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Reflectors


Direct sunlight creates dark shadow on the side of a subject.
Direct sunlight creates dark shadow on the side of a subject.

Reflectors provide the photographer with a quick and simple means of getting light onto a subject’s shadow side, to produce an attractive rim-lighting effect when used to back-light a subject or to illuminate a person or object when the light source is behind it. They are available commercially, while many photographers use home-made or “found” reflectors.

COMMERCIALLY-AVAILABLE REFLECTORS

Collapsible reflectors, available from camera dealers, provide an efficient and convenient way to bounce partially-diffused bright light onto your subject. They are round or oval-shaped, and come in different sizes, generally from 20" to 52". Some change the light’s color. The shiny panels are made from fabric coated in a range of bright colors that include soft gold, gold, silver and white. Each side usually has a different color. They are quite sturdy, and can withstand a good deal of use, although after a couple of years of being folded, unfolded and stored, they will begin to shed their reflective qualities and may need to be replaced. Like any lightweight panel, the larger-sized reflectors can be difficult to control when it is windy. They fold down to a smaller shape for storage in a zippered pouch.


Some manufacturers also make a telescoping arm that grips opposite edges of the reflector, keeping it stiff to permit one-handed holding.

Umbrella-type reflectors are designed mainly for bouncing electronic flash in the studio, changing strong directional light to softer, diffused illumination. Some have removable backing so light can be flashed through the translucent material. Different sizes can be purchased, and the reflective fabric may be white, silver/white or silver.

A collapsible gold reflector illuminates the shadow side and warms skin tones.
A collapsible gold reflector illuminates the shadow side and warms skin tones.

A gold reflector added the right amount of shine to the model's hair in this whimsical outdoor scene.
A gold reflector added the right amount of shine to the model's hair in this whimsical outdoor scene.

FOUND REFLECTORS

Found reflectors are all around us - a white wall, for example, that has sunlight striking it. By placing your subject near the wall, you can choose a camera position that has your subject illuminated by direct sunlight on one side and by reflected sunlight on the other. If the wall, however, is colored, the light it reflects may cast its color onto your subject.

Other found reflectors include windows and mirrors, which produce a reflection similar to the light source with no diffusion (i.e no softening of the light. If the light source is strong or harsh, its reflection from mirrors and windows will be, too.) Snow and sand can be highly-reflective, and can be used to fill shadow areas with light.

Many common objects can be used to reflect light onto your subject. See our section entitled Common uses for uncommon things for handy tips on using everyday items in photography.


TECHNIQUE

You will very likely need an assistant to hold the reflector. To illuminate the shadow side, it should be held quite close to your subject for maximum shadow fill, but watch out that it doesn’t enter the picture frame. If you are reflecting continuous light (i.e. not flash), you can see its effect on your subject, judge its suitability and change the reflector’s position and orientation until you get the effect you like. A meter reading that is within one stop of the main light falling on your subject should produce pleasing illumination.

When you don't have an assistant, but you do have two models, you will usually find that one will be happy to aim the reflector for you.
When you don't have an assistant, but you do have two models, you will usually find that one will be happy to aim the reflector for you.

Although sunshine caused deep shadow on the right of this bunkbed, a large, gold reflector brightened dark areas to help make an effective image.
Although sunshine caused deep shadow on the right of this bunkbed, a large, gold reflector brightened dark areas to help make an effective image.

If sunlight or another main light source causes your subject to squint, have your subject turn his or her back to the sun so you can reflect sunlight onto your subject’s face. A bright reflector can still cause squinting, whereas a reflector that diffuses the light (like white card stock) will produce softer illumination in which the subject’s eyes can be fully open.

An added bonus of this technique occurs when you position your camera to catch the sun’s reflection off your subject’s hair, either on top or off to one side. You can also frame your subject so the sun is positioned directly behind his or her head to provide rim lighting. This can make an especially attractive picture when the subject has long hair.

Note: There are other ways to bring illumination to the dark side of backlit or sidelit subjects besides reflectors. Fill flash, for example, is a very effective lighting technique that helps to retain the look of natural illumination while brightening frontal shadow areas. You can learn about it by clicking here.


When used as a reflector, a sheet of white styrofoam, commonly available from a building supply store in just about any size, provides illumination that is diffused and soft enough for the subject’s eyes to be fully open. Because it is white, it does not throw a color cast on your subject; it reflects light that results in natural-looking skin tones.

This versatile material can do more for the photographer than just reflect light. Click here to learn more.

A white styrofoam panel makes an excellent reflector and is light enough for even your model to carry.
A white styrofoam panel makes an excellent reflector and is light enough for even your model to carry.
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