Using reflectors in photography: A quick and dirty 101

There are two kinds of light – the glow that illumines, and the glare that obscures.
~ James Thurber 

 All the established blogs and online tutorials for photography 101 say that light is one of the most important elements to a good photo. Whether its artificial light or natural light doesn’t matter, its how you use it. How you set up the shot, where your subject is within the light, where your camera lens is within the light, the type of light you use, the colour of the light, the angle of the light, and the reflection of light from anything within your scene. It really can make or break an image. And it can be challenging to manipulate. 

 Reflectors are a reasonably cheap way for you to manipulate and play with the available light in your photos, and a ‘must have’ according to many photographers. You don’t have to purchase an ‘official’ reflector for this purpose as sometimes a mirror, large white foam board, or tinfoil covered piece of cardboard could do! I played around with the tinfoil covered cardboard, mirrors of varying sizes and a large white foam board but found that all were hard to store tidily, some were just too large to drag around the house with me (I’m pretty lazy…), and others were just a hassle either in using or putting away. In a pinch, yes of course they did work and in some set ups where something like a mirror was already hanging on the wall it was easier to just use what was available. But I was hoping to find something a little more user friendly that would give me more consistent results. 

 Part of the challenge in learning photography techniques (self-taught of course), is that you tend to do a lot of DIY tutuorials because you  can’t justify expensive gear or big investments into a hobby – especially a newer hobby. So by using makeshift tools or a variety of them at once depending on what’s available, it means that you don’t see consistent outcomes in your photos. This makes it hard to then fine-tune your approach or know how or in what way to change what you’re doing for a better photo. And when it comes to light, there is a lot of skill involved in getting it right!

So I went back to my main source of cheap gear – Amazon.ca, and found a
5-in-1 folded reflector that folds up into a small round zippered pouch and bounces open again when taken out. It includes a silver side, gold side, white, black and translucent white. The translucent white is the solid peice and the other four reflectors are a part of a reversable zippered cover that fits over the stiffer translucent board. See below. All in all with shipping and handling I think I paid about $12.00 CDN so a reasonable price for sure.

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Next, I watched this Phlearn video: https://www.youtube.com/watch/?v=vIzhOIrbAsc which was great at explaining how to use a reflector and how to choose the correct colour for the right image! It was simple, straight-forward and used plain language. Highly recommend it if you’re wondering about reflectors! 

 Here’s the gist of what I picked up:

Silver is the most commonly used reflector. This makes sense as it takes a couple minutes to rearrange the zippered pouches to the correct colour, so it’s easier to have it ready with something reasonably adaptable no matter your setting.

Gold can give a really nice warm tone to the light.

Black can be used to cast shadow, or just break up a bit of the light to make for a more dramatic shot.

White is a very soft reflector, while the translucent white can be used to simply break up direct light, especially handy if the sun is directly overhead or particularly bright like midday with no available shade. 

 Now, for the things I learned while playing with my reflector: 

 None of the photos below have been retouched in any way. They are simply to demonstrate the quick and dirty effects the reflectors can produce, though Im sure as I play with them I’ll find more refined ways of making them work for me! Or so I hope.

First off, silver is actually very handy. It doesn’t seem to reflect any significant or particular colour onto the subject, BUT it is very bright. My subject, who started off so willing to participate, quickly lost interest (and his corneas if he’s to be believed). So getting that angle just right is essential!

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 Gold, may be great for some scenarios but for a bright sunny evening, it produced more of a glare on his face unlike the silver. The sun had moved by this point in the evening so we were constantly adjusting our position and angle. That may have also played a role. I’m curious to try this reflector again perhaps in a different light. Maybe it was too much gold between the reflector and the sunset.

 

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 The translucent provided great shade and resulted in a great photo (or opportunity for a great one but that’s not what we were going for here!), with a well lit background but a comfortable subject with no glare. The first is without the shade and the second with. Of course the second photo would still look better with a bit of editing to brighten his face. But like I said a moment ago, there’s no glare, the skin tone is not orange-tinged, and his eyes are more relaxed so it will be an easier edit, with just some light brightening on his face only.

 

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 And using the reflector under the face (pointed up towards the chin) can result in lightening deep lines, or dark bags under the eyes. Probably more important if your subject was a woman, but you can still definitly see the ‘softening’ effect here in the photos below.

 

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 And of course reflectors aren’t only useful for shots of people :)

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Stark with no reflection
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Stark with reflection!

But at the end of the day, all you need is that one good shot!

 

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