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Reflections – Reflectors and Available Light Photography

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.

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Elizabeth Halford
Elizabeth Halford

is a photographer and advertising creative producer in Orlando, FL. She wrote her first article for dPS in 2010. Her most popular one racked up over 100k shares!

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