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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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?