carved wooden alebrije is lit with window light and a photo reflector

3 Easy Techniques To Enhance Your Lighting With Photo Reflectors

Text and Photos by Chuck Place©

Are you ready to start modifying the lighting in your images for more impact? There is an easy and inexpensive way to do this without carrying cumbersome and expensive photographic lighting equipment. Photo reflectors make it possible to control contrast, change lighting patterns and alter the color of the light you are using. You can even change the apparent time of day with a reflector. They are light weight, inexpensive and you can even see the results before you press the shutter button. Are you getting to the point in your photography where you are developing a personal style or creating storylines in your work? Take your work to the next level by using photographic reflectors to modify and shape the light in your images.

selection of different photo reflectors
selection of photo reflectors in different sizes, shapes and color

Available in a wide range of shapes, sizes, colors and surface reflectivity, photographic reflectors are light weight and inexpensive tools to modify light. Shooting professionally, I have a collection of reflectors ranging in size from 3×6 feet to a tiny 12 inch disc that looks like a frisbee.

backlit woman is lit with a diffused photo reflector
backlit woman practicing yoga on a grassy hillside is lit with a diffused photo reflector

My favorite reflector is a 24 inch round disc that folds to 8 inches that always hangs off one end of my camera bag. It weighs only ounces and has a matt white surface on one side and a shiny, reflective surface on the other side composed of tiny gold and silver rectangles. The white side reflects soft, neutral light while the other produces a brighter light with a slightly warm tint. It’s versatility makes it invaluable in a wide range of situations.

My favorite reflector is a 24 inch round disc that folds to 8 inches

The most basic reflector use is controlling contrast by adding light to the shadow side of a person or subject. See Featured Image above. This is useful in backlit subjects, where you want your subject nearly as bright as the background, or side-lit subjects, where you want to reduce the contrast between the bright key side of your subject and the darker shadow side. 

A gold photo reflector lightens the shadow side of both the model and the owl
A gold photo reflector lightens the shadow side of both the model and the owl, lowering the contrast of late afternoon sunlight

Using a silver reflector, it is also possible to change the lighting pattern on a subject’s face, creating a flatter “beauty” lighting pattern with a single, available light source.

A silver photo reflector is used to flatten the ambient light on a model
A silver photo reflector is used to flatten the ambient light on a model lit from camera left, creating beauty lighting

One of my favorite uses for my small 22 inch reflector is simulating sunlight. I first place my subject in open shade next to a building and set my camera to underexpose my subject, usually a food dish, about 2/3 of a stop. I next place my reflector out in direct sunlight with the gold/silver side aimed roughly at my subject. I adjust the reflector’s position to give me the angle I want and feather it to get the amount of “morning sunshine” that I want for my image. 

Light from a gold/silver photo reflector simulates morning sun
Light from a gold/silver photo reflector simulates morning sun for a dish photographed in open shade

I’m essentially blending the soft cool blue light of open shade with the more specular warmed sunlight from my reflector. I use a tripod and long cable release so I can manipulate the reflector and fire the camera at the same time. Depending on how much light I add with my reflector, I may have to adjust the exposure a bit. This is a great technique for simulating early or late-in-the-day sunlight during a mid-day photo shoot. 

This is a great technique for simulating early or late-in-the-day sunlight during a mid-day photo shoot. 

Keep in mind that you do not aim the reflector directly at your subject. Because light bounces off a reflector at the same angle that it hits the reflector, you always aim roughly in the middle between your light source and your subject. And if your model is looking in the general direction of the reflector, be careful not to blind them with a bright, specular light.

The possibilities are endless for shaping or completely altering ambient light using a reflector. It’s merely a matter of previsualizing the final image. The question, of course, is why aren’t you working with this simple tool to manipulate ambient light and produce more dramatic photographs?

If you want to fine tune your photographic techniques a bit or get more comfortable with your camera controls, my popular Santa Barbara City College Non-Credit class “Digital Cameras Digital Photos” starts on October 30 from 9:00AM-11:20AM. It is a free class and will be held on Zoom. The class can be found in the Career Skills section of the School of Extended Learning. The links below should help in the registration process. Hope to see you soon.

https://www.sbcc.edu/extendedlearning/get-help.php

https://www.sbcc.edu/extendedlearning/apply-register.php

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