Reflections – Reflectors and Available Light Photography

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A Novel Use for Reflectors (Image by mamma tang)

A Novel Use for Reflectors (Image by mamma tang)

Note to self: tin foil does NOT make a good reflector unless your subject is blind or wants to be.

Aaaah the magical power of reflectors. Reflectors are an amazing, versatile and cheap solution to most natural light photography problems and also have their place in the studio although here, I’m going to stick to information on how to use reflectors in natural, available-light photography.

Reflectors do exactly what they say on the box: reflect light. They are used to aim light into the dark spots on a subject to fill them with light and diffuse unwanted shadows. As we read recently in Veronique da Silva’s post on available light photography, we can get stunning results when we position models back-to-the-sun and place ourselves facing the sun. To combat the subject being a back-lit silhouette, you can use reflectors to fill in and aim the light where you want. The result is a subject beautifully lit by the sun from both the front and the back.

What is ‘available light’?

I once had a photographer tell me he ‘only shoots available’ yet ‘always uses a flash’. I explained that available light means you only use the light which is naturally available and he replied, “yeah, but I have a flash so it’s available.” Fair enough as photographer Eugene Smith is famously quoted as having said that available light is “any damn light that’s available”. So let’s just define what this traditionally means.

Wikipedia defines ‘available light’ as: “…sources of light that are already available naturally (e.g. the sun, moon, lightning) or artificial light already being used (e.g. to light a room). It generally excludes flashes.” It’s not uncommon for photographers to get snobby about whether they are available only or strobe only and blah blah blah. But I just wanted to lay that foundation so you know where I am coming from even though not everyone will agree with my definition 🙂

reflector

Reflectors can be purchased or made of any reflective material such as poster board, a baker’s cookie sheet, a painter’s canvas or fabric. Although I wouldn’t recommend tin foil pointed directly at the noon sun (long story)! They can be round or rectangular, massive or small. The colour of your reflector will alter the light quality and can be used for different effects as follows:

  • Gold – creates warm tones and makes your subject’s skin appear a bit more tanned
  • White  – Neutral colour effect. Gathers the existing light and softly fills in shadows to light your subject. Great for brides because they don’t alter the white of the dress.
  • Blue – Cool tones
  • Silver – Neutral in colour although brighter than white

Reflectors also produce flattering catchlights.

Reflectors which you purchase come in a wide range of sizes and effects. And if you don’t want to pay an assistant to stand and hold your reflector, Interfit makes really cheap and handy stands to hold them for you! Lastolite makes a triangular reflector with a comfortable grip handle which (in theory) could be held by the photographer him/herself if necessary.

In the reflector family, there are other items used to manipulate the light. These include black reflectors which do the opposite of reflect – they absorb stray light and translucent panels which can be used above the subject to diffuse harsh sunlight (much like a convenient film of clouds over the sun). You can even get huge translucent panels on stands under which you can place your subjects. I imagine these would be a must for wedding photographers who are forced to shoot outside, especially if you live in bright places like my native Florida. Not too necessary here in England where we should always travel with a panel to protect subjects from the rain!

For every problem which presents itself in the world of photography, there is an answer albeit usually expensive! However, reflectors offer massive benefits in exchange for a very small (and sometimes free) expense.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Elizabeth Halford is a Hampshire Photographer and keeps a rockin' photography blog where she writes about photography and business in "real.plain.english".

  • Great tip! I can really see the difference in the girl’s face. The image where a white reflector was used is definitely better.

  • Thanks great post I have been meaning to be getting one for quite some time know. But I think you have finally persuaded me to purchse one. I think I will just get a silver one to start off with to see how i get on !

  • Jeff Plum

    @sbunting108: no, don’t get a silver one. Get a white one! Silver is only for if you really know what you’re doing.

    Anyway, you can get 5-in-1 reflectors really cheap these days: a collapsible circle of thin white material (a diffuser) with a zip-on invertible cover – two sides which, turned inside out, give another two options: black one side, silver on the other, and reversed, white on one side, gold on the other. You’ll find you will just use the cover white/gold way out and leave it like that 90% of the time. Hope this helps.

    In the UK they sell them on 7dayshop.com very cheap and very well made. Not sure about every other country, but there must be an equivalent out there! Good luck!

  • JP

    I love love love love reflectors. I have a dozen different ones to play with. 90% of the photo shoots I do will include a reflector somewhere. I love using reflectors outdoors mostly just because its easier and faster to work with rather than bringing my elinchroms on site although sometimes I will if the style dictates that I use flash. and then of course in studio the reflector always makes for a good key light fill.

  • Jeff Plum
  • Brilliant tip! Really handy. Thanks for sharing

  • Great article, although my style of photography rarely uses reflectors i can see their uses and this has inspired me to try them out and do some portraiture

  • Steff

    I just ordered one of the 5 in 1 reflectors and wish it were here for todays shoot, esp after seeing this posting! I can’t what to start experimenting.

  • firebushmedia

    Shooting a bright-sun beach wedding, I was trying to use a reflector with my subject’s back to the sun. I wanted to warm her up a bit (brides like to be tan) and the gold was just blinding her. White was better for her eyes, but not the warm light I wanted. Any tips on how to use gold without making your model squint like crazy?

  • Jeff Plum

    Get an orange reflector.

  • @Jeff Plum Thanks for the info!

  • I did a formal wedding shoot, and didn’t have a reflector. I used an umbrella instead, but a reflector would have been very nice in that situation. Time to invest in one

  • The reflector washes out the contour of the little girl’s face. The shading that was there was perfect.

  • Gene

    So how about using a Winsheild screen for a silver reflector? Some of them seem to look just like actual reflectors?

  • I definitely see the difference except in the second picture the girl is closer. Why not have exactly the same focus point to make it more believable? Also is it me or is the second picture shot at a different angle than the first?

  • Jane

    I have experimented with car windshield reflectors with mixed results. You get some very interesting effects with the silver but I found the blue and the red to give even more obscure lighting effects!

    Mostly use one of the 5 in 1 reflectors mentioned by others……

    It’s worth a go though Gene and they are really quite cheap!

  • Amazing difference. In the first photo you can’t even see the little girls shiny white teeth.

  • hipnz

    Lol Bull Rhino, cheeky!!

    But yeah, definite difference. Am looking forward to experimenting.

    I’m curious, does anyone else think she looks washed out in #2 or is that me? I prefer shot #1, it just seems more natural to me.

  • 2nd pic is definitely washed out, though I will say that reflectors don’t have to be as dramatic as pic 2 but you also have to take into consideration that the 2nd pic is at a different angle and focal length for that matter. When used correctly, reflectors are very useful against unwanted shadows and even bright sunshine. If one were real good you can just point the reflector to fill the eyes to show there color.

  • The photos were taken at the same length I just cropped and rotated the second. No colour editing or other editing of any kind.

  • Kimberly Ford

    The first image of the little girl looks like a snapshot. The second image looks like a portrait. There is a big difference between the two when you are trying to sell a portrait image to the little girl’s mom. Reflectors are handy outdoors, and I often use them in the studio for fill light instead of a second strobe.

  • Dave Duister

    I don’t think photo 2 is washed out. The eyes now have colour in them instead of being dark as in #1.
    As we don’t know the subject, maybe she is is fair skinned. If your using an LCD screen check your viewing angle, I don’t see any loss of facial detail that someone else mentioned.

    Cheers

  • TONY C. OSBORN

    Reflector is a welcome development in photo world, i use it here in Nigeria, it helps me clear jaw shadows during indoor shoot and brightens eye socket during hash sunning weather.

  • meuli

    Reflectors are definitely helpful, esp when doing product photography. I did a shoot of a couple of sauce bottles on a white background for a customer and had trouble with shadowing, utilizing a reflector I was able to fill in the shadowed area which produced a much better photograph.

Some Older Comments

  • meuli November 12, 2009 06:10 am

    Reflectors are definitely helpful, esp when doing product photography. I did a shoot of a couple of sauce bottles on a white background for a customer and had trouble with shadowing, utilizing a reflector I was able to fill in the shadowed area which produced a much better photograph.

  • TONY C. OSBORN November 2, 2009 12:02 am

    Reflector is a welcome development in photo world, i use it here in Nigeria, it helps me clear jaw shadows during indoor shoot and brightens eye socket during hash sunning weather.

  • Dave Duister November 1, 2009 12:29 am

    I don't think photo 2 is washed out. The eyes now have colour in them instead of being dark as in #1.
    As we don't know the subject, maybe she is is fair skinned. If your using an LCD screen check your viewing angle, I don't see any loss of facial detail that someone else mentioned.

    Cheers

  • Kimberly Ford October 30, 2009 10:07 pm

    The first image of the little girl looks like a snapshot. The second image looks like a portrait. There is a big difference between the two when you are trying to sell a portrait image to the little girl's mom. Reflectors are handy outdoors, and I often use them in the studio for fill light instead of a second strobe.

  • Elizabeth Halford October 30, 2009 06:58 pm

    The photos were taken at the same length I just cropped and rotated the second. No colour editing or other editing of any kind.

  • James Hoagland October 30, 2009 02:11 pm

    2nd pic is definitely washed out, though I will say that reflectors don't have to be as dramatic as pic 2 but you also have to take into consideration that the 2nd pic is at a different angle and focal length for that matter. When used correctly, reflectors are very useful against unwanted shadows and even bright sunshine. If one were real good you can just point the reflector to fill the eyes to show there color.

  • hipnz October 30, 2009 01:25 pm

    Lol Bull Rhino, cheeky!!

    But yeah, definite difference. Am looking forward to experimenting.

    I'm curious, does anyone else think she looks washed out in #2 or is that me? I prefer shot #1, it just seems more natural to me.

  • Bull Rhino October 30, 2009 11:38 am

    Amazing difference. In the first photo you can't even see the little girls shiny white teeth.

  • Jane October 30, 2009 08:33 am

    I have experimented with car windshield reflectors with mixed results. You get some very interesting effects with the silver but I found the blue and the red to give even more obscure lighting effects!

    Mostly use one of the 5 in 1 reflectors mentioned by others......

    It's worth a go though Gene and they are really quite cheap!

  • James Hoagland October 30, 2009 05:45 am

    I definitely see the difference except in the second picture the girl is closer. Why not have exactly the same focus point to make it more believable? Also is it me or is the second picture shot at a different angle than the first?

  • Gene October 30, 2009 04:18 am

    So how about using a Winsheild screen for a silver reflector? Some of them seem to look just like actual reflectors?

  • Mike October 29, 2009 02:59 pm

    The reflector washes out the contour of the little girl's face. The shading that was there was perfect.

  • John Kim October 29, 2009 08:54 am

    I did a formal wedding shoot, and didn't have a reflector. I used an umbrella instead, but a reflector would have been very nice in that situation. Time to invest in one

  • sbunting108 October 28, 2009 06:31 am

    @Jeff Plum Thanks for the info!

  • Jeff Plum October 27, 2009 09:16 pm

    Get an orange reflector.

  • firebushmedia October 27, 2009 06:17 am

    Shooting a bright-sun beach wedding, I was trying to use a reflector with my subject's back to the sun. I wanted to warm her up a bit (brides like to be tan) and the gold was just blinding her. White was better for her eyes, but not the warm light I wanted. Any tips on how to use gold without making your model squint like crazy?

  • Steff October 27, 2009 04:15 am

    I just ordered one of the 5 in 1 reflectors and wish it were here for todays shoot, esp after seeing this posting! I can't what to start experimenting.

  • Richard October 27, 2009 03:51 am

    Great article, although my style of photography rarely uses reflectors i can see their uses and this has inspired me to try them out and do some portraiture

  • BebopDesigner October 27, 2009 03:13 am

    Brilliant tip! Really handy. Thanks for sharing

  • Jeff Plum October 27, 2009 02:49 am

    http://www.7dayshop.com/catalog/product_info.php?cPath=777_1&products_id=100725

    That one, in fact :)

  • JP October 27, 2009 02:46 am

    I love love love love reflectors. I have a dozen different ones to play with. 90% of the photo shoots I do will include a reflector somewhere. I love using reflectors outdoors mostly just because its easier and faster to work with rather than bringing my elinchroms on site although sometimes I will if the style dictates that I use flash. and then of course in studio the reflector always makes for a good key light fill.

  • Jeff Plum October 27, 2009 02:45 am

    @sbunting108: no, don't get a silver one. Get a white one! Silver is only for if you really know what you're doing.

    Anyway, you can get 5-in-1 reflectors really cheap these days: a collapsible circle of thin white material (a diffuser) with a zip-on invertible cover - two sides which, turned inside out, give another two options: black one side, silver on the other, and reversed, white on one side, gold on the other. You'll find you will just use the cover white/gold way out and leave it like that 90% of the time. Hope this helps.

    In the UK they sell them on 7dayshop.com very cheap and very well made. Not sure about every other country, but there must be an equivalent out there! Good luck!

  • sbunting108 October 27, 2009 02:19 am

    Thanks great post I have been meaning to be getting one for quite some time know. But I think you have finally persuaded me to purchse one. I think I will just get a silver one to start off with to see how i get on !

  • MeiTeng October 27, 2009 12:57 am

    Great tip! I can really see the difference in the girl's face. The image where a white reflector was used is definitely better.

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