Reflecting on Reflectors

A really easy and inexpensive way to get nice, natural looking Portrait or Macro shots is to use a reflector to bounce or diffuse light. Whether the light is natural (sun, or even sun diffused by clouds) or artificial (flashes, strobes, etc.) a reflector can add diffusion or dimension to your photo. The most common type of reflector is the 5-in-1 reflector that has White/Gold/Black/Silver/Translucent sides. They come in many sizes, but the most common are usually in the 40″-42″ inch range. These fold up nice and small for portability, usually about 1/4 the size of the fully expanded reflector. Now, why would you need a reflector with 5 different colours, you ask? (you did ask, right? Please tell me I’m not hearing the voices again!) Well, here is a quick breakdown for you:

  • White: To reflect your light source on to your subject with the most natural results. The white surface will take on some the colour of your source, which helps it to blend in. This is most commonly used when you want to fill in the opposite side of your subject. Use the white to bounce light and fill in unwanted shadows.
  • Gold: The gold side of the reflector helps add a punch of warmth to your subject. This can come in handy when used on a bright, sunny midday portrait, because the colour temperature tends to have a blue tint to it, so the gold works to add warmth.
  • Black: Really? Black? Yup. Black helps to draw light away from your subject to help enhance shadows. It can also be used to block or direct light from a flash or strobe that you don’t want to spill everywhere. This is often referred to as a Gobo.
  • Silver: The Silver side is like the Gold side, only it’s, ummmm… Silver. What I’m trying to say is that the Silver side produces a punch of brightness, like the Gold side, but instead of giving you warmth, it provides a cooler, albeit, harsher reflection on to your subject.
  • Translucent: The translucent center of a 5-in-1 reflector comes in really handy if you need to diffuse light. A good example of this would be when taking Macro pictures in the middle of the day. Simply position the reflector between your light source (in this case, the sun) and your subject, and Voila! Diffused sunlight. Now, doing this would require one or more of the following: Extreme dexterity; an assistant to hold the reflector while you take the picture; a reflector stand to hold the reflector in place (what I used in the example below); or a tripod and a remote release for your camera so you can set everything up and hold the reflector yourself. Actually, a tripod should be used in all of these scenarios. An absolute necessity with macro photos.

Here is an example of what the translucent center of a 5-in-1 reflector can do:

Direct Sunlight - No Reflector/Diffusion - Notice the harsh shadows and blue-ish tint?

Now with the diffusion panel of the reflector placed above the flowers to diffuse the sunlight. Shadows be gone!

Quite a difference, no? Being able to shape and diffuse light is paramount in photography. Reflectors were created for just that reason. So the next time mother nature hands you weather lemons (what?), say thank you (it’s the polite thing to do), then grab your reflector and shape the light.

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