The Reflector: My Hero

A reflector should be the star of a reality T.V. show:  not only could it potentially be used reflect the sun onto a pile of sticks to start a fire, to signal for help, or to guide in a rescue plane, it could save a shot! I haven’t tried those first three things, but for saving a shot, it is my hero!

Why you need one

A reflector does just what its name implies – reflects. By reflecting the sun back onto your subject to fill in shadows or to light your subject from an additional angle it’s a less-expensive alternative to another light.

I was in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime – well at least a once-in-every-five-years – opportunity to get a beautiful, “make-her-cry-like-it-was-a-Hallmark-commercial” portrait for my grandmother of all her great-grandchildren. With the sun at a horrible angle, I found a shady spot, and by some miracle got all five children – all under five years old – to sit. But it was too dark and looked terrible. I could see my Hallmark moment passing me by. Just as it seemed like all was lost, my cousin’s husband whipped out his reflector! My hero! My husband, a.k.a. assistant for all things photography, bounced the light onto their darling faces whilst my cousin’s hubby and I started snapping away to create that Hallmark moment for Grandma.

Types of reflectors

Reflectors generally come in silver, white, gold and black. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Silver is the one you want. It reflects the greatest amount of light and doesn’t change the color – especially important when reflecting light from a strobe.
  • White reflectors don’t bounce as much light. I’ve only used white when I’ve felt the reflection from the silver was too harsh.
  • Gold will cast a warm-toned light. This is helpful when shooting an outdoor portrait in cooler light to warm up skin tones on your subject. Note that gold will make a white wedding dress look, well, gold. Be careful with this one.
  • Black will absorb light. Use this to cut reflections if shooting something reflective like jewelry or glass.

I have a 5-in-1reflector which has a translucent center disc. It is a neutral semi-sheer fabric that diffuses the light intensity by 1 f-stop. It softens and spreads the light at the same time. I’ve had an assistant hold this between the sun and my subject to reduce harsh shadows.

The 5-in-1 has a reversible cover with sides of silver, gold, white and black. It is collapsible – like the sun shades for cars (another potential use for a reflector!) – and easy to take on-location.

There are many sizes available. I keep a 32” 5-in-1 in my camera pack so it’s with me for those not-planned-for occasions. It works for head-shots or children. I also often use it to block light (all reflectors have this other handy purpose). When I know I’ll need saving, I bring my 60” to on-location shoots: it reflects a larger area. I also often use the 60” in-studio rather than a second light.

And there is always the poor-man’s reflector: a piece of white cardboard. It works pretty well, only costs about $1 and can be found at art supply stores, or I’ve even seen them at grocery stores next to the science project materials.

Using a reflector

Now that you’ve chosen a reflector, how do you use it? There are stands available if you have money burning a hole in your pocket, but I generally have an assistant hold mine if I’m outdoors. The reflector needs to be positioned where your light source can hit it. Then just move it around until the light is reflecting where you want it. Moving it up and down will help you to see where the light is falling.

A cool reflector trick for outdoor portraits is to have your subject hold the reflector at waist level aiming up at his face. Then the overhead sunlight will bounce back and fill in the under-eye shadows, eliminating all raccoon eyes.

This is one of the simple photography tool will become your hero too. With its help, you can create stunning shots, taking your photography to the next level.

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