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DIY How to Build and Use a Reflector to Take Better Portraits


Photography is essentially capturing light. Beginners to photography can find the learning curve quite steep. To start with, there is the technical side. You need to understand what the camera can do and its limitations. Then there is the theory aspect, simply put you need to know what exposure is and how to achieve this with your camera if you want to get that creative shot.

About four years ago, I was shooting a couple of models in my city of Dublin outdoors with a few fellow photographers. The day was overcast and I was just hoping it wouldn’t rain. Thankfully, it didn’t. One of the photographers had this big reflector, a 52 inch, translucent one. I was amazed at how effective it was, especially as it added these wonderful catchlights in the model’s eyes.

Model with catchlights

Think in terms of directing the light when photographing your subject or object. This is why a collapsible reflector is an excellent piece of additional camera gear. They are relatively inexpensive to buy, so portable, and lightweight. They do come in various sizes but a 42″ 5-in-1 collapsible reflector can be bought online for under $40 USD.

Collapsible Reflector 36x24 GoldSilver

Recently, at a family get together, my sister wanted me to take some headshots of her. We were outdoors, it was early in the evening around 6 p.m., and the sun was a ball of amber. I positioned her with the sun behind and it had created a wonderful rim light on her hair. But I didn’t have enough fill-light on her face.

Then I realized, I didn’t have my reflector with me. On this occasion I had simply forgotten to bring it with me. After all, I wasn’t on a professional assignment. Anyway, I saw the small white plastic garden table. I grabbed it, turned it upside down and yanked the legs off. I got my youngest daughter to hold the table top slightly to the right and below my sister’s face.

Small white plastic garden table

Technology is speeding along at a very fast pace. The latest DSLR/mirrorless camera of today is fast becoming yesterday’s news in a relatively short time. As a newcomer to photography, it can be difficult to choose what gear and accessories to buy.

The basics of exposure havn’t changed with technology, nor has light. So practice with the camera that you have and learn to shoot with it in available light, and low light. Learn to see the different ways light can make a difference to your imagery.

I came up with five DIY options to serve as a reflector and tested them out. Here are some tip on how to use a reflector to take better portraits:

  1. White mount card from an art or hobby craft shop, size A1(33.1 x 23.4inches) 300g
  2. Kitchen aluminum foil crumpled up before fixing it on the back of the white card using spray
  3. Radiator reflective foil
  4. White plastic garden table
  5. Silver car mats

I still have, and use, the white card for demo purposes when I give workshops for beginners. It is so simple and affordable ,and the impact is quite dramatic. This option is the easiest to buy for a few dollars(USD). This piece of card can enhance your shots whether you are inside or outside. It’s great.

A simple indoor set-up for a portrait shoot using the white card

Have your model or subject seated (or stand) beside a large window. The model will be facing the camera, so one side of his or her face will be in shadow. Take a shot. Then have someone hold the white card near the model’s shadow side, at an angle so that a nice even light is cast across your subject’s face. Take numerous shots as you will need to direct your assistant on how close or far they hold the card up to the model. When you have taken a number of shots, you will get a clearer understanding of how to reflect the light upon your subject in a more pleasing manner. When you have uploaded your images to the computer, you will have the initial shot as your frame of reference to see the difference.

Tip – if the surface of your card starts to get grubby, I have covered up dirt marks using white interior matt paint.

Using kitchen aluminum foil is really simulating a silver reflector, which adds a cool light on your subject.

Becky silver reflector

If you don’t have spray adhesive or photo mount, an alternative method would be to water down a little PVC glue and paint this on one side of the white card. Then lay the aluminum foil (crumpled first) on top and smooth it out. This needs a good 24 hours to set. Also be careful when reflecting the light onto your model. Keep your distance as it reflects a large amount of light.

This roll of radiator reflector foil was inexpensive to buy. I can’t remember exactly but I think it was less than ten dollars (USD). Similar to above, this option works in the same way.

Becky radiator reflector foil

I recreated a similar test of my daughter in my Mum’s back garden using the small white plastic table. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the wonderful sun shining in the background, like I had for my sister’s shot. This was a quick test but as you can see there is an improvement in the after image. The light was cast more evenly across her face. Catchlights were created in the eyes which are key to good portraiture and shadows were eliminated under the chin.

Amy before and after small table

I included the silver car mats more as a tongue-in-cheek test! However, I decided to test them out to see would they actually work. I chose a bottle of wine so that you could see the silver car matt reflected in the bottle.

Wine bottle

Have you tried using a reflector before? What are your thoughts? Please give it a try if you haven’t and share your results and comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Sarah Hipwell is an independent professional photographer based in Dublin. She specialises in high-quality corporate, stock and portraiture photography. Her background is in Design. She received her BA in Hons Design from the University of Ulster, Belfast. She has many years commercial design experience working as a designer and as a trainer for large multimedia companies. See more of her work at or at 500px.

  • Robert Whybrow

    Great article Sarah…. I use a bounce card for flash but have not tried a reflector for day shots. Good DIY options that I will be trying.

  • Sarah Hipwell

    Ah thanks Robert!

  • Thank You very much Ms Hipwe for this awesome article !

  • matt

    I’ve used poster boards display boards (Elmer’s 36X48 inches) foam core mounting boards, flattened out aluminum foil roasting pans and even silver automobile window sun reflectors from the local dollar store has worked for me.

  • Sarah Hipwell

    Hi Matt, good to hear that the silver car sun reflectors worked!

  • Sarah Hipwell

    Thank you Romi!

  • Michael

    Hi Sarah! It’s very practical tool to use reflectors to bounce some light on the shadow sides of your object as a fill light. Saying that, I would still like to have some soft shadows on my subject making the flat image as a three dimensional one. Looking at your blonde girl image (just before the wine bottle one), honestly, the before image with some shadows is more flattering having 3 dimensional look than the image produced with a reflector. The reflector image looks flat. However, I usually use my modified flash as a fill light producing just a little fill light to balance the ambient.
    Thank you!

  • Sarah Hipwell

    Hi Michael, this was a quick test shot. I wanted to show a marked contrast between the before and after image. Yes, you’re right the after shot does lack depth. If this had been a real assignment, I would have experimented more with the reflector to get the desired result. Good comment Michael.

  • Edmund

    Great idea, never thought of that – silly me!

  • Meri Clason

    In a desperate moment, I grabbed a “cold sack”–one of those you buy when you have too many cold groceries for the cooler–it was mostly silver & kept my grandson from having 2 “black eyes”.

  • Every bit of light helps! Especially when you need that data for post production to push the pixels the way you want them to. Just be sure to not over expose and you should be just fine.

  • Jack Bunn

    Jack. Another quick & cheap reflector for your list. A foil backed car windscreen protector as used in the summer in a attempt to keep the car cool whilst away from it. When not in use it folds up like a concertina and is
    stowed away in the boot.

  • Rick Hohmann

    I found a household insulation that comes in different thicknesses at the hardware store. It is aluminium foil backed with Styrofoam. It comes in sheets ranging in size from 2 X 4 ft. to 4X8 ft. It can easily be cut to any shape and it is Extremely light weight. I have used it and it works as good as any expensive reflector for a lot less money. I am not sure of the manufacturer but on the back it is called insulfoam A Carlisle Company. I got it at Home Depot. Thanks for the tips!

  • Sarah Hipwell

    Thanks for that tip Rick!

  • Sarah Hipwell

    Yep, definitely another good solution there Jack.

  • RGH

    We have a reflector but couldn’t find it when we decided to take portraits of our kids at a tree-surrounded lake park. Instead, we brought a 20×30 white foamcore. Worked pretty well, not as shiny on their faces but it worked out for the afternoon light there was. Definitely a good accessory to have.

  • Sarah Hipwell

    Hi RGH, indeed foamcore is another DIY alternative to act as a reflector. Thanks for your tip.

  • Yvonne

    I bought a couple windshield shades at a yard sale for a quarter each. They fold up nicely for packing but work great as white reflectors. These are the things that you put in the windshield of your car to keep the sun from fading out your dashboard and keep your car cool.

  • Joaozito Polo

    I loved the silver car mats idea. You save my day!!!

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