How to Find and Use Natural Reflectors for Portraits

How to Find and Use Natural Reflectors for Portraits

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Natural light is one of the simplest ways to create beautifully lit portraits, without having too much equipment or worrying about setting up extra gear. However, it limits beautiful light to certain hours of the day and for you to work in the shade. This is where finding and using natural reflectors comes into play.

With natural light reflectors, you can photograph at any time of the day without having to carry any extra gear. It’s really easy to find and use to help give your portraits that extra boost of light.

Natural light reflector for portraits

Here we can see that the natural reflector is the path at the park.

What is a natural reflector?

A natural reflector is using already built-in or found materials to bounce light back onto your subject. This rids you of having to carry more equipment on location. 

It also helps immensely when you are photographing your subject during not so great hours of the day, like say, noon. When the light is harsh, it makes for great big natural reflectors to bounce that light back onto your subject.

Natural reflector for portraits

In this portrait, the subject is in direct sunlight at midday and the pavement helped to bounce light back onto her face.

Natural reflectors can come in many different forms, the most useful are big light-colored walls, the pavement, buildings with silver or light colored walls, white/silver cars in parking lots, mirrors, windows, even your white t-shirt. 

They are all found naturally occurring on location and all of them bounce light back onto your subject.

Natural light reflectors for portraits

This family is being lit by the sidewalk as a natural reflector, bouncing light back onto their faces.

The bigger your reflector, the more dispersed and diffused (soft) the light will be. Keep this in mind when photographing big groups or families, as you want the light to be evenly spread over all of your subjects’ faces.

How to use a natural light reflector

Natural reflectors are used a lot like real man-made or handheld reflectors. Position your subject in front of the natural reflector, for example, a large white wall. 

How to Find and Use Natural Light Reflectors for Portraits

The sidewalk directly in front of this couple is naturally reflecting light back onto their faces. The natural light reflector is large and therefore disperses light evenly on both of them.

Parking garages make for great portrait locations, especially for headshots. Make sure to position your subject behind the edge of where the sun is hitting the pavement and the shadowed area. This will keep the lighting on your subject even while maintaining an even background as well.

Using buildings is also a great way to reflect light on to your subject and compete with the sun, offering a different style of portraits. As light is reflected off a big silver wall, the light reflected creates more drama. Adding to the overall effect of your photographs!

How to Find and Use Natural Light Reflectors for Portraits

The silver paneling on the building serves as a natural reflector competing with the sun in the background.

If you are out in a field or more of an open space, you can still find natural reflectors. Fields reflect a beautiful golden hue as does the sand on the beach when the sun is brightest.

Natural reflectors can also add a little more drama to your photos if you use them strategically. Placing your subject away from the light can create interesting shadows. Same with reflectors below your subject. Experiment to see which types of natural reflectors work best for you.

How to Find and Use Natural Light Reflectors for Portraits

Here the light reflected creates a little bit of drama in the portraits of this young man.

Best time for natural light reflectors

The best time to use natural reflectors is anytime the sun is shining bright! 

On cloudy days you may get some bright light, but when the sun is out, that is the best time for maximum reflection. It’s a good rule of thumb to go to the portrait location before your session and observe when is the best time and which natural reflectors will be useful.

How to Find and Use Natural Light Reflectors for Portraits - maternity portraits in natural light

Use natural light reflectors in both brightly lit backgrounds or in shaded areas.

To get the most out of a natural reflector, it’s best to photograph your subject between 11 am and 2 pm so that the sun hits these natural reflectors evenly and you can move your subject around to get the best background, angle, and of course, lighting.

How to Find and Use Natural Light Reflectors for Portraits

Fields are great for naturally reflecting onto your subject’s face during a session.

If you are photographing in a cityscape or urban area with a lot of buildings, the best time is a couple of hours before sunset. The sun will reflect against the windows of buildings and offer the best strength. 

Don’t stop photographing though. You’ll want to catch the sunset reflecting in the windows as well after the sun goes down a little.

beach family portrait - How to Find and Use Natural Light Reflectors for Portraits

Using the sand as a natural light reflector is a perfect way to evenly light your subjects at the beach.

Another example of beach photos and using the sand as a natural reflector.

You can also become a natural reflector

Wearing white can bounce some much-needed light off you and back to your subject if you need a bit more light. A simple white t-shirt can do the trick and give you a little boost of light. It especially makes for great catchlights in your subject’s eyes.

How to Find and Use Natural Light Reflectors for Portraits

Using white can help reflect light. Take precaution when photographing in really bright sunlight as it can sometimes wash out details in the shirts. However, if you use a white shirt, it has the same effect of bouncing light.

White shirts can give your subject a soft dewy look. Just be mindful that you will have to be relatively close to your subject so that enough light can bounce back onto the subject’s face.

In conclusion

portrait of a girl - How to Find and Use Natural Light Reflectors for Portraits

When you’re photographing in natural light, these natural reflectors can help make for interesting, beautifully lit portraits of your subjects. The boost of light can get you out of shaded areas and allow you to shoot at all hours of the day without having to carry additional gear other than your camera. 

Have fun and experiment with different types of natural reflectors to add drama to your portraits.

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Jackie Lamas is a destination wedding and portrait photographer based on the beautiful beaches of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. She earned her degree in photography from California State University, Fullerton. Jackie has over 10 years of experience as a professional photographer and teacher. When she’s not on the beach, you can find her writing on her blog and spending time with her baby and husband. See more of her work on Instagram.