost me around 14 euros in Amazon.

The reflector I’m using. The envelope is made up of four pieces, the gold and the black are sewn together back to back, and so are the white and silver. A zipper connects the two pairs. this enables one frame to have 4 different colors. Together with the diffuser, it really is a 5 in 1!

A reflector is basically a surface which redirects the light towards a desired subject. You can even make one yourself with a cardboard and aluminum foil. There are many variations and kinds of reflectors available on the market. The most common and affordable ones are the collapsible round reflectors with multiple colors. They consist of a foldable frame with a translucent cloth stretched over them. These frames come with a reversible envelope which offers four different surfaces (usually white, silver, gold and black). Don’t repeat my mistake, get (or make) yourself a reflector soon. You will see how easily your images improve.

How to use a reflector

Using a reflector, you can bring in light from additional angles and lighten shadows. In other words, you use them to change the direction of the light sources in order to add light to dark areas that make your image look bad. Using a reflector is very similar to what we did when we were kids and we played with the light beams from mirrors, but in a more delicate way.

A common use of the reflector is for portrait photography in the middle of the day, when the light is coming from above the model’s head. In this situation, the model’s face will be full of shadows and hard lights. In addition, the eyebrows cast a shadow under the eyes, making him/her look a bit like a raccoon. By using our reflector, we can bring light from a lower angle and lighten the model’s face, this way we avoid the “raccoon effect”.

You can set the reflector on a stand or hold by yourself. However if you are holding the camera it can get really complicated. You can also ask an assistant or a friend to hold it. Another option is that your model holds it. A good option is to let your model sit and put the reflector on top of his/her knees. In some situations you might need to use your imagination and have the reflector standing on walls, cars, columns or even lying on the floor. Don’t be shy and try different options until you get the results you want. This is part of the fun of a photo session!!

Gold and silver sides of the reflector

Keep in mind that both the silver and the gold colors are metallic and reflect a lot of light. For that reason they should be used from a certain distance (that will vary according to light conditions). If you are using it to reflect light on a person or animal, it might be even blinding. Take care and if you need it, ask the model to close the eyes until you adjust the light reflection to an intensity that will be comfortable for him/her.

The metallic colors reflect the light almost like a mirror, be careful when you aim it at people.

As the silver side reflects the light without softening it, besides being a good option for greater distances, it is also great for weaker lighting conditions. Silver is also a good one to start getting used to reflectors because you can see the effect very vividly, making your life easier at the beginning.

In the first photo I didn’t use the reflector, the middle one was taken with the reflector too close to the model, the last one was taken with the reflector set at a greater distance. See how the light is much more delicate in the last photo in comparison with the others

The gold is very much like the silver except that it is giving the reflected light a warm yellow shade, similar to the golden hour light. It can be great for emphasizing sun tan, or if you want to bring out a certain color in the photo. But take care, because the yellow light can be overpowering.

In this photo you can see how the golden-yellow light reflected from the gold emphasizes my friend Nita’s sun tan. you can also see how the shadows articulate her muscles

White side of the reflector

The white side reflects a very soft and delicate light, you need to place it very close to your subject in order for it to have an effect and it won’t work if the lighting is bad (like at dusk, or if it is cloudy), but the result will be a very warm and soft photo, which is great for portraits (family, children, pregnancy photos, flowers).

Here you can see how the different colors affect the photo: in the top left I didn’t use the reflector, in the top right I used the silver and you see that the illumination is almost equal on both sides of Porky, the bottom left photo was taken using the white and you can see how the light on Porky is softer, the bottom right photo was taken with the golden reflector and you can see Porky has here a much warmer light.

Black side of the reflector

Finally, a reflector can be used as a light blocker too. If you have a light coming from an undesired direction. For example, if you have light reflecting from a window,  you can reduce the reflecting light by placing the reflector with the black side towards your subject.

Here you can see the effect of the black side of the reflector, on the left I didn’t use a reflector and on the left photo I used the black. Do you see the difference?

Using the reflector’s frame as diffuser

Besides reflecting the light, the reflector’s frame (the one with a semi opaque cloth) can be used as a diffuser. Diffusers soften the light coming directly from a light source and make the shadows less hard..

These two photos were taken in the same spot moment one after the other. In the upper photo I took the photo when Inna was subjected to the hard mid day light, in the lower photo Inna was “sheltered” from the harshest light by the diffusing inner frame of the reflector.

I want to thank my friends Inna and Nita for being my models and also my nephew for letting me use Porky to illustrate this article. Now that you have the basic information about reflectors, it is time to grab yours and start experimenting with it!

Enjoy and have a happy shooting!!

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I am a biologist and a self-taught photographer based in Barcelona (Catalonia). Buddhist philosophy has a strong influence on me: I have a deep appreciation to life and I give a huge value to the little things that makes our days happier. I became a passionate about photography when I got my first camera and I understood that photography allows me to express my way of approaching life. I love learning so I am always willing to trying new things. These days I am shooting mostly nature and portraits.

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Comments (2)

  1. Cat Calhoun Guest

    Thank you so much. Very succinct and understandable.

  2. Michael Guest

    Great information which I shared with my daughter who is learning all about light and how to enhance an image. Thanks!