How to use a reflector properly and why you really need one

Did you know there’s a wrong way to use a reflector?

Using a reflector in photography doesn’t sound complicated – reflect light. Job done. But there’s more to reflecting light than that.

So we’re looking at how to use a reflector properly in portrait photography lighting, specifically:

  • Why use a reflector
  • What type of reflector to use
  • Which color / 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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Never underestimate your need for a reflector in photography. 

Backlit female portrait with reflector for fill light

I used a reflector as fill light to during this natural light golden hour photoshoot

Why use a reflector?

A reflector in photography 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 photography reflector. For reflected light when in a photography studio I’ve used:

  • White foamboard
  • A white sheet
  • A mirror
  • Cardboard covered in foil

When photographing on location, items I’ve used as a light reflector outdoors include:

  • A white wall
  • A car’s back window
  • Wet surfaces, even puddles

However, if you want a handy take-it anywhere kind of light reflector, it’s best to buy an actual handheld one.

I’ve got two favorites, which I’ll tell you about in a moment.

Not only are photography reflectors really cheap, light and easy to carry, but they are essential to creating well lit portrait images. Natural light portrait photographers in particular should never set out on a photoshoot without one.

The beauty of a reflector is that it’s lightweight, collapsable and extremely versatile. What’s more, reflectors come in a huge variety of shapes, sizes and a selection of colors. So there’s a reflector for every occasion. 

Plus, they’re essential for creating catchlights in your subject’s eyes when using backlighting.

Today, however, I’m just talking about the easily handheld type for portrait photography.

Rather get your lighting right in camera than spend ages on the computer lightening shadows and painting in light. 

How to use a reflector as fill light for portraits

I used a handheld reflector, to camera left, to reflect light from the setting sun back into her face to fill the shadows. Reflectors are essential kit for golden hour photography to elevate your portraits

I photograph mainly portraiture and occasionally products, so, aside from my camera and studio lights, 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 photographing 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 photographing solo, my go to photography 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 reflector is particularly useful when shooting solo as I can hold the reflector in one hand and the camera in the other. I have a workaround to be able to do this, which I’ll mention in a moment.

It has two sides with different color reflective material:

  • Soft silver side a series of alternating fine lines of white and silver strips
  • Sunlite side – series of fine white strips alternating with fine gold strips.

I prefer this reflector over a straight white or a straight silver reflector, because it gives the punchier light of a silver surface, combined with a softer white surface.

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 colors, such as:

  • gold/silver
  • silver/white
  • gold/white

Interfit 5-in-1 82cm (32 inch) Reflector

When photographing with an assistant, my life is of course a lot easier. However, when it’s windy, the trigrip reflector 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 offers a bigger area for reflection.

I also use this one when I’m photographing indoors as it’s bigger than my Lastolite Trigrip reflector.

What I really like about the 5-in-1 is that it’s super versatile as it has 5 different surfaces:

  • Black
  • White
  • Silver
  • Gold
  • Translucent

It has a layer that’s 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 your surface choice 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.

The translucent one is for diffusing light rather than reflecting it. More on this in a moment.

How to use a reflector by yourself (& hold the camera)

Here’s how to use a reflector by yourself if, like me, you can’t hold your camera in just one hand. 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 just turn my wrist to change the angle of the reflector to pick up the sun reflection.

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 using a reflector by yourself.

Which color / side should you use?

This is where you start seeing the versatility of the 5-in-1 reflector. You can use it to control light with:

  1. Reflection
  2. Absorption
  3. Blocking
  4. Diffusion

1. Reflection of light

The white, silver and gold sides of a reflector provide up to 1 stop exposure of reflection, which is ideal for filling in shadows. I use the white side most often as I prefer a soft light for portraits. 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 for me the color temperature of the light it reflects is 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 of a reflector is great for absorbing light and creating negative fill (removes the light) and will improve shade contrast in photos by 1.5 stops exposure.

You can see the effect in the below photo.

I asked my assistant to hold the reflector above the model 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.

Using negative fill to subtract light

The black shading on the model’s shoulders is the black fill from the black reflector being held above her head

3. Blocking the light

Another use for the black side of the 5-in-1 reflector is as a flag. Not that you’re going to send it up a pole. In photography a flag is any device you use to block out light.

If light is bouncing into shot and you don’t want there, you can use a flag to block the light. An example is light 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’s also super helpful when photographing outdoors on a really hot day without shade nearby for shading your model between shots. 

4. Diffusing the light

The translucent screen of the 5-in-1 reflector is a diffuser, as opposed to a reflector, as it diffuses the light hitting your subject to avoid harsh shadows.

It’ll soften sunlight by a 1/2 stop.

Using a diffuser to soften light

My assistant used a diffuser to soften the hard, direct light of the sun

How to use a reflector

A photography reflector can be used in two ways for portrait photography:

  1. A key (main) light
  2. 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’s 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 portrait lighting we’re always trying to replicate the way the sun lights our world. We’re used to seeing light come from above – the sun never shines from below our chins. So, we don’t light from below.

How to use a reflector with natural light

On the left, correct use of a reflector, which you can see from the catchlights 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

When using a reflector to fill in the shadows of portraits, 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’s okay to fill shadows from below, like with clamshell lighting.

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

Distance to subject

The last point to remember on how to use a reflector in portrait photography is how close you hold it to your subject. The closer your photography 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 in a busy location, constantly on the move, or if I’m not comfortable putting my camera 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 camera equipment. When walking about I’d rather have stuff on my back than have armloads of photography equipment.

Leave a comment

If you have any questions about how to use a reflector by yourself or with an assistant, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my photography tips on how to use a reflector have helped you, share that too.

2 thoughts on “How to use a reflector properly and why you really need one”

  1. Great explanations, particularly for newbie photographers but I would have liked to see more before and after photos , particularly when explaining the placement of the diffuser/ reflector etc and also how you hold it (descriptions were good but a photo speaks a 1,000 words:) thanks

    Reply

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