Lighting gear prices can easily push into the four digits. There’s one accessory that costs as little as $20 but allows photographers to manipulate light for some serious pop: light reflectors.
When it comes to photography, a reflector bounces existing light, and re-directs it back onto the subject. Reflectors are excellent tools for adding fill light, creating catch lights in portraits, preventing a silhouette or enhancing a product photo.
And because reflectors are essentially just reflective material , they are also affordable accessories. They don’t even require batteries, buttons or cords required.
Reflectors are stepping stones to introduce beginning photographers to lighting. But their ability to create soft, flattering light means that many pros still use light reflectors. Right next to their very expensive studio gear!
So how do you take a piece of shiny material and turn it into a tool capable of delivering pro-level images? Here’s a quick and dirty guide on how to use light reflectors in photography.
What You’ll Need
Light reflectors are minimalist photographers favourite lighting tools. You don’t need very much to actually use one:
- A camera and lens
- A light source (yes, the sun counts!)
- A reflector
How To Use Light Reflectors in Photography
1. Start With the Right Reflector
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Reflectors are very simple photography tools, but there are a few different types. All reflectors bounce light, but a few subtle changes will affect how that light bounces.
Size is the biggest consideration. The larger a light source is, the softer the light. This is a concept that applies whether you are using a strobe with a softbox or a reflector.
A larger reflector will have soft light. This creates a softer transition between the light and dark areas of an image.
With a large reflector, the shadows are less noticeable. Additionally, larger reflectors tend to be more flattering for all skin types. You may want to keep this in mind for portrait photography.
Smaller reflectors, on the other hand, create hard light. This means more noticeable shadows and less transition between the light and dark areas of the image.
The reflector also needs to be a bit larger than the subject. A 45-inch reflector will work for one or two people, but not large groups.
Larger light reflectors are more common because of the soft light. Remember though, the larger a reflector is, the harder it is to hold it without asking for help.
A 40-45 inch reflector is a great size, while anything over 50 inches gets hard to manage without recruiting some extra hands.
You can use smaller reflectors for smaller subjects and to create that harder light.
The colour of the reflector also affects the look of the light that bounces back. A solid white reflector will produce a very soft light. A silver reflector will reflect more light back than the white, creating a slightly harsher but more powerful light. A gold reflector is similar to the silver, only it will give the subject a warm glow.
Many light reflectors come in a five-in-one kit so that you have all those colours available.
So what are the other two colours? They aren’t actually “reflectors,” technically.
The black side of the reflector will block light, a tool that’s helpful for creating your own shade.
A semi-transparent white is a diffuser. This is used between the light and the subject to soften the light, not reflect it. Five-in-one reflectors are still relatively affordable. I spent less than $30 on my first five-in-one, and it was still a rather large 42-inch size.
Shape isn’t quite as essential as size and colour. But there are several different shapes of light reflectors available. The shape of the reflector will change the shape of the catch lights in a portrait, so choose the shape that you’d like to see reflected in the subject’s eyes.
There’s one more type to consider: shoot through reflectors. These are essentially regular reflectors with a hole cut in the center to stick your camera through. Shoot through reflectors work great for backlighting and they tend to be easier to manage yourself.
But they’re also pricier. (Yes, you could technically just cut a hole in a cheap reflector and make your own).
2. Evaluate the Scene
Reflectors bounce back existing light. This means that, once you have the reflector in hand, the next step is to determine how intense that light is and where the existing light is coming from. This way you’ll find out how to use that light to create your image.
Reflectors can bounce back any type of light, including studio lights, as long as there’s enough light there.
Sunlight, a window or door and existing manmade lights in the scene, along with flashes and strobes, can all work with reflectors.
First, make sure there’s enough light to use the reflector. A reflector can’t create light, so there has to be enough light to begin with.
On a sunny day, I can use my reflector as a fill flash for backlighting or adding creative lighting effects.
On a cloudy day, there’s not enough light to create dramatic effects, but I can still use my reflector in more subtle ways to fill in shadows.
Indoors, reflectors work well with window light and alongside flashes and strobes.
The direction the light is coming from will determine where you can place the reflector, since it has to actually bounce back the light. So first things first, note where the light is coming from.
You’ll get the brightest reflected light directly across from the light source. You can use the reflector at an angle to that original light source as well.
Pop that light reflector open, and if you are using a five-in-one, choose your colour. With a five-in-one reflector, you’ll also want to consider how intense the light is.
When the sun is low in the sky and not as harsh, I use a silver reflector for portraits.
Earlier in the day, however, a silver reflector and a bright sun can actually be strong enough to make a portrait subject squint. If the sun is bright and higher in the sky, I’ll use white instead.
3. Find the Reflective Angle
With the angle and intensity of light in mind, next find the best angle for reflecting that light.
Small changes to the position of the reflector can make big changes in where the light falls. As you adjust the reflector, watch how the light changes.
But where do you start? In general, reflectors are held directly across from the light source, but there can be some variation.
There are several different positions that often work well with a reflector:
- Directly across from the light source. This will reflect the most light. It’s excellent for using backlighting when the light source is directly behind the subject. By reflecting the light back on the subject, you will keep the subject well lit, while still leaving the details in the sky intact. This is my go-to reflector position when shooting portraits during golden hour because of the beautiful soft lighting and catchlights.
- At an angle to the light source. You can’t stray too far to the side from the light source or there won’t be any light to reflect back. But you can experiment and step a bit to the side of the original light source. Adjust the angle of the reflector to direct the light towards the subject. You also don’t need to hold the reflector 90 degrees from the ground either. Try moving the top or bottom of the reflector forward to angle the light back where you need it.
- Parallel to the ground. Holding the reflector parallel to the light source isn’t the only option. When taking a portrait, placing a reflector on the ground or having the subject hold the reflector on his or her lap will fill in under-eye shadows. This position isn’t as dramatic as holding the reflector directly across the light source. But it can lead to a more flattering portrait by brightening up the eyes.
Exactly where to hold the reflector will depend on where the original light source and the subject are.
Directly across from the light source reflects the most light. But adjusting that angle – even until the reflector is parallel to the ground – can fix unflattering shadows.
4. Find the Right Distance
You’ve found the right position for the reflector — but how close should the reflector be to the subject? First you need to understand one of those universal lighting laws that apply whether you are working with a reflector or studio lights.
The closer the light is, the softer it is.
Sunlight is hard light (despite the big size) because the sun is millions of miles away. Luckily, the distance of the reflector is within your control.
You need to find a position that’s not so close that the reflector is in the picture but not so far that its light doesn’t even cover the entire subject.
Between those two extremes, distance will simply lead to some subtle changes in how quickly the shadows fall off.
If you bought a large reflector but want to try a look with harder light, move farther from the subject.
Want that soft portrait look? Move the reflector as close as possible.
If you are holding the reflector yourself, you can use different lenses to still get the desired composition.
Another option is to recruit a friend to hold the reflector. This opens up more possibilities in the reflector’s position.
This image was taken on a cloudless day with the sun high in the sky. I made my own shade by having someone hold up a black reflector over the subject.
Once you have the right reflector, held at a flattering angle and from an appropriate distance, you’re ready to take the shot.
Compared to a reflector-less shot, you’ll end up with an image with more pop and well-lit details.
Experimentation is always a great idea whenever learning a new photography technique. Try taking multiple images with the reflector at slightly different angles.
This is a great way to fine-tune while expanding your understanding of reflectors.
5. Get Creative
So far we’ve covered the traditional use of a light reflector as a fill or key light. But they have many more creative possibilities — especially if you picked up a five-in-one reflector.
Once you’ve mastered the basics, here are some other reflector tricks to try.
- Flex the sides of the reflector. Most reflectors are flexible. You can adjust the angle of the light, but also bend the sides in to further shape the light.
- Deepen the shadows with the black “reflector.” Black absorbs light rather than reflecting it. Use this to make the shadows in the image darker by placing this black piece on the shadow side of the subject. The difference is often subtle, but helpful for creating dramatic shadows.
- Create your own shade with the diffuser. Sun high in the sky, without shade? Make your own using the semi-transparent white panel. To do this, hold it between the light and the subject. This only works with smaller subjects or a single person rather than a group. But it can make otherwise impossible images flattering.
- Reflectors can double as small backdrops. In a pinch, a reflector can also work as a small backdrop using the black or white side.
- Learn to look for natural reflectors. You don’t have to have a reflector to reflect light. Understanding reflectors helps you recognize natural ones while out shooting. For example, a large white brick wall or light coloured cement driveway is naturally reflective. Standing on top of black pavement is like standing on top of that black reflector. You can’t move bricks and blacktops like you can a reflector. What you can do is learn to spot good shooting spots that already have a reflector built in.
- Use a reflector with studio lights. With a reflector, a single studio light can create some two-light lighting set-ups. Placed opposite a flash or a studio strobe, a reflector can fill in those shadows for softer studio lighting.
In short, reflectors are a cheap gateway to photography lighting. An under-$30 reflector was my introduction to lighting. With that inexpensive accessory, I learnt how to work with backlighting, how to create catch lights and creative lighting effects.
I now have two off camera flashes to create those same effects. And yet, I often still dig out my reflector.
A reflector will bounce back natural light. This makes it easy to match the fill light with the rest of the light in the scene, no buttons and dials necessary.
A large reflector will also create a soft light that works great for portraits, product photos and many other types of photo shoots.
For beginners, reflectors are excellent introductions to creative photography lighting.
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