Reflector Basics

If there’s one piece of gear that will improve your photography overnight, it’s a reflector. A simple reflector gives you some control over natural light, allowing you to work in varied lighting conditions.

Reflectors can be used in a number of ways. They can fill in shadows in a backlit situation, add light to a window-lit scene, or create a rim light, They can serve as a secondary light source and can add catchlights to a subject’s eyes. Large reflectors can even become makeshift backdrops for photographing small objects or for head-shots.

Reflector Shots

(By the pond 2 by Leszek Leszczynski) A gold reflector gives this portrait a sense of warmth.

The most popular type of reflector is the 5-in-1 reflector, which collapses down to a small, portable size. This kind of reflector has interchangeable surfaces, which most often include white, silver, gold, and black, in addition to a diffuser panel. The white side of a reflector provides soft light. It’s useful when there’s a lot of bright, available light and you just want to fill in shadows. The reflector’s silver side produces a harsher, brighter light. You don’t need to be as close to the subject for it to be effective. The gold surface of a reflector creates a warm light that gives photos the same appeal as the golden hour. Photographers can use the black surface of the reflector to cast shadows on brightly lit areas or as a flag to block light from hitting the subject. Finally, the diffuser panel is not actually for reflecting but is a go-between that softens the light. It’s great for shooting in direct sun or another light source that’s too harsh.

When choosing a reflector, it’s important to know that size does matter. A larger reflector provides a bigger, softer light source. And moving closer to the subject has the same effect. Smaller reflectors are more portable, but they’re usually limited in their use.

Though store-bought reflectors are handy and fairly inexpensive, you don’t necessarily need to buy one to achieve its effects. You can make your own reflector with foam board or other materials. And you can even create different colored surfaces by covering the board with foil. The material you use is a matter of personal choice. Some photographers prefer to wear a white shirt and use themselves as their own reflectors. Others use collapsible sun shades that are made for putting in car windows. The options are nearly endless.

Reflector Shots

(Close-up by Nadia Martinez) A reflector on camera left reflects the sunlight to add catchlights to the model’s eyes.

A simple way to get started is to position your subject with his or her back to the sun. Put the reflector in front of the subject and bounce the sunlight back into your model’s face. Make sure to move around to test out the reflector’s effect at different angles and distances from the subject. Positioning the reflector in front of and slightly to the side of your subject will often result in beautiful catchlights in the subject’s eyes, as well as nice, three-dimensional lighting and shadows on his or her face. Experiment with different colors and techniques until you see what works best.

Reflector Shots

(Photo Shoot 6 by chicagogeek) Having extra people around to hold a reflector is ideal.)

Perhaps the only downfall of the reflector is that you need someone or something to hold it in place. If you have an assistant, or if a friend or family member is along on a photo shoot, you can ask them to hold the reflector for you. You may also choose to secure the reflector to a tripod or dedicated reflector stand. And, in some cases, your subject can hold the reflector in his or her own hands. There are plenty of solutions.

If you don’t have a reflector, it’s worth it to give one a try. No batteries are needed for this versatile piece of equipment that lets you shape light to your liking. And it’s not difficult to learn how to use a reflector effectively if you’re willing to experiment. Share your reflector tips in the comments below.

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Profile photo of Nicoal Price About Nicoal Price

​Nicoal is a New England photographer with a penchant for learning. Her work ranges from nature-inspired portraiture to outdoor product photography. Visit for more info.

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