What is reflected light in photography - essential for portraits and weddings

What is reflected light in photography – essential for portraits and weddings

using beach sand as reflected light

Why use reflected light in photography?

A while ago I updated my Facebook profile photo and my friends went mad commenting that I looked young and couldn’t believe we were the same age. There was no magic involved, I haven’t had any “work done” and I didn’t edit my skin to look like plastic.

The photo was taken outside on a bright, sunny day, which is normally unflattering.

So what was my secret?

I’d simply stood facing a white painted brick wall with the sun shining from behind me onto the wall.

The result was that my skin was smoothed out by the super soft, diffused light reflecting back at me.

I can’t think of a better reason to use reflected light!

PS – it’s the same photo I used in my bio at the end of this post.

4 reasons why it worked so well:

1. Extra light source

The wall added a light source, so I was backlit by the sun and front lit by the reflected light. When you can add a light source to a photo it makes the image more interesting and elevates it above a snapshot.

Further reading: Backlight photography tips for magical photos

correct position of light reflector

Here I used a handheld light reflector, which you can see in the catchlights in her eyes. Read to the end to see the next photo I took showing incorrect use of a reflector.

2. Fill light

If I didn’t have the wall reflecting light back at me my face would been dark and the background super blown out. So the reflected light worked as fill light.

Further reading: Using fill light in photography – essentials you need to know

3. Diffused light

Because the light was reflected off a rough surface, it was diffused (more on this in a moment).

Another bonus was that it was a white surface, so white light was reflected back at me, with no color cast to mess with my skin tones.

4. Larger light source

Lastly, the large surface area of the wall changed the light source into a large light source. In photography the larger the light source relative to the subject, the softer the light will be.

Even though the sun is somewhat huge, in relation to us here on earth it’s actually quite small, because it’s so far away.

When you bounce light off a large surface, you make the light source bigger, and therefore softer.

Further reading: Soft light photography – 4 facts every photographer should know

What is incident and reflected light?

Before we get into the details of using reflected light in photography, you should know that there are two ways to light a subject:

  • Incident light (direct light)
  • Reflected light (indirect light)

When light is reflected off any surface to the subject of the photo, it’s reflected light.

In other words it’s light (any type of light, natural or artificial) that isn’t directly shone onto the subject. It’s first shone onto a surface and then reflected back to the subject.

Reflected light is often also called bounced light, especially when created with flash, which is why we also talk about bouncing light back into shot.

2 types of reflected light in photography

Reflected light can be categorized into two types of reflection:

  • Specular reflection
  • Diffused reflection

The easiest way to explain the difference between specular reflection and diffused reflection is to show you with a diagram.

specular reflection and diffused reflection

This is the law of refection at work, which states that the angle of reflection is equal to the angle of incidence.

Let’s break that down:

  • The angle of incidence is the light hitting the surface.
  • The angle of reflection is the light bouncing away from the surface.
  • If light hits at a particular angle, it is reflected away in the opposite direction at the same angle.

Back to specular vs diffused reflection…

Specular reflection occurs when light strikes a smooth surface and is reflected away all at the same angle.

Diffused reflection occurs when a ray of light strikes a rough surface and is then scattered away at different angles, because of the different angles of the rough surface.

What this means in practical terms is that when you use a really smooth surface, like a mirror, to reflect light, the light that hits your subject is hard and the shadows are therefore more defined. If, however, you use a rough surface, like a white sheet, the light that hits your subject is diffused and causes softer shadows.

It’s the same reason that when you use a large umbrella with a white interior to bounce light, it creates diffused light.

Further reading: Photography umbrella lighting intro – how to choose and use umbrellas

What can I use to reflect light?

Of course you can’t rely on a handy white painted brick wall being nearby every time you take a photo, so how do you create reflected light anywhere, any time?

  • You use a reflector. It’s the cheapest, most portable lighting tool available to portrait photographers. Not only do reflectors folder up to a convenient size, they come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors to suit all your needs.
  • If you don’t want to invest in a reflector, pack white card or a white sheet in your camera bag.
  • Look for white or gray surfaces to reflect soft light.
  • For hard light, look for reflective surfaces such as water, glass or metal. This worked really well for me during an urban shoot when my lighting failed. I looked for pools of light cause by the evening sun bouncing off the windows of the surrounding buildings.
  • If using flash bounce the flash off of a wall, a door, a ceiling, white card, somebody wearing white, or a reflector. I’d consider this an essential skill for anyone photographing weddings.

Further reading: Urban photoshoot tips for creative portrait photography in cities

Two cautions for reflecting light

While reflected light is an asset to almost any photograph, be careful of:

incorrect use of light reflector

An example of how not to use a reflector. I held the reflector low and to camera right, so it’s lighting her from below, which you can see from the nose shadow going up her face instead of straight across her cheek.

1. Direction of light

Light coming from beneath a person is unflattering, unless it is being used as a fill light just to fill in and soften shadows beneath the chin, under the nose and under the eyes.

color cast from reflected light of watering can

His forehead has a green color cast from light reflecting off the green watering can.

2. Color of the reflective surface

Reflected light takes on the color cast of the surface used to reflect it. So, when you bounce light off of a green surface, you will cast a green light over your subject.

This is why photographing on green grass in midday sun results in sickly looking skin tones. The light comes down from above, hits the grass and bounces green light straight back up.

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