(Editor’s note: Photographer and author Andrew Darlow returns with this guest post where he shares tips, techniques and gear suggestions for photo reflectors and accessories. In a 2011 Photofocus post, Andrew showed a collection of do-it-yourself unconventional reflector/fill card options, a topic that never goes out of style!)
Photo reflectors can have a dramatic effect on your images and videos. They are generally very inexpensive. Choosing and using them effectively can be confusing, so I’ve organized this article by reflector type, with some tips and images taken with some of the reflectors mentioned. I should note right up front that even though the products I mention are usually called reflectors or fill cards, some of them also have diffusion panels that go between the light and the subject to make the source of illumination larger and, therefore, softer.
Modern Miracles: Collapsible Reflectors
Few products are as useful and affordable as collapsible reflectors, found at virtually every photo store. They are usually sold in sets, described as 4-in-1, 5-in-1, 6-in-1, etc. (I’ll call them X-in-1s). They come in circular, square or oval shapes from about 14–53 inches in diameter or length. The smaller collapsible reflector sets (about 8-12 inches in diameter) are particularly useful for flower and insect photography. They help control light, can be used as backgrounds, and at the same time, they can reduce or sometimes completely block the wind when you want to keep things in the shot still. But their small size means that they usually won’t attract a lot of attention like a large reflector can if you are using them out in public. If you’ve heard the “pop” and seen the visual effect that a 20-50-inch circular reflector makes when it is opened, you’ll know exactly what I mean! You can quickly change from a white opaque panel for use as a reflector, to a shiny gold reflector, to a translucent white reflector just by unzipping the reflector set and revealing the gold side.
The translucent reflector from a 42 inch 5-in-1 collapsible reflector set. A strong “A-clamp” is being used to secure it to a photo stand. A-clamps are inexpensive and can be found in most hardware stores, as well as most stores that carry photo equipment.
Westcott 5-in-1 reflectors come in a variety of sizes and shapes. The larger surface area of this rectangular reflector allows more light to be bounced back to the subject to open up shadows. Translucent diffusers spread the light out making it softer, which can be very useful especially when photographing people. Like most X-in-1s, a translucent reflector is included in the set (generally used to soften natural or artificial light). Another advantage of square or rectangular reflectors is that they are not as likely to roll around as circular ones can if not clamped or otherwise held in place. Depending on the manufacturer, large translucent reflectors can also be purchased on their own.
Want an even larger reflector? Westcott makes a collapsible product that can be used as a reflector or for transmitting light, called the Illuminator Collapsible 1-Stop Diffuser (48 x 72 inch).
Pay close attention to the amount of light loss indicated (one stop, half a stop, etc.) when using translucent reflectors. The higher the “stop” number, the more light the will be diffused. This is especially important when modifying continuous light from the sun, LED light, etc. I prefer half or three-quarter stop diffusers for most continuous lighting because it is more difficult to dramatically increase the power of continuous light sources, compared with increasing the intensity of light from a dedicated flash or built-in on-camera flash. The downside is the light will be somewhat harsher–think of the sun punching through thin clouds.
The Westcott 6-in-1 reflector kits from Westcott have two diffusion panels: the first blocks one stop of light and the other blocks twice as much light, or two stops. There is also a “sunlight” slipcover (available from a number of manufacturers), which is considerably less gold in color (offering a slight warming effect) compared with standard gold reflectors because it is made from a weave of silver and gold material. However, unlike most X-in-1 reflector sets, there is no white panel on the outside cover when you zip it up. However, you can use two of the translucent panels together to create a pretty effective white reflector.
Tame the Sun!
This before and after shot from one of my workshops (Fig. 4), shows the power of placing a translucent reflector between the sun and a subject. In the photo on the left, I was in direct sun, and it was high in the sky at about noon. In the photo on the right, with the help of a collapsible reflector held by an assistant camera right (meaning on the right side if you are looking from the camera’s perspective) and angled to block the sun’s direct rays, sunlight was controlled and diffused, producing an image with far less contrast. It also helped me to not have to squint as much, which allowed me to concentrate on my supermodel pose! I think you will find many uses for this technique when the light is too strong, but especially mid-day when the sun can create very contrasty lighting.
I took the photo above during one of my pet photography classes. There are two large circular reflectors being used, as shown in Fig. 6. One is clamped to the front of a continuous lighting unit. The reflector helps to soften the light while keeping a good distance from the dog, and at the same time, the reflector makes the catchlights in the dog’s eyes more circular than they would be had the reflector not been there. The other reflector (propped up by a tripod), has its opaque white side on the outside, pointing toward the dog. It helps direct light to fill in the shadows.
Tripods and light stands are excellent for holding reflectors, but you can even use things like chairs and tables with a backpack or other item behind the reflector to prop it up. For more stability, you can use a clamp to attach a reflector to a stand, tripod, back of a chair, etc.
Lastolite makes a number of innovative reflectors called TriFlip kits. There are many situations when this product can come in handy (pun not intended this time!), especially outdoors. The Lastolite TriFlip 8-in-1 Grip Reflector Kit is similar in some ways to the many X-in-1 circular reflectors on the market. Their sturdy hand grip is what sets them apart from their competitors. All TriFlip reflectors have a handle designed for a person (or an A-clamp) to hold, and both fold down to about a third of their size. The TriFlip is 30 inches long, and the Mini TriFlip (sold in a similar 8-in-1 kit) is 18 inches long.
Like the Westcott 6-in-1 reflector kits described earlier, the TriFlip 8-in-1 Grip Reflector Kits come with covers that contain all silver and gold, and one “sunlight” cover that has a combination of the two. But in the case of the TriFlip kits, there is an additional mixed silver/gold cover (one has more silver than gold and vice versa).
More to Explore
Lastolite also sells the Joe McNally 24” Uplite Reflector Kit, which is a unique way of holding two reflectors in a clamshell configuration. You can use the product as a reflector, or bounce a flash into the reflective part and have that light flow through the diffusion panel toward your subject.
With help from photographer Larry Peters, Westcott also created a unique reflector called the Westcott Eyelighter that’s intended to be placed under a subject’s face. It was designed to produce more pleasing catchlights compared with flat reflectors.
Once you start using reflectors (or use them more), I think you’ll agree that the options and looks you can create are limited only by your creativity!
This article was partially excerpted from Focus and Filter: Professional Techniques for Mastering Digital Photography and Capturing the Perfect Shot, by Andrew Darlow, © Ulysses Press. For more tips from the book, visit www.focusandfilter.com.