In photography books, magazines, and websites, references to reflectors are often and many. They’re a quintessential tool for modifying light in just about every genre, and they’re an indispensable part of many photographers’ toolkits.
If you’re new to the idea of using reflectors, or new to photography in general, the problem with reflectors is that, although they seem self-explanatory in use, their effects can often be too subtle to be noticed if you lack experience using them. To combat this, and make the learning process easier, this article will give you examples of 10 common uses for a 5-in-1 reflector. It will also show you what the reflector is doing in each instance, as well as provide diagrams for you to repeat the exercise in your own time.
The best way to take full advantage of the information in this article, is to duplicate all of the following setups, using your own equipment and subjects. Once you understand the basics outlined here, you can start experimenting, and altering variables, to see how small changes can affect your images.
What is a 5-in-1 reflector?
A 5-in-1 reflector is a nifty gadget that incorporates several different types of reflector, into one portable and easy to use package. These include white, silver, gold, black reflectors (or flag), and a diffusion panel.
The way they are put together is that the four reflector sides are sewn into a sort of pouch, that fits around the diffusion panel; making a change to a different color as simple as unzipping it, removing the diffusion panel, turning the pouch inside out, and replacing it over the diffusion panel.
This article focuses on practical uses for 5-in-1 reflectors, but to use and understand them most effectively there a couple things to keep in mind.
Quality of light
When referring to the quality of light, this term has nothing to do with whether light is good or bad. The word quality refers to the physical properties, traits, or characteristics of the light. These properties include the softness or hardness, the shape, the color, and the intensity of the light.
A little confusing, I know, but it’s just one of the many quirks of the English language. If it helps, try to remember there is no such thing as good or bad light; only light more suitable for a different subject.
Softness, hardness and intensity
In terms of reflectors, it is important to understand how they modify your light.
Softness and hardness are affected by the apparent size of your light source. If you move your reflector closer to your subject, you get softer light. If you take it further back, you get harder light. The same applies to different sized reflectors. A larger reflector, at the same distance from the subject as a smaller one, will produce softer light, while the smaller one (in the same position) will produce harder light. However, if you put the larger one farther away from the subject, and the smaller one closer – they may become equal.
When swapping between the colors on your 5-in-1 reflector, from white to silver for example, the properties of the light you are altering are the color and the intensity. Providing that the reflector hasn’t moved, a silver and a white reflector will give the same softness/hardness of light. However, a silver reflector will reflect more light than a white one, thereby providing more intensity. Because of this, anytime you change out your reflectors, you will also need to alter your exposure settings.
Additionally, using a different colored reflector will change the color of the light and you may need to alter your white balance settings. The exception to this is when using a gold reflector which is often done to intentionally add a color cast to the image.
Exercise One – white/silver on the side
This first example may be the most common way to use a reflector. The light is illuminating the subject from camera left. This is causing dark shadows on the subject’s face at camera right. While these shadows can often be pleasing and acceptable, at other times you may choose to fill them in with additional light. This is where the reflector comes into play.
To do this, place your reflector, either silver or white, to the side and close to your subject, facing the light. This will fill in the shadows, brightening up the frame.
Note: You can also vary the intensity of the light reflected by moving the reflector toward, or away from the subject. Move it closer to brighten the shadows more, move it away to have less fill-light and darken the shadows.
Exercise Two – white/silver from below
This setup is also very common, and is a slight variation on exercise one above. Here, the reflector is placed underneath your subject, and is filling in shadows from below.
Note: be very careful doing this on a subject that is heavy-set or has a double chin, as it will highlight that and make it stand out more – not overly flattering for them. You could also light up the nostrils so be conscious of that as well.
Exercise Three – white/silver bend it
You can also take advantage of a 5-in-1 reflectors lack of rigidity, by shaping it. This will allow you to mould your light, to fill in shadows that may not have been affected by a flat reflector. To do this, simply hold two opposite sides of your reflector and bend it inwards, thus creating a curved surface that will fill in shadows that a flat surface could not reach.
Exercise Four – white/silver
In this example, the light source is coming from behind the subject. The reflector is used parallel to the light source in order to bring detail into the heavy shadows caused by the backlighting technique. While it is possible to use this technique for portraits, it can be tricky. However, it comes into its own in food photography and other still life situations.
Exercise Five – white/silver
If your light source is small, and the light is too hard for the effect you are trying to achieve, 5-in-1 reflectors offer a few options to help you soften the light.
Here, instead of lighting your subject directly with the light source, bounce the light off of the reflector. Doing this effectively increases the size of your light source, thereby softening it. You will lose some of the intensity of the light doing this, and you will need to meter for the reflected light, rather than the output from your flash.
Exercise Six – diffusion panel
Another way to soften hard light with a 5-in-1 reflector, is to use the diffusion panel. Simply place the diffusion panel somewhere between your light source and subject, making sure that all of the light is hitting the reflector. Diffusion panels do come with an inherent loss of light. Many are designed to cut down two stops of light, but this will depend on your exact reflector. As such, you will want to calculate your exposure with the diffusion panel in place, before taking any images.
Where this technique really comes into its own, is that you can move the diffusion panel anywhere between your light source and the subject, without altering your exposure. This allows you to manipulate the shape and quality of your light in moments, without having to further alter your settings.
Exercise Seven – black reflector or flag
For the first use of your flag, use it as you would a white or silver reflector, as in example one above. Doing this with the black side of your reflector will help to deepen, and intensify the shadows on your subject. This technique isn’t as common as the others, but it can be used to great creative effect.
Exercise Eight – black reflector or flag
Instead of reflecting light, you can also use your flag to block, and shape the light in your scene. With the black side of the reflector facing your subject, hold it so that it obscures a large portion of your light source. This technique can be use in lieu of time consuming modifier changes, and can allow for some dramatic lighting effects without a great deal of equipment.
Exercise Nine – black reflector or flag
Another use for your flag is to use it as a background. You probably won’t do this very often, as it isn’t an ideal solution in most cases, but in a pinch you can get rid of messy backgrounds with ease.
Exercise Ten – gold
To be honest, you will probably never want to use a gold reflector. The effect, and the color cast they provide are often far too intense for most purposes. However, with judicious care, they can be used to provide a warm colored rim light. Here, the reflector is placed behind the subject and is reflecting light back onto her hair.
Just the beginning
These 10 examples barely scratch the surface of what can be accomplished with a 5-in-1 reflector. However, by going through these exercises a number of times, with a variety of subjects, you will quickly begin to notice how reflectors modify light in a given situation. From there you will be able to employ them effectively in your photography. Do you have any other uses or tips for using one? Please share in the comments below.