Side-by-side comparison between reflectors and diffusers for portraits

Side-by-side comparison between reflectors and diffusers for portraits

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Comparison between reflectors and diffusers for portraits

If you’ve been looking into portrait photography, whether it be a casual read, in depth, as a hobby, to improve your portraits, or as a pro, you would have come across the use of reflectors. Reflectors come in various sizes, shapes and colours. My favourites are the 5-in-1 circular foldaway reflectors and the rectangular panels you can lean on or clip to a stand.

Have you ever wondered what a side-by-side comparison using different reflector colors would look like? Wonder no more. Below, you can see the different types I used. These photos all share the same white balance and editing as I wanted the colors to be as true a reflection of the effects of the reflectors used as much as possible. I’ve also kept the edits as clean as possible.

#1 Three reflectors, light shirt

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Top left is a natural light portrait lit only by window light, half-clear and half-frosted (diffused) but with no other reflectors used. The window is large enough for a big spread illuminating both face and background. The portrait on its right shows a rather obvious warm glow all over. I used two gold reflectors: camera right and in the front underneath the face. This setup warmed everything up – shirt, teeth, face and even the background.

Compare the effect of the gold reflector to the bottom left. This one had two silver reflectors positioned in the same places. Notice how cool the color temperature has become. Next to it on the right I once again had the same setup, but this time using two white reflectors. Notice the color temperature is still cool but softer, less sharp and less edgier than the silver one. Look carefully and this difference is more apparent on the teeth and skin tone being just a touch warmer.

#2 Two reflectors, dark shirt

I thought I’d do the same comparison, this time with the subject wearing black. The difference is more dramatic. With the gold reflector, the black is richer and darker, whereas with the silver it’s a little more washed out.

For me these are both a bit extreme, with the gold reflector being too warm and the silver being too cold. If I were to edit these photos without considering the true effects of the reflector I’d tone down the warmth of the gold reflector by half and I’d be good with that. Similarly, I’d warm up the one with the silver reflector in post, both using the white balance slider. I’d then get the happy warm tone that I’m after.

#3 Diffuser reflector and flash

If you’re familiar with the 5-in-1 reflector, you’ll know there are four colored sides: white, silver, gold and black. These sides are made of fabric all stitched together as one zipped wrap. This fabric wraps around a middle standalone piece that’s translucent. This is the diffuser and a super versatile tool. Strictly speaking, the black side doesn’t actually reflect light but rather absorbs it, and is good for cutting light out or using as flags.

This diffuser is great when shooting in harsh outdoor sunlight and you just want to cut the light down or tone it down by placing the diffuser between the sunlight and the subject. In effect, you are creating a slightly shadowed area for the subject, which makes it ideal for portrait lighting outdoors.

I thought I’d try this same technique for my indoor portraits by using this diffuser to cut down light from a flash, thereby acting like a big softbox but without the bounce.

Here are the results. The left photo was lit with one flash on camera right positioned behind the diffuser, which was pretty big and placed close to the subject for a smooth, soft light. The right photo had two flashes, again diffused, with one light overhead to provide hair light and light the background for more separation.

#4 Diffused natural light vs diffused flash

The final comparison is between diffused window light on the left photo and one diffused flash on the right photo. Window light produced softer shadows here, with less contrast and a bigger spread of light. In contrast, the diffused flash had more defined shadows. It’s smaller than the window with less spread of light, but sculpted the face better.

If I were to mimic the higher contrast and shadows produced by the diffused flash, one trick would be to cut out the light by using the black reflector side as a flag. I wasn’t able to do this, however, as I didn’t want my subject to be waiting too long for my experiment. (He only came in for one headshot.)

I hope you found this little comparison exercise fun and enlightening. It’s amazing what the 5-in-1 reflector, a small and inexpensive tool, can do to your portraits.

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Lily Sawyer is a wedding and portrait photographer based in London. Her absolute favourite past time is going on "mummy" dates with her kids and husband. Other than that, as a homebody, she is content curled up on the sofa, hot chocolate in hand, watching films with her family whenever she has a free weekend. Check out her work on www.lilysawyer.com Follow her on her fave social media platform Instagram.

  • Paul Corneille

    Good idea + bad execution = useless test

  • Hi Lily, could you add some (Sylights) diagrams or behind-the-scenes photos?

  • Doug Crawford

    Colour balance is off between shots in some of the examples, so might sway untrained eyes. (e.g. warmer = more pleasant image.) but nice to see side-by-side comparisons.

  • waynebretl

    I have to say I don’t like the reflector under the face, of any color – too much low angle light is unnatural to my eye, and turns the image from a good portrait to a driver’s license photo. It would have been useful only if the main light was casting very dark shadows.

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