How to Make DIY Reflectors for Tabletop Photography

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The use of reflectors in photography is just a way of taking advantage of the existent light, and bounce it to different places in your image. This can be done with virtually any surface that reflects light, like a wall, a mirror, cardboard, styrofoam, aluminum foil, etc.

Dedicated photography reflectors come in many different colors, shapes and sizes. Silver, gold, white, and sometimes mixes of these three colors commonly know as zebra reflectors are the most common colors. There are also 5-in-1 reflectors that include a black surface to absorb light, and a translucent surface to soften light.

What shape?

The shape of the reflector depends on the subject you are trying to photograph. Usually collapsible round reflectors are the most used because they are easier to handle on location, and also easier to fold, but triangular and rectangular reflectors are very popular too.

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The size of the reflector depends on the area you are trying to illuminate, and when it comes to small subjects like tabletop photography, things get tricky because standard reflectors are usually too big to produce small spots of light. In this article, I will guide you through the steps of building your own customized small reflectors for tabletop photography like the ones above.

Materials

Even though you can use simple paper sheets with some kind of object as a stand to hold it in place, this simple folding technique will for sure give you more control on the way you place your reflectors.

To start you will need some metallic paper sheets. The ones I’m using here can be found in office supply or craft stores, and exist in various sizes and colors. I bought 50×70 centimeters sheets, that are about 20×28 inches, and that allowed me to make a nice set of reflectors of different sizes and shapes.

A useful feature of this type of paper is that the back side is white, so you can use the metallic side or just flip to the white side to have different types of reflections. Beside the obvious silver and gold, you can also buy metallic textured papers for special effects of light reflection.

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Cutting to size

Now it’s time to cut the paper to size. This depends on the reflector size you want to create; in this case I’m making a 8x13cm (3×5 inch) reflector.

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Now mark the lines with a ballpoint pen and fold the paper on those lines. You will end up with something like this.

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To keep the overlapping folds on the back together, I used small magnets. You can use tape, velcro or even re-usable adhesive, but magnets give you more choices of repositioning the angle of the reflector when you are looking for the right spot.

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Magnets are also very useful if you use a gooseneck or a magic arm to hold the reflector instead of placing it on the table.

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Positioning the reflectors

Now that we built some nice reflectors it’s time to try them out.

I have used some high end lighting equipment along my career as a professional photographer, but I must say that it always amazes me what is possible to do with the light of a window or a tabletop lamp and a couple of reflectors. The following image is an example.

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Here is how it was made:

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Start with Tabletop tungsten lamp with a diffuser as a back light.

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Now the same tabletop tungsten lamp with a diffuser, plus a reflector on the left side.

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Now AND another reflector on the right side.

So, there it is, a simple and highly effective setup that is guaranteed to give more control over the way you light your images for tabletop photography.

Give it a try!

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Ivo Guimaraes

is a Portuguese photographer and college teacher. His passion for lighting and image editing has gotten him to the next level in studio photography and led him to work with leading brands in the Portuguese market. You can check some more of his work on his blog and Youtube channel.

  • Olivia White

    Does tin foil work too?

  • Ivo Guimaraes

    Yes Olivia, tin foil will work just fine but it might give you some harder light.

  • its great technique thanks for sharing.

  • Doug Sundseth

    How hard the light is depends on the apparent size of the reflected light from the point of view of the illuminated subject. If the light illuminating the surface of the reflector is large enough, that means it depends only on the size of the reflector, not how shiny it is.

    But it’s difficult to keep aluminum foil really flat. If the foil is wrinkled or crumpled, it can give you mottled light, which is typically undesirable. (If you carefully glue the foil to a smooth surface, it can work well.)

  • Uwe

    That’s cool – will try out beginning next year!

  • True, but if you think of the wrinkled area it’s a much smaller than the entire size of the whole reflector so each little spot of foil will give off a harder light. If that makes sense.

  • ronald1216

    i have silver sheets of paper might try this was thinking of facing the camrea flash to the subject and the reflector facing to the item from in front of it so can bounce the light off the item

  • Doug Sundseth

    Multiple hard light sources add up to a soft light source. (See LED lighting panels for a different example starting to be commonly used.)

    The problem with wrinkled foil is that it will reflect more light into some areas and less into others (mottled light), not that it will act as a small light source.

    That said, if the light source illuminating the foil is small, it will be reflected as a small source and act as a hard light. In general, you can look at your light source (whether the light itself or the light as seen in your reflector) from the position of the subject to determine how hard it will be. If the entire surface of the reflector looks bright and that reflector is close to the subject (as seen in the final shot in this article), the reflector will act as a soft source. In that situation, what you use to make the reflector might have an effect on light color, reflector efficiency, and the character of any specular reflections, but it won’t affect the hardness or softness of the light.

  • Andrew Kliss

    Very resourceful!

  • Unless of course it’s a mirror! Then it will reflect back a hard light source if the original is hard (small). 😉 I agree about the tin foil, it can give mottled lighting which could be bad. But if lighting food or something like backlighting a beer bottle a little sparkle isn’t a bad thing.

  • Thanks for sharing the informative post. It was really helpful for me. I personally learn a lot from your post.

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