If you want to become a more versatile, creative photographer, then learning to use a reflector is one of the best decisions you could ever make.
Reflectors are a fantastic way to control the lighting in your photos–plus, they’re very cheap, not to mention easy to carry around.
You can literally use a reflector anywhere–indoors in the studio, outdoors on location, etc., and it’ll be a big help, no matter the situation.
Here’s the bottom line:
If you want to capture beautiful photos, especially photos of people, products, or pets, then learning how to use reflectors in photography is essential.
And that’s what this article will show you.
By the time you’ve finished, you’ll be a reflector master, and you won’t ever have to worry about using a reflector again.
Let’s get started.
Table of contents
- What Is a Reflector?
- How to Choose the Perfect Reflector
- How to Use a Reflector (The Basics)
- Four Times When Reflectors Are Indispensable
- How to Use Reflectors in Photography: Conclusion
What Is a Reflector?
First things first:
What is a reflector, and what does it actually do?
As the name suggests, a reflector bounces–that is, reflects–light in whatever direction you point it.
So if you have an overhead light source and you put a reflector under it, the reflector will bounce the light right back at the overhead light source.
If you have sidelight and you angle the reflector so it’s facing off to the side, it’ll bounce the light slightly away from the sidelight source.
In reality, reflectors are pretty simple to understand. Note that the quality of the bounced light will differ depending on the material of the reflector–so that white material will give a more even light than silver material, which will give cooler light than gold material, etc.
Also, note that dark, non-reflective materials just won’t work well as reflectors, because they don’t reflect. So you can just grab a piece of dark cardboard and use it as a reflector; it won’t work. Instead, you’ll want to make sure that you use a reflective surface, such as white, silver, or gold fabric.
In fact, there are quite a lot of options out there, which is why choosing a reflector can be a bit daunting.
Fortunately, the next section will tell you everything you need to know about picking a reflector–and how you can get the right option for your needs.
How to Choose the Perfect Reflector
Unlike most camera equipment, reflectors are actually pretty inexpensive.
Which is good news, because you can pick the one that works best for you.
Now, there are a few features you’ll want to consider, starting with:
The bigger the reflector, the softer the light.
So if you’re after an unusually soft, gentle, even result, you’ll want to consider a larger reflector size.
That said, bigger reflectors are much more cumbersome to work with (after all, you don’t want to carry around a wall-sized item, do you?), which is why you’ll often need to strike a balance between size and portability.
I’d also recommend considering the size of your standard subject. If you shoot still lifes, small product scenes, or single portraits, you’re not going to have to illuminate much, so you’ll be okay with a smaller reflector.
But if you shoot huge groups of people, then a small reflector isn’t going to cut it; it’ll light a few of your subjects, and leave the rest shrouded in shadow. That’s when you’ll want to make sure you have a nice, large reflector to work with.
The color of your reflector can dramatically change your photos–and it can also be the difference between a very specialized reflector and a more all-purpose option.
Now, there are a few standard colors, but you can find reflectors of pretty much any color if you look hard enough.
That said, the standard colors are popular for a reason, which is that they’re useful in a lot of situations, so I’d recommend you start with one of these and then (as you become more familiar with reflector photography) you can add more and more reflectors to your collection.
So here are the common reflector colors, and why you might want to use them:
First, there’s white reflectors. These are my personal favorites, because they’re very neutral and all-purpose. You can use a white reflector to create soft, even light, which is great for most portraits and will generally serve you well as a photographer. If you’re not sure which color to pick, go with white.
Second, silver reflectors are a lot punchier, and will give you a more contrast-heavy look. If you’re after more dramatic shots, then a silver reflector is a good way to work. Also note that silver reflectors offer stronger light than white reflectors, which means that they can be used for a more obvious “light source” effect.
Third, gold reflectors are punchy (like silver), but the effect is warmer, and great for shooting at sunrise or sunset. I’d recommend it as an option only if you also have a white reflector.
If you search for reflectors, you’ll also see a lot of “translucent” options, but these aren’t really reflectors. Instead, they’re diffusers, meant to be held up between your subject and the light, in order to produce a soft effect; while they are very useful in their own right, they’re not as convenient as reflectors, plus the effect won’t be at all similar.
Ease of Use
While you may be tempted to grab the first reflector that you see (as long as it’s the right size and color), I recommend you pause and consider your options a little longer.
Because while all reflectors are basically just fabric designed to bounce light, some reflectors have useful features that make them much easier to work with.
Specifically, a handle will make working with a reflector a lot simpler, because you’ll be able to hang it on lightstands. If you have an assistant, then this may not be necessary–but if you’ll often be working alone, then this can be invaluable!
You should also think about getting reflectors that fold up and can be placed into a small bag, because they’re much more portable (especially if you’re the type of photographer who does all sorts of photoshoots in the field).
How to Use a Reflector (The Basics)
Now that you’re familiar with the different types of reflectors, let’s talk about how you can actually use one for great effects.
First, as I noted above, reflectors bounce light.
Now, light bounces off at the angle in which it comes in, which means that you’re going to have to carefully position your reflector for the best effect.
A very common place to position a reflector (as you’ll see in the next section) is below a portrait subject, held either under the chin or at chest level. This is because portraits often involve unwanted shadows in these areas, and a well-positioned reflector is the perfect way to get rid of them.
Another common place is to position the reflector opposite the light source. This will give you some added light in the shadowy areas of the scene, and will ensure that your subject doesn’t become too harshly lit.
Note that if you’re struggling to position your reflector, you can always just slowly move it around your subject and watch as the light changes. This is also just good practice for reflector work in general, because it allows you to ensure you’re not missing other, better reflector angles, while also giving you a sense of how the light and the reflector work together for different results.
As I mentioned above, it’s useful to have an assistant that will hold the reflector, especially if it’s positioned off to the side. But you can ask your subject to hold the reflector under their chin, or you can use a lightstand to hold the reflector, or you can place your camera on a tripod and hold the reflector yourself, firing the camera via a remote.
Four Times When Reflectors Are Indispensable
If you want to get stunning photos, you’ll want to make sure you have a reflector with you in these four situations.
Of course, there are plenty more times when a reflector can work well, but these are the circumstances where you’ll find yourself using a reflector over and over and over again.
So commit them to memory.
And, when you know they’re about to happen, ensure you have a reflector on hand.
You’ll be very pleased with the results!
When Shooting Backlit Portraits
Portrait photographers love backlight, and for good reason:
It can create beautiful background bokeh, plus it also provides your subject with a nice rimlit effect, which separates them off the background to create depth.
Backlight also prevents your subject from looking into the sun, so that there’s no squinting.
Anyways, when you use backlight, the front of your subject is dark compared to the background, which can result in an underexposed face–or, alternatively, an overexposed background.
However, instead of having to choose between these two unpleasant options, you can bring out a reflector.
Then position it directly in front of your subject, so that it bounces light back into their face from the sun.
This will ensure you get a beautifully bright and detailed subject, while also capturing a stunning background.
But if you’re using a silver or gold reflector, be careful; you don’t want to reflect the light directly into your subject’s eyes. Otherwise, you’ll temporarily blind them, which is a bad idea for a whole host of reasons.
So carefully position your reflector so that it makes the most of the sun–without causing any problems.
When Working on Dark Surfaces
If you have a subject that’s positioned above a dark surface, such as a person standing on a dark road, you’ll often end up with unpleasant, unflattering shadows under their eyes and chin.
Obviously, that’s not an ideal result–which is where a reflector becomes very useful.
Position the reflector under the subject’s chin (and feel free to experiment a bit with the precise placement). This will bounce light back up, preventing any unwanted shadows from taking form.
For this, I recommend using a white reflector, because it’ll give a nice, soft fill effect, one that will look very natural.
By the way, if you’re shooting a subject on a dark surface and you don’t have a means of holding the reflector underneath your subject’s face, you can always just have them sit on it; as long as the reflector is big enough and the subject is low enough to the ground, the result will be the same!
When Shooting in Bright Sun
Bright sunlight brings harsh shadows.
And this looks terrible in portrait photography, because they turn people’s faces into a mess of sharp edges and contrast-heavy lines.
Now, one option is to photograph only when the light is good, such as during the early morning and late evening, or at cloudy midday.
But the problem is that some folks won’t want their picture taken at these times, and you can’t predict the weather in advance, anyway–you might schedule a shoot for the evening, only to find that it’s too cloudy to get some nice golden light.
Which is why you’ll need another option:
If you do a portrait shoot in the middle of the day, you’ll need to do everything you can to minimize the dark shadows underneath your subject’s eyes, nose, and chin.
Fortunately, an easy way to do this is with a white reflector, which will bounce light back up and prevent your image from looking too harsh and contrast-heavy.
You’ll want to position the reflector under your subject’s chin, so as to direct the light back up, though you can always experiment with slightly different placements, depending on the strength of the effect you want.
Honestly, a reflector isn’t perfect, and you’re probably still going to end up with harshly-lit backgrounds and a hint of unflattering shadow on your subject. But the image will look a lot better, thanks to the reflector!
When Evening Out Split Lighting
Split lighting is a setup where you position the light source directly to one side of your subject.
It gives you a very dramatic, half-lit effect, like this:
(It splits the subject in half, which is why it’s called ‘split lighting’!)
This is a very popular “dramatic” portrait look, and so you’ll often see it used in moodier portrait shots.
But if you like split lighting and don’t want such a dramatic effect, you have a good alternative.
You can put your light on one side of your subject, for the split.
But you can then position your reflector on the other side of the subject, which will bounce some light back onto your subject’s other side. This will help retain a bit of detail on the unlit side, while still maintaining the more dramatic split lighting look that you were after.
Note that you can play with the type of reflector you use, here; a white reflector is more subtle, whereas a silver reflector will punch in a lot of light.
There’s really no right or wrong way to do it. Just try what’s available to you, and see what you like!
How to Use Reflectors in Photography: Conclusion
Reflectors are one of the most useful tools available to you as a photographer.
And–bonus!–they’re very cheap.
So make sure you know how to use your reflector. Follow the instructions in this article.
And you’ll get some gorgeous results!
Reflectors are great in plenty of different scenarios, and in plenty of different photography genres. You’ll often find reflectors being used by portrait photographers, product photographers, and still life photographers, but those certainly aren’t the only applications. I’d recommend using a reflector whenever you need to bring some life back into the shadows, but don’t want to add another light source. For instance, you can put a reflector under a portrait subject’s chin when shooting on a sunnier day to bounce some light back up and dispel any unflattering shadows.
I’d recommend starting with a white reflector, because this will offer a soft, neutral result. Silver reflectors produce a lot of punch, which results in more contrast, and gold reflectors produce a warmer effect, which works well when shooting around sunrise or sunset, but can look a little strange when used at other times. You can also think about grabbing a five-in-one reflector set, which will include all three of these options (plus a translucent diffuser and maybe a black reflector) while remaining very portable.
I’d recommend getting a reflector based on the size of your subject. So if you shoot portrait headshots, a small reflector is fine, but if you shoot groups of people (wedding family portraits, say) then a big reflector is a must. Also note that larger reflectors produce softer light, so if you’re after a very soft effect then large is the way to go.
It can be. Not all photographers use reflectors, but a reflector is very inexpensive and portable, which means that it makes you more flexible as a photographer.
Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel.