Reflectors: Your Secret Weapon for Amazing Portrait Photography

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There is no doubt that using natural light in portrait photography can get you the best results.

However sometimes, as you all probably know, natural light does not do what he’s told. So here comes into action what I like to call my secret weapon in outdoor Portrait Photography.

It is cheap, easy to carry and especially does not frightens my subjects, who themselves can be a little intimidating at times.

Reflector

It is just that! It reflects light. There are hundreds of different types of reflectors, which differ in sizes and colors (i.e. white, silver, gold, etc.). A reflector is usually a reflective fabric, stretched over a bendy ring, allowing it to fold, and easy to carry.

With so many types of reflectors on the market, I cannot review them all. This mini-guide will focus on the main reflector I use for my work.

12 ” in size, and costs less than a movie theatre ticket.

I sometimes use other larger reflectors (mainly in cinematography productions), but this 12 inch reflector suits my needs in travel photography; mainly because it is small enough, allowing me to hold it with one hand and the camera with the other.

To Fill up Shadows:

We all love taking pictures at sunrise and sunset. But when dealing with the harsh mid-day light, a reflector is almost a must.

Fstop of 2.8, shutter speed@ 1/100 and ISO 200

Fstop of 2.8, shutter speed@ 1/100 and ISO 200

In the above picture, taken in the western Indian Rabari tribe, for the National Geographic Traveler magazine (Israeli edition), our model was sitting in a dark mud house. He was sick; therefore it was not an option to move him outside.  On the left wall of the house, there was a small window (as can beautifully seen illuminating in the background), My trusty camera assistant Hardik Pandaya, held a silver colored reflector below the subject ‘s face in order to fill any shaded areas such as under the eyes.

reflectors portraits 2

The above picture was taken on the border of Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Please note that although the woman is standing in the shade and the background is bright, the woman is not a black silhouette and the background is not burned out.  I measured the light from the background (using spot metering). In such a situation, without using a reflector, the character will turn out completely black (silhouette) but with a reflector held on my left hand, I was able to light up her face.

Fstop of 8, shutter speed@ 1/250 and ISO 100

Fstop of 8, shutter speed@ 1/250 and ISO 100

reflectors portraits 4

Below is 80 years old Getho. A fisherman from the small community of Sea Gypsy living in, Thailand. This image is a little bit complex in terms of lighting, because there are three sources of lighting here. Just like in the studio, my main light source (key light) was the house door (right side of the frame). The light was coming from a 45 degree angle, creating this dramatic volume on Getho’s face (you can read more about “sculpturing” with 45 degrees light in this post here).

In my left hand I held the small Silver color reflector, filling the shadows (fill light) on his face and behind him was an open window for additional  light on his beautiful white hair (back light).

Fstop of 4, shutter speed@ 1/100 and ISO 320

Fstop of 4, shutter speed@ 1/100 and ISO 320

refectors portraits 6

Sometimes a reflector is the only option to shoot under strong sunlight, as you can see in this picture.

reflectors portraits 7

Choose the Right Color

Most reflectors come in multiple colors. In this picture, taken in Western India for the National Geographic Traveler magazine (Israeli Edition), I wanted to preserve the golden-brown color which was dominate in this scene. So I asked Hardik to hold the reflector on its golden side giving the woman’s face a golden glow.

Fstop of 4.5, shutter speed@ 1/80 and ISO 100

Fstop of 4.5, shutter speed@ 1/80 and ISO 100

reflectors portraits 9

Choosing the right distance

It is important to keep in mind that the closer the light source is to the photographed subject, the stronger and less soften it will appear. Thus, a small reflector is easier to carry and hold; however it will be not as soft as a large reflector.

A “catch light” is an interesting spark in the eyes of the subject, “pulling” the audience to look straight at them. There are lots of methods to create a catch light in the subject’s eyes. For example using a flash or a flashlight. However, as we are discussing on the usage of natural light, a reflector can become a great tool for creating a catch light. Just place the reflector under the person’s face.

You can see some catch light examples here:

Fstop of 3.5, shutter speed@ 1/640 and ISO 250

Fstop of 3.5, shutter speed@ 1/640 and ISO 250

reflectors portraits 11

Fstop of 2.8, shutter speed@ 1/200 and ISO 100

Fstop of 2.8, shutter speed@ 1/200 and ISO 100

One of the most useful techniques, in order learn how to work with natural light in my opinion, is by observing the images of other photographers. Try to guess the direction of the light and the position and color of the reflector in the images below:

Fstop of 2.8, shutter speed@ 1/320 and ISO 3200

Fstop of 2.8, shutter speed@ 1/320 and ISO 3200

Fstop of 4.5, shutter speed@ 1/160 and ISO 100

Fstop of 4.5, shutter speed@ 1/160 and ISO 100

Fstop of 3.5, shutter speed@ 1/320 and ISO 1000

Fstop of 3.5, shutter speed@ 1/320 and ISO 1000

Fstop of 2.8, shutter speed@ 1/15 and ISO 200

Fstop of 2.8, shutter speed@ 1/15 and ISO 200

Fstop of 3.5, shutter speed@ 1/320 and ISO 160

Fstop of 3.5, shutter speed@ 1/320 and ISO 160

Fstop of 2.5, shutter speed@ 1/1000 and ISO 250

Fstop of 2.5, shutter speed@ 1/1000 and ISO 250

Like pinning images? Here’s one we created for you.

Reflectors: Your Secret Weapon for Amazing Portrait Photography

The diagrams were created by http://www.lightingdiagrams.com

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Oded Wagenstein is a cultures photojournalist and author. His work has been published in numerous international publications, such as the National Geographic.com, BBC.com, and Time Out. He is the author of three photography books. Visit his Facebook page and continue to discuss travel and people photography and get more fantastic tips!

  • Priscilla Davis

    Great post! Where did you get your mini reflectors? I have a huge 5 in 1 but they are hard to hold by myself and these smaller sizes are perfect for closeup shots I can do by myself!

  • Jef Peeters

    “…the closer the lightsource, the less soften…”, should this not be the more soften?

  • Iowill

    The usual sources on-line carry them. PhotoJoJo carries a “pocket sized” that reflects both silver and white sides and it’s relatively inexpensive and hardy for field use. But if you want 3 in 1 or 5 and 1 in a small size, go to B&H or Adorama, or wherever you tend to source things not usually in stock at your local brick-and-mortar store. Just a plug for the local brick and mortar store: they will often meet the online price and order it in for you, and you support a local source for items and keep some local photographers employed….

  • I’ve always wondered , how do you take these pics? Do you just ask hey can I shoot your photo? And they are usually OK with it?

  • J. Pearson

    In a pinch, I’ve used one of those shiny fold-up reflectors that you can put behind your car windshield to keep it cooler in the summer. Not very sophisticated, but it worked pretty well.

  • Oded Wagenstein

    Dear Nick.

    You can read my article on the matter here:
    https://digital-photography-school.com/how-to-photograph-a-portrait-of-a-stranger-with-the-wow-factor

    Oded Wagenstein

  • Dan Weits

    Another good, informative and straight forward one from Oded – Toda!

  • Great post Oded…I really love the pictures that were used to drive home a point. Thank you for sharing your techniques with us.

  • Carlos Henrique Pereira

    Great post! I wonder if you’d have any information on when to use each color of reflector – gold, silver, white, black, translucent…

  • mikemakesmusic

    Ditto!

  • oded wagenstein

    Hey Carlos.

    First, it is important to note that there are no rules. The choice depends on the story you want to evoke.
    In general, you should match the color of the reflector to that of the ambient light.
    Want soft daylight? – White
    Daylight with a sharp punch? -Silver
    Golden hour light? – Gold and etc’

    Oded Wagenstein

  • marius2die4

    This is one of the best article I read is this forum!Congratulations!

  • Konni & Matt Hahnewald

    Hello Oded:

    Many thanks for an excellent and highly practical article! I
    didn’t even know that those reflectors do exist.

    I am just an amateur and a travelling grandfather and it
    always annoyed me, when I took portrait photos of local people and their faces
    had deep shadows. Especially, near the equator where one struggles most of the
    day with high sun angles. Please, see what I mean (all near the equator):

    Bangkok
    Sulawesi

    Tioman
    Island

    Up to now, I have mostly used the flash and Photoshop (with
    doubtful results). This will change. I will buy a reflector as soon as
    possible.

    Kudos to you.

    Many thanks, Matt
    from Konni &
    Matt Travel Blog

  • Phil

    Great article. Brief, useful and easy to read. These are tips I can walk away with and implement immediately (once I get my reflector!). Thanks!

  • ronald1216

    just use flash soft flash

  • Ahmed thabet

    Sorry for asking … But how you easily convincing people from these different far communities to be photographed ? Have you ever faces some difficulties or unexpected reaction ?

  • Darlene Hildebrandt

    I would add that I generally match to the person’s skin tone also. If they have olive tones I’ll use gold. If they are paler and have more pink tones in their skin silver or white. If you use gold on a person with thin skin (pink tones) they will look sickly. Likewise a silver on someone with yellow or olive skin the reflected light will appear more obvious and not blend with the rest of their face.

  • Darlene Hildebrandt

    I wondered about that too – typo?

  • Carlos Henrique Pereira

    Thank you Darlene and Oded for your most valuable answers! Cheers,

  • Ian_socool

    Great article. I looked at the photos more than I read the details..

  • Keith Starkey

    Thanks very much for the article

  • JLRPhoto

    Problem is, not everyone has an “assistant” ….. reflectors are easy to get…!

  • Ron

    I just read your article on the above link, very very good information and thank you very much. I have always wanted to start taking portraits on the street but had so many questions, thanks again!

  • Tiara Marie Hanna

    Thanks for the helpful article! I began messing around with car reflectors as I started taking more portraits, (as opposed to usually shooting nature) It’s nice to know that I was on the right track. 🙂

  • Oded Wagenstein

    Nope! Imagine this: You hold a flashlight in front of a wall.
    The more you take the flashlight away from the wall, the Beam is getting larger and softer, but it also get less strong.

    Therefore, if you want to create soft light, you need to use a strong but source from a far distance.
    Oded Wagenstein

  • Hello Ahmed,

    This is a good question and the answer may be surprising: No, I never had any problems.
    First, the people I photograph are always aware of the camera.
    Secondly, when I photographe, it is only after I created some sort of bond with the person.

    You can read my article: How to Photograph a Portrait of a Stranger with the WOW Factor

    https://digital-photography-school.com/how-to-photograph-a-portrait-of-a-stranger-with-the-wow-factor

  • Me too. That’s a great use of the silver color
    Oded.

  • Hi Carlos.
    As an addition to what Darlene wrote, I choice the color by the overall feel I want the image to have: The gold give it a warm feeling while the sliver got cold and sharp punch

    Oded

  • Navik

    Oded, thank you for the valuable information. I know the article is about reflectors. Nevertheless, do you record what lenses you used with each photo and can you share that information?

  • Kim JD Vanderpool

    Just got my first set of reflectors…Thanks for the great article

  • Thank you so much for sharing these tips!

  • With joy 🙂

  • you are welcome

  • David

    Oded, thanks for a very interesting article! Really enjoyed that and the challenge you gave of trying to figure out the source / direction of light and reflector etc. Any chance you can show the layout etc. for the 6 images you challenged us with?

    I am interested to see if I was even vaguely close as this is new territory for me?

    Thank you.

  • sacapuntas

    I really enjoy your articles but in this statement you are… well wrong
    I challenge anyone on this. The smaller the light source in relation to
    the subject grants more contrast/harder light while the larger the
    light source the more fill is applied and thus softer light. Try a
    simple test on one light. Take one photo with a light source close and
    slowly move it away. In relation to the subject, as the source moves
    away it becomes smaller in relation to the subject and thus more
    contrast and a harder look or less fill or harder edges to the shadow.

    A simple college student righting the wrongs of perfectly fine people

  • Dear Sacapuntas.
    Thank you for your feedback on my articles and thanks for your response. You were right in every word and as you can see, in the article, I did mention that a large source is better then a small one, but, when using a reflector (Vs. Flash for that matter) you have two sources of light: the Ambient light and the reflected light from reflector.
    As you take the reflector further away, the reflected light get weaker and Ambient light get more “‘weight”. By doing so, you are using the reflected light in a very subtle way, therefore I called it “soft”. But, if you choose to replace the reflector from a close distance, the outcome will usually look fake and artificial

    Oded

  • lunar astro

    Hey guys! I was wondering about a gift for someone. They already have a 22″ silver reflector and the smaller gold one, but I was thinking about a 22″ multicolor one as a gift. Thought?. It’ “seven colors in one”

  • Manaday Mavani

    Can anyone suggest what size of reflector is an ideal choice for portrait or pre-wedding photography? I’m getting 32″ and 42″ 5-In-1 reflector from eBay.in in just 1000 bucks. With which should I go for?

    sorry I’m writing in the reply section instead creating a separate thread but I found Priscilla’s thread similar to mine so thought to add my question here only.

    Last but not least.. Thanks for the nice write-up Oded Wagenstein! 🙂

  • MJ Pineda

    Hi, for those close-ups, wherein you hold the reflector yourself, what focal length are you using?

  • Lioness

    Great pieces of work! I’m a newbie and always wanted to produce such amazing shots but my cam is only D90. I wonder if you would recommend any model and lens to come up with such wonderful shots.

  • I Would Like to Add Some Great Tutorials on How to Learn Photo Editing and Portrait Retouching, Learn Photo Editing and Portrait Retouching

  • Josito Fontanez

    So the inverse square law applies in the opposite way when using reflectors?

  • catalysto

    Moving any light source farther from a subject will soften it.

  • M.h. O’Dell

    Great article. I love the photos. I recently started using the larger size reflectors, but they are harder to hold in my left hand! I will try the small reflectors after seeing your techniques.

  • Patrick

    Yeah, I use reflectors all the time, except I mostly use them for film and video projects. I actually just did a review on some reflectors, if you’re trying to decide which one to buy. Its on youtube, check it out! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6uMyi7sIwVQ

  • Thanks for article!

    DIY PHOTO REFLECTOR – Its Cheap!
    http://www.intifa.net/2017/08/buat-foto-reflektor.html

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