What is reflected light in photography (tips for better portraits)

The quick explanation to what is reflected light in photography is any light that hits a reflective surface and is reflected back onto the subject in a photo. Some surfaces are more reflective than others and some are the wrong color, so the type of surface used to reflect light is very important and we’ll get into that in a moment.

Why use reflected light in photography?

A while ago I updated my Facebook profile photo and my friends went mad commenting that I looked so 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.

Plus, 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. So 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 for my author photo at the top of this post.

using beach sand as reflected light

The sand is working as a natural reflector, reflecting light from the sun back into her face.

4 reasons why reflected light works so well:

1. Extra light source

The wall added a second 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.

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 have been dark and the background super blown out. So the reflected light worked as fill light to brighten my face.

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 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 close to the subject, you make the light source bigger, so the light is softer. And soft light is flattering on skin.

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 onto the subject of the photo, it’s reflected light.

In other words it’s light (any type of light, natural or artificial) that doesn’t shine directly 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’s 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 hitting your subject is hard so shadows are more defined. If, however, you use a rough surface, like a white sheet, the light hitting your subject is diffused and causes softer shadows.

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

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 photography 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 location shoot when my lighting failed. I looked for pools of light caused 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.

Two cautions for reflecting light

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

  1. Direction of reflected light
  2. Color of reflected light

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 reflected light

Light coming from beneath a person is unflattering, unless it’s used as a fill light just to fill in and soften shadows beneath the chin, under the nose and under the eyes in a clamshell lighting set up.

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 (like in the image above), you’ll cast a green light onto your subject.

This is why photographing on green grass in midday sun results in sickly looking skin tones that you then need to color correct in post. The light comes down from above, hits the grass and bounces green light straight back up into the subject.

More help with portrait lighting

If you liked this article, you’ll also enjoy reading my article on the different types of lighting in photography.

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If you have any questions about using reflected light in photography, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my photography lighting tips have helped you to understand what is reflected light, share that too.

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