A reflector is any object used to reflect or bounce light. While we tend to think of round shiny circular objects we buy at the camera store as reflectors, a reflector can be anything that bounces light. It can be a plain piece of white cardboard or one covered in tin foil. A reflector could be something as simple as a wall, a white tshirt, or anything that is large enough and bright enough to move light.
Reflectors have a several positive traits. They are generally less expensive than flash units, they aren’t bothered by things like flash sync, they’re easy to learn how to use, they don’t require electricity and they give you visual confirmation of where the light is going.
I use a variety of reflectors from companies such as Westcott, California Sun Bounce and Lastolite. While you can certainly make your own inexpensive reflectors, these are convenient commercial grade reflectors that offer a dependable and consistent quality of light with little time investment.
I use both rigid and flexible reflectors. The rigid kind assemble in the field and can be packed into smaller spaces. The downside is that it takes longer to set them up and tear them down. Flexible reflectors fold down into a round shape that is several sizes smaller than the reflector surface and easy to open and close but bulkier to transport.
Reflectors come in all size and shapes. I am partial to circular shaped reflectors since these produce a round catchlight in the eye. That said, I own all different types of reflectors including triangle and square shapes.
Reflector material can be made of a pure white surface or silver or gold or a combination thereof. The metallic surfaces provide more light intensity and contrast in the bounced light than the matte white surface.
If you use gold reflectors you’ll get a warmer tone. If you use white reflectors you’ll get the same color light that is bouncing onto the white surface. Likewise, if you use silver reflectors, you’ll get the same color of light bouncing back to the subject.
I primarily use reflectors for fill. I’ll set up a flash as main and then use the reflector to fill the shadow side. I really like to use reflectors to fill ugly raccoon eyes caused by harsh light.
If you use a large reflector and position it close to the subject you can create the illusion of wrap around light. It’s a neat effect that everyone should try if they haven’t already.
I’ll also use a reflector as a scrim – to block the light if I want to practice a little subtractive lighting.
If you’ve never used a reflector, start by getting a large piece of white cardboard or matte board and play around with it the next time you make photos. I think you’ll start to see how valuable a reflector can be.
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