Tip for Using a Reflector for Portraits

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Tips for Using Reflectors to Create Beautiful Portraits

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When it comes to portrait photography, one of the simplest and easiest things you can do to improve your images coming straight out of the camera, is using a reflector. There are many different sizes and shapes of reflectors, and the type of photography that you do most often will often dictate which size and shape you should purchase. For example, if you like to practice street or travel photography, it may be most beneficial to consider a round reflector that’s about 20″ wide so that you can hold it with one hand, and shoot with the other, without being intrusive in a small location like someone’s home. On the other hand, if you think you’d like to use a reflector for wedding photography, it is best to go for something rectangular and much larger (such as a 48×72″) so that the light you’re reflecting can reach everyone in the bridal party during portraits.

Reflector Kit

What kind of reflector should you buy?

I suggest a 5-in-1 round reflector that’s between 40-43″ across because I have found this size reflector to work exceptionally well for individual or small group portraits. Do keep in mind that with this size reflector, you will probably need either an assistant or a stand to hold the reflector during portraits.

5-in-1 reflectors typically come with a pop-up diffuser, and then a reversible zippered pouch to fit over the diffuser that includes white, silver, gold, and black sides. When you’re first beginning to use the reflector, the most difficult part can often be deciding which color reflector is best to use. As is often the case in photography, although there are some rules about when exactly to use each color reflector (my first photography professor in college used to tell us that a gold reflector was for indoor, studio portraits ONLY), the reality is that which color you should choose will vary based on your own style of photography and personal preference, and may or may not always follow the rules. I have found it most helpful to practice frequently with my reflector in a variety of settings so that I’ll have a better idea of a starting point when it comes to a real session.

All that said, I’m a visual learner, and need to actually see something in order to understand it best. So yesterday afternoon, I borrowed my sister Courtney and went to the backyard to take some photos so that you can see what each color reflector looks like in a portrait setting. Each photo was shot in manual mode with exactly the same settings, and every image in this post is straight out of the camera so you can really see the difference a reflector makes without any post-processing. These photos were taken at about 2 p.m. I live in Oregon and we perpetually deal with smoke from forest fires in the summer, so that was the case here as well, but this is also a good example of the difference that a reflector can make on a slightly overcast day.

Reflectors do just what they say—they reflect the light. So, because the direction of light will change depending on the time of day and the objects around you, you will want to experiment with placing the reflector in front of your model, as well as at head-height (often angled up slightly) on either side of your model. In this example, I had my model hold the reflector at chest-level in order to bounce catch-lights into her eyes and eliminate green color casting from the grass below. However, angling the reflector to bounce light from below can draw attention to the neck and chin and may not always be the most flattering way to light every subject. So, experiment with holding the reflector at different heights and angles in order to see what is most flattering on your particular model with your particular source of light.

First up, here’s Courtney with no reflector (below left). It’s not a bad photo, but it also isn’t a very dynamic photo either. I can absolutely add some “boost” in post-processing, but let’s make it better in camera, if we can.

Reflector 1 Reflector 2

White reflector

I started by having Courtney hold the white side of the reflector under her face, about chest-high (above right). As you can see, this really bounced a lot of neutral light up into her face. If you like this look but find that it’s a bit too much light (as I think it is here), you can have your model continue to lower the reflector away from their face until you achieve a more natural light.

Gold reflector

Then we flipped the reflector to the gold side, and had Courtney hold the reflector at waist-height under her face (below left). You can see that this option brought a significant amount of warm light into her face, compared to the image with no reflector. The gold side of the reflector can be tricky, as it can easily make people look a bit radioactive if the reflector is placed too close to the model. I find that I use the gold side of the reflector almost exclusively in backlit sunset portraits, but if you tend to prefer a warmer look to portraits, you may want to reach for this one more frequently.

Skin tone is also particularly important when it comes to the gold side of the reflector, and you will generally find the most success when using the gold side of the reflector on olive skin tones or people who are very tanned. Conversely, the silver or white reflector may be most flattering on people who have blue undertones in their skin.

Reflector 3 Reflector 4

Silver reflector

Next, I unzipped the reflector, flipped it inside out, and turned it to the silver side. I had Courtney hold the reflector under her face at waist-height (image above right). I tend to prefer the coloring here best, but I also need to say that the silver side of the reflector is by FAR the most difficult to work with, as the sheer brightness can essentially be very difficult for a model to look at, resulting in portraits that look like this:

Reflector 5

So, even though I personally tend to like the coloring of the silver side best, I most often elect to begin with the white reflector, simply because the silver side tends to be very difficult for my clients unless they have had lots of modelling experience.

Reflector 6

Black reflector

The black side isn’t a reflector at all; rather than reflecting light, it eats it up. I don’t use the black side of the reflector very often, but it can be useful for increasing shadows in very dramatic images. Can you tell where I was holding the black reflector in the image above? For more on how to use a black reflector to block light readt this dPS article: How to use a Gobo to add Depth to Your Portraits with Subtractive Lighting.

Diffusion part of the reflector

The part of the reflector that I end up using more than any other is actually the diffuser. The diffuser comes in handy when you’re in situations that may have mottled light, or direct sun overhead.

Do you see here how the tree is creating mottled light on Courtney’s face (below left)? In other words, some parts of her face are very light while other parts tend to be shadowed. The easiest thing to do to avoid mottled light is to put the light behind your subject. But, since that’s not always possible, a diffuser is a great thing to have in your bag of tricks as well.

Reflector 7 Reflector 8

The image above right is a pull-back of my husband holding the diffuser over Courtney’s head (and both of them just generally being silly). Notice the shadows on the diffuser – without it, they would be on her face. Instead, the diffuser blocks those shadows, creating more even light and a much more pleasant portrait overall.

Reflector 9

I hope that seeing examples of different colored reflectors used in the same setting has been helpful. I’d love to know, do you own a reflector? How (and which color) do you find yourself using it most often in your favorite style of photography?

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Meredith Clark is a wife, mother, native Oregonian, complete bookworm, Top Chef lover, and new quilting addict. She can also be found blogging at La Buena Vida and Meredith Clark Photography.

  • Great Article. Thank You. I wish I had this article a week ago. I took a picture of a teen under a tree and it had many harsh shadows I used a reflector and it helped a little but If I had used the diffuser that would have been way better. I will know for next time. 😀

  • Meredith

    So glad to hear that this was helpful Anna! The first time someone taught me about the diffuser, it was a total light-bulb moment for me, so I’m glad to have been able to pass that on!

  • Alex

    Thanks for this tutorial. I knew this stuff was out there, but the examples provided are a very helpful reference.

  • Alex Garcia

    I’ve been afraid to use my kit because I had Idea where or how to hold it. I found this helpful so thank you.

  • Jeremy Ferguson

    I was just looking at buying a reflector yesterday but haven’t confirmed it as yet. Have been trying a few self portraits at home in the kitchen with a black sheet as a background and one speedlight at 45 degrees to the right of the camera angled up at the relatively low ceiling. I feel the shots would benefit from a reflector to fill in some of the shadows on the left of the picture – though might have a problem holding it for a selfie!!

    On the picture attached I actually lowered the flash so it was below waist height, still angled at the ceiling and with a diffuser on (don’t have a softbox). This gave a bit more fill than most other shots with the flash at head height or higher.

    Next time I try this I’ll need to stand further away from the background and reduce the depth of field a bit I think.

    Any thoughts would be welcome.
    Jerry

  • LoisDTewksbury

    my aunt got cream Audi TTS Convertible only from working part time off a home computer. see post googlesproject.com

  • Meredith

    Hi Jerry,

    I think you’re right that you might benefit from a reflector on the left side of your photo. I’ve seen several kits lately that include both a 5 in 1 reflector and a stand that holds the reflector, which might be your best bet. I have rigged mine up using duct tape and things like that in a pinch, but if you’re buying new, it seems like it would just make sense to go with one that includes a stand and make your life easier.

    Also, wanted to include this article from DPS that talks about building a portable portrait studio in case you hadn’t seen it already–seems right up your alley!

    http://digital-photography-school.com/the-classic-portrait-how-to-build-and-use-your-own-portable-portrait-studio/

    Kind regards,
    Meredith

  • Meredith

    Happy to help Alex! My best advice is to get out your kit at any opportunity, and really play around with it–try lots of different positions and coloring (even things you may have heard or read NOT to do), and you’ll begin to really see what you tend to favor and gravitate towards.

  • Meredith

    So glad I could help, Alex!

  • Jerry what lens are you using here and how high is the camera? It looks to me about navel high, yes? Try either sitting down or raising the camera to get to eye level. The lower part of your body is more prominent than your face because of the low angle of view. I can’t also tell because I can see the bottom of your nose, generally not desired or flattering in portraits.

    Also are you bouncing it straight up off the ceiling? Your eyes are a little dark. Do you have anything you can bounce it off to the side instead? Overhead light will give you dark eyes. You do have catchlights so that’s good just get a bit more light into them. You’re on the right track!

  • Jeremy Ferguson

    Hi Darlene,

    Thanks for the feedback.

    The lens was actually at head height on a tripod, however the picture has been cropped a bit. Have attached the original full size to this comment. Lens was a 18-105 but I was using 35mm.

    Flash was bouncing up about 45 degrees with a diffuser on the head. Set on manual at 1/2 power and the flash zoomed to 85mm for a narrower light cone.

    I was trying to think of anything I could reflect the light on the left but don’t really have anything suitable (hence why I’m considering a reflector kit).

    Thanks again,
    Jerry.

  • Jeremy Ferguson

    Hi Meredith,

    Thanks for your comment. Had been looking at reflector kits but haven’t seen any with a stand – will look out for one.

    Thanks also for the link to the article on DPS – will have a read.

    Cheers,
    Jerry.

  • Jason

    Westcott makes a reflector kit that comes with a stand. I have it and it works pretty good. The stand is made a bit weird and doesn’t tighten down the best so it creeps down just from the weight of the arm. You may want to Google it and research some other brands. The reflector is a 5 in 1 and is great. I would try a different stand thought

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    great article, however i find my huge reflector is useless outdoor because of wind and absent of assistant.. still thinking the way to utilize my giant reflector. Reflector could solve 50% of those who are not accessible to hypersync / hss flash, but still it can’t replace the use of artificial lights.. so sad.

  • Jeremy Ferguson

    Thanks Jason – will have a look and see what I can find.
    Cheers,
    Jerry.

  • Lisa Moyer

    Very helpful, may need it soon!

  • Until you get your reflector there are a couple things you can use at home. A white bed sheet can be used like a white reflector also tinfoil can be used similar to a silver reflector. Hope you find a right reflector for you but until then I hope these help for you. 😀

  • Meredith

    Yes, the large reflectors are very difficult without an assistant–any little bit of wind will send them flying! Have you tried a reflector clip & stand kit? There are many different brands available, but Cowboy Studio has a version on Amazon for around $20.

  • Meredith

    So glad I could help, Lisa!

  • Meredith

    Great ideas, Anna!

  • George

    Great article, great timing. Shooting a military guy and his gal next week! Thank you!

  • Mary Lee

    Westcott has a series of 6 in 1 reflector kits that allow you to use both a diffuser and a reflector at the same time. Handy to have.

  • Stephanie

    I’ve recently been using the gold reflector for outdoor photography, back lit by evening sunshine with -I think-great effect. Not so sure it would work with lower sun and pasty faces in the cooler months though?

  • Meredith

    That’s how I find myself using the gold reflector most often too, Stephanie. The gold reflector *can* be an awesome tool to have to help warm up portraits in the winter months, but you’ll have the most success with people who have olive undertones to their skin. People who have blue and red undertones to their skin tend to be better flattered by the silver or white sides of the reflector.

  • Meredith

    Great tip!

  • No worries – yes a kit will help you do that or if you’re working indoors you might want to consider a small softbox to go on the flash

  • ianairbus

    Hi.

    ianairbus here, I have created for myself an old tripod with a stone for weight as a reflector stand. Wind can make a mess of many photo opportunities and I use this mainly for macro work. So I have a reflector, and a mount. Cost maybe €30. A tripod which I do not use anymore and a nice piece of granite from my garden.
    It really is perfect.

  • Per Ulrik

    Funny, a couple of days before your article was submitted we had a similar session in our local Photo Club (Denmark), so I recognize a lot from both sides in common. For the experienced individual it is probably rather basic. But, thank you for helping us less experienced.
    I have visited your web site with Family portraits, so just a question: Do you stick to the reflector or do you also use a flash?

  • Meredith

    I don’t tend to use the reflector all that often for family portraits (or even single child portraits for that matter) because I’m often working with small kiddos, and I just find that their patience wears out more quickly when we’re fiddling with the reflector. In general, I tend to use the reflector most often when it comes to portraits of one or two adults or teens.

    I also don’t typically use a flash for outdoor family portraits, but there are some situations (such as when I don’t have input about the location or the ability to scout it out in advance) when a fill-flash can be helpful. Hope that helps!

  • Ajmal Hassan

    Nice

  • Andy Bailey

    that was really useful to see the differences between the reflectors. so much bettter than a convoluted description!

    thanks a lot!

  • Meredith

    I’m so glad you found this article helpful, Andy!

  • Amanda Lynn McEwen

    Thank you for this. My sister *a photographer* just upgraded her camera and has sold me her old Cannon eos xsi. I’m thinking of buying a small reflector set from a local camera shop, this has helped greatly, now I know how to use them. One question for you. My oldest has olive skin and dark blonde hair, my youngest is a flaming ginger with porcelain blue toned skin. Which of these would you reccomend using when photographing them together?

  • Enisa

    Hi, I am about to buy a reflector and I wanted to read about the best ways to use it. You have no idea how helpful this article was to me! Thank you very much, especially for the examples because without them I wouldn’t really understand it. Thank you again, awesome article!!!

    Enisa

  • Meredith

    Hi Amanda! I’m so sorry for this late reply–I somehow missed your original comment. You have probably now figured it out, but I think I’d start with the white reflector–it casts the most neutral light in my experience, which will best suit multiple skin tones!

  • Meredith

    I’m so happy you found this article helpful, Enisa!

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