How to use a reflector properly – did you know there’s a wrong way?
I always say – never underestimate your need for a reflector. Doesn’t sound complicated – reflect light. Job done.
But there’s more to it than that, so let’s look at how to use a reflector properly, specifically:
- Why use a reflector
- What type of reflector to use
- Which colour / side of the reflector to use
- How to use a reflector as a key light
- How to use a reflector as a fill light
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Why use a reflector?
A reflector is any item with a large flat surface off of which to bounce light.
You don’t have to go out and buy an actual reflector. In a studio environment I’ve used white foamboard, a white sheet, a mirror and even a piece of cardboard covered in foil. When shooting on location, I’ve used a white wall, a car’s back window and wet surfaces. But if you want a handy take-it anywhere kind of reflector, it’s best to buy an actual one.
I’ve got two favourites, which I’ll tell you about in a moment.
Not only are reflectors really cheap, light and easy to carry, but they are essential to creating well lit images. Unless you’re photographing landscapes or wildlife, you should never set out on a shoot without one.
What’s more, reflectors come in a huge variety of shapes, sizes and a selection of colours. So there’s a reflector for every occasion.
Today, however, I’m just talking about the easily handheld type.
Rather get your lighting right in camera than spend ages on the computer lightening shadows and painting in light. Also, the beauty of a reflector is that it’s lightweight, collapsable and extremely versatile. So it seems a shame not to become best friends with one.
I photograph mainly portraiture and occasionally products, so, aside from my camera, my reflectors are my most used gear. If you’ve ever photographed food, you’ll know that a reflector can be the difference between an okay shot and a beautiful shot.
Well, that and the exposure, the light and the composition of course. But you get my meaning – learning how to use a reflector properly will make a massive difference to your portraiture and still life photography.
What’s more, if you’re on the move and shooting portraits solo, a reflector is a particularly useful tool.
What type of reflector should you use?
I have two handheld reflectors, which I use for different situations.
I’m not saying you should use these ones specifically, but they work really well for me. As I said, there are loads of different reflectors to choose from.
Lastolite Trigrip Reflector 75cm Sunlite/Soft Silver
If I’m shooting solo, my go to reflector is the Lastolite Trigrip Reflector 75cm Sunlite/Soft Silver. There are other sizes, but I find the 75cm one gives me the best combination of size and ease for holding.
The trigrip is particularly useful when shooting solo as I can hold the reflector in one hand and the camera in the other. Well, I have a workaround to be able to do this, which I’ll mention in a moment.
The soft silver side is a series of fine white alternating with fine silver strips and the sunlite side is fine white rows alternating with fine gold strips. I prefer it over a straight white or a straight silver reflector, because it gives the punchier light offered by the silver, combined with the softer element of the white. I use the soft silver (silver/white) side most often as the sunlite (gold/white) side can be a touch too yellow for my liking.
You can also get trigrip reflectors with other combinations of colours, such as gold/silver, silver/white, gold/white etc.
Interfit 5-in-1 82cm (32 inch) Reflector
If I’m shooting with an assistant, my life is of course a lot easier. However, when it is windy, the trigrip can be tricky for an assistant to hold in place. This is when we use the Interfit 5-in-1 82cm Reflector as it can be held on two sides and offered a bigger area for reflection.
I also use this one when I’m photographing indoors as it is bigger than the Lastolite Trigrip that I have.
What I really like about it is that it’s super versatile as it has 5 different surfaces – black, white, silver, gold and translucent.
It has a cover that is black on one side, gold on the other and if turned inside out, is white on one side and silver on the other. You can change the cover in seconds simply by unzipping it to use the translucent screen, or turning it inside out it and zipping it back on to use the other colors.
How I hold a trigrip reflector and a camera
I can’t just hold my camera in one hand as I don’t have the strength in my hands. So, instead I
- hold my camera in my right hand,
- with the reflector in my left hand,
- bring my left hand to my right shoulder and stick my elbow forward to support my camera on my forearm.
This provides a ledge for my camera lens to rest on, which helps me to hold it steady. I can then just change the angle of the reflector by turning my wrist to pick up the sun reflection by twisting my wrist.
If it weren’t for the easy handle of the trigrip design, I couldn’t do this. It takes a bit of practice, but you’d be amazed at how quickly you get comfortable with it.
Which color / side should you use?
This is where you start seeing the versatility of the 5 in 1 reflector. You can use it for:
1. Reflection of light
The white, silver and gold sides help out by providing up to 1 stop of reflection. I use the white side most often as I prefer a soft light. If I’m struggling for light, or want a more contrasty light I’ll use the silver side.
I avoid using the gold side as the light it reflects too yellow for portraiture. If, however, you want to cast really warm light on your subject, gold is a good option for you.
2. Absorption of light
The black surface is great for negative fill (removes the light) and will improve shade contrast by 1.5 stops.
You can see the effect in this photo. I asked my assistant to hold the reflector above to cut out the sun, but didn’t specify that I wanted her to use the translucent screen. Also, I wasn’t paying attention to what she was doing and didn’t realise that she’d left the black cover on.
You can see the black fill on the model’s shoulders.
3. Blocking the light
Another use for the black side is as a flag.
Not that you’re going to send it up a pole. If you have light bouncing into the shot that you don’t want there, you can use it to block the light. An example would be if light is bouncing off a reflective surface, such as water, glass or metal. You can also use it to block light from hitting the front of the lens, which will cause lens flare and haze.
An added bonus is that it is also super helpful when you’re shooting outdoors on a really hot day without shade nearby and need to shade your model between shots.
4. Diffusing the light
The translucent screen is a diffuser, as opposed to a reflector, as it diffuses the light hitting your subject to avoid harsh shadows. It will soften sunlight by a 1/2 stop.
How to use a reflector
A reflector can be used in two ways:
- A key (main) light
- A fill light
1. How to use a reflector as a key light
When a reflector is used as a key light, or main light, it is the main source of light. In other words, the reflected light is what is lighting your subject. In this instance, it’s best used more or less opposite where the light is coming from. So, if you’re outdoors and using the sun as a backlight…
- position your subject between your reflector and the sun,
- hold the reflector up in front of your subject and
- bounce the light back into your subject.
Don’t be tempted to hold it below your model’s face when using a reflector as a key light. I know you’ll see a lot of YouTube videos advising you to do this, but this will give you what I call “monster lighting”. An extreme version of “monster lighting” is when you hold a torch under your chin – usually to scare somebody.
With lighting we are always trying to replicate the way the sun lights our world. We are used to seeing light come from above – the sun never shines from below our chins. So, we don’t light from below.
On the left, correct use of a reflector, which you can see from the catchlight in her eyes. On the right the reflector is too low, so the underside of her chin is lit up and her nose is casting a shadow up towards her eye – both are unflattering.
2. How to use a reflector as a fill light
If you are using the reflector to fill in the shadows, such as when the light source is positioned to the front and above a subject, then it’s fine to angle the reflector from below. The clue is in the word fill. In this instance it’s not the main light, so it is okay to fill shadows from below.
If your subject is standing next to a window and there are dark shadows on the side of the face opposite the window..
- hold the reflector on the shadow side and
- angle it to reflect light back to fill in the shadows
Further reading: Using fill light – essentials you need to know
Distance to subject
The last point to remember on how to use a reflector is how close you hold it to your subject. The closer your reflector is to your subject, the stronger the reflected light will be.
One last point
Because reflectors come in their own carry cases, with handles, they’re very easy to hook onto your camera bag.
My bag lives on my back during a shoot if we’re constantly on the move, or if I’m not comfortable putting my gear down (wet ground) or turning my back on my gear (when there are people around).
I may look like a pack mule and therefore not particularly cool, but it’s preferable to damaged or stolen gear. When walking about I’d rather have stuff on my back than have armloads of gear.
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Further reading on when a reflector is essential:
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