Last Updated on March 21, 2021
While most photography lighting gear you find will cost upwards of thousands of dollars, a photography reflector can cost as little as $30. And this inexpensive piece of lighting equipment will help you elevate your image quality to new heights.
In this guide you will learn how to use a photography reflector to achieve professional lighting quality.
Why Should You Use a Photography Light Reflector
A photography light reflector takes your existing lighting and bounces it back toward your subject in order to create a flattering and full lighting effect.
They are used frequently in portrait photography and many other types of photography as well. When used correctly, a reflector will enhance your image quality and prevent the presence of silhouettes.
Reflectors come in at a very low cost making them one of the most affordable photography accessories you can invest in. They are low tech devices that do not require a power source or any complicated setup to use.
They are used by both beginners and professionals alike as they are an excellent means to achieving flattering subject lighting.
And on top of all this, they are incredibly easy to use.
How To Use Photography Light Reflectors
What Reflector Should You Use For Photography
Reflectors used in photography are simple items that come in two primary styles. But all photography reflectors are designed to bounce light.
When considering what reflector to get the most important factor is size. The bigger the reflector is, the softer the lighting will be as it is bounced in a more spread out manner. This is always true, no matter if you are using a softbox or a reflector.
These larger reflectors will create a softer transition between light and darker portions of your scene which makes shadows much less prominent.
For portrait photographers, a large reflector is great as they work well for subjects of all skin colors.
On the other hand, smaller photography reflectors will produce a harsher light which will allow for more prominent shadows and a more stark transition between light and dark portions of your scene.
The general rule of thumb for reflector size is that the reflector should be a little larger than the subject being shot.
For example, in portrait photography a 45″ reflector is generally used for individual or couple shots but a larger one will be used for family and group photographs.
You will also find that larger photo reflectors are more popular due to their softer light. One problem with larger reflectors is they can become harder to handle due to their width but a stand can be utilized to assist in handling larger reflectors.
Small reflectors are still used for shooting smaller subjects as well for times when you want to have a harder light and less transition from light to dark parts of the scene.
You will also find both gold and silver reflectors. Gold will offer a warm glow to your subject while silver provides a natural lighting effect.
They come in foldable and collapsible models, which are desirable for photographers who travel or shoot on location. While photographers who only shoot in studio will likely find no benefit to a folding reflector.
When looking at your reflector you will see a black side and a silver or gold side. The black side of your reflector is used to block light which can be utilized to create shading. The silver or gold side is for reflecting light.
When looking at reflector shapes, it is less important than size. The only real world difference shape makes is if you are capturing reflections in your subjects eyes. If you intend to use this technique simply choose a reflector shape that you would like to see reflected in the eyes of your subject.
There are also shoot through reflectors. These are otherwise normal with a small hole cut out in the center of the reflector. This hole is used to put your camera through. This type is used for creating flattering backlighting for your images.
It is not necessary to buy a precut model as you can achieve the same affect with a lower cost regular reflector by cutting the hole youself.
How to Check Intensity and Location of Your Lighting in Your Scene
Because a photography reflector will bounce back your existing lighting you must understand how intense the existing light is and where it is coming from to ensure proper subject lighting.
Understanding this will tell you exactly how to use your reflector. Any type of lighting, natural or artificial, will be bounced by your reflector. So sunlight from your window and a flash or studio light will be reflected just the same. Speedlights or strobes are frequently used light sources which can be paired with a reflector as well.
The first step is to determine whether there is enough light present to reflect. Because photography reflectors do not produce any light of their own an external lighting source must be present.
When you are shooting on a sunny day you will likely be using your reflector as a fill flash for background lighting. You can also use them for creative lighting on a sunny day.
But if it is an overcast day, reflectors will be integral in eliminating shadows from your scene. And if you are shooting indoor with a flash you can use a reflector to direct the light where it needs to go.
The direction your light source is coming from will dictate where you place your reflector. When setting up your scene you will need to first see where the light is coming from.
Setting up your reflector directly across from the light will create the brightest lighting for your scene. Setting it at an angle from the light will allow you to adjust the brightness and the fill of your scene.
Once in place, simply open up your reflector, choose a color if you are using a multi color reflector to further adjust the intensity of your light.
Some general rules. Use the silver reflector during the early hours of the day and the white reflector if it is midday.
How to Find The Angle For a Photography Reflector
Now that you know what to look for in the placement of your reflector it is important to understand how to find the best angle for actually reflecting the light.
When altering the position of your reflector in relation to the light source, small changes make a big difference in where the light is bounced. It is a good idea to test small changes while noting how it effects the lighting of your scene.
Most novice photographers will start by placing their reflector directly across from the light source and make adjustments from there. This should be done until you have attained a solid understanding of how your light is reflected depending on angle and light source.
There are a number of positions that are great places for your reflector. Here are some of the key placements to know.
Directly Across From your Lighting Source
This position will bounce the most light on your subject. This is an excellent position for adding backlighting to your scene. This only works when you can place your subject directly between your light source and reflector. This will allow you to make your subject well lit while maintaining sky detail in outdoor shots. This is a very common position for shooting outdoor portraits because it produces soft and pleasing light and catchlight.
Angled From Your Light Source
While you can not place your reflector too far to the side as that will eliminate any of the bounced light from reaching your subject, but subtle angles can make a big impact on how your subject is lit. Start by placing your reflector directly across from your light source and make small adjustments increasing the angle until you achieve the desired lighting effect.
Parallel to The Ground
While the two previous positions called for the reflector to be parallel to the light source, it is also possible to position it so the reflector is parallel to the ground. By placing the reflector further down you can fill any eye shadows during portrait shots. This often allows for the most flattering lighting for shooting portrait photography.
When deciding to on where to position your reflector it depends on a number of factors. Be certain to know where your light is coming from and start by placing your reflector directly across from the light. Then make any needed adjustments to angle from there until you achieve the lighting you desire.
What Distance Should You Place Your Reflector From The Subject
Now that you have found the correct position for your reflector, you need to decide how close to your subject it should be placed.
The closer the light is to the subject, the softer it will be.
Because sunlight is hard light is is hard light. But it can be softened by placing your reflector close to your subject. Be sure that your reflector is not in the scene, but otherwise getting it as close as possible is usually desirable.
Just like with angle adjustments, slight changes in distance can have a large impact on how your light is bounced. It is worthwhile testing different distances until you have a strong understanding of how the distance impacts your lighting.
If a harder light is what you are looking for, then moving the reflector further from your subject will help you create the desired effect.
So now you know how to not only find the best angle but also how to adjust your distance to achieve the most flattering subject lighting possible. At this point you are ready to take your shots. Don’t be afraid to make necessary adjustments between shots if the lighting is not quite what you are looking for.
Using Reflectors Creatively
The previous tips will allow you to use your reflectors for most any photography sessions but it is possible to get even more out of your reflectors if you use a bit of creativity. If you happen to invest in a five in one model you will have a lot of flexibility at your disposal.
Here are some of my favorite photography reflector tricks.
- Because the majority of reflectors are made of a flexible material, you can flex the sides and shape the light in more fine tuned ways.
- Utilize the black side of your reflector to absorb light from the scene. This allows you to make shadows for a completely different mood. This can be used subtly or in a more dramatic way.
- Use a semi transparent white panel to diffuse hard sunlight. This can create flattering light in an otherwise difficult lighting environment of high bright sunshine.
- You can use your reflector as a scene backdrop with both the black or the white side.
- If you find yourself without your reflector, no worries. There are tons of items that can used in a pinch. Anything that can reflect light can be used.
- Don’t be afraid to use your reflector when using studio lights. Many photographers only use reflectors for outdoor natural lighting but they are equally able to help improve your studio lighting.
Reflectors are an incredibly affordable and versatile lighting tool. There are numerous options on the market for less than $30 that work great.
Practicing with a reflector will allow you to create catchlights and backlighting. You can create some of the same effects with off camera lighting but for the price there is no reason not get a reflector and improve your image quality.
For more photography tips and guides read these articles