How to Use Reflectors for Better Portrait Photography

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How to Use Reflectors for Better Portrait Photography

The effective use of light is something that separates serious photographers from snapshot-takers. Reflectors achieve professional results using existing light, brightening and warming subjects, removing harsh shadows, and creating even tones without requiring a fill flash. Most reflectors come in space-saving kits that give photographers multiple options for warming up photo tones, adding light from the bottom of the frame, or softening existing light to eliminate glare and harsh shadows.


How to use a reflector

Photography reflectors come in many shapes and sizes, but they generally consist of a flat surface that bounces light upward toward the subject. Many reflector kits include collapsible reflectors with several colour panels that fold up to fit in a camera bag, but photographers can achieve similar results using a piece of white cardboard or a flat object covered in aluminium foil. The most versatile reflectors are 1-metre wide or more. Smaller reflectors are ideal for headshots and portraits.

Knowing when to use a reflector

A reflector has a place in indoor studio sessions as well as outdoor shoots. It lifts the shadows that appear under a person's eyes or chin when most of the light is coming from above. Instead of placing a harsh light beneath the subject, a well-placed reflector bounces gentle light upward to brighten the shadowed areas.

Positioning a reflector

The angle of a reflector and its distance from the subject affects the results. For portraits, photographers should position the reflector at chest height several centimetres from the body. The angle depends on where the light is coming from, and it takes a bit of trial and error. Holding the reflector flat at first helps the photographer gauge the direction of the light. Photographers then tilt the reflector toward the subject, watching the subject's face carefully to see when the light hits the face properly and shadows disappear.

Full-body shots require that the reflector sits lower and farther away from the subject so the light covers more surface area. The face is still the key element, so most photographers use the face as the primary guide when positioning the reflector.

Asking an assistant hold the reflector is easier than trying to position it on a tripod, although a tripod with clips can work in a pinch. In some cases, the subject can hold the reflector.


Reflector colours

Photographers can change the lighting of a portrait using a coloured reflector. Most reflector kits include different colour choices to make the light appear exactly as desired. Certain hues are known for producing specific effects.

Silver and white

Silver is one of the most commonly used colours. It catches the light and reflects it efficiently, making it handy in low light as well as bright light. White does not cast a strong a reflection, making it better for bright situations. Both are neutral and do not change the overall hue of the photo. The downside of a silver reflector is that it sometimes casts light too powerfully which can cause the subject to close his eyes or squint. Moving the reflector farther from the subject, trying a different angle, or switching to a white reflector helps alleviate this problem.


Gold reflects a warm glow, which can change the portrait's colour tone drastically. It can simulate the sheen of a sunset or brighten skin tones when the portraits are taken in the shade. Unless the photographer is seeking a distinctly warm overtone, gold reflectors are often not the best choice.


Most reflector kits include a black side. Instead of reflecting light it creates a shadow by reflecting darkness. Photographers use a black reflector when light shines harshly from one side, placing the reflector on that side to soften the glare. The reflector also adds dramatic effect when the photographer wants the subject in partial shadow.


Diffusing instead of reflecting

Photographers should not confuse diffusers with reflectors. Reflector kits usually contain a centre panel that looks white at first glance but is actually translucent. This piece is a diffuser, which softens harsh light by filtering it before it hits the subject. Photographers place the diffusing panel between the subject and the light, casting a gentle shadow over the subject for more even toning.


How to buy reflectors on eBay

Sellers on eBay offer a variety of reflectors to help create outstanding portraits. Typing keywords, such as "photography reflector", in the search box located on every eBay page provides a wide selection of options. Use additional keywords to narrow the search; for example, try "collapsible light reflector" or "triangular photography reflector" if you prefer a style other than the traditional round versions. Look for products that come bundled with other photography accessories to acquire several essential tools in one purchase. 

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