Enhancing Your Images with a Reflector!

There are soooo many awesome techniques out there to enhance your imagery, but today we wanted to talk about a tool that sometimes can get overlooked – The Reflector!

Photography IS light, and having a reflector on hand at any type of portrait shoot can truly make or break your images (and not having one when you need it can kill you in post-production trying to fix your shot)! We always carry a few Westcott pop-open reflectors and diffusers with us on any shoot that we do which enable us to control bad light, and enhance good light to make it into great light. Rarely do we come into any lighting situation, especially when doing stylized portraits, and see some truly amazing light, so we are almost always reaching for a tool that can bring our shot to the next level.

So, today we are going to show some images that we have taken recently utilizing reflectors (before and after shots) and we are also going to talk about HOW to properly use a reflector to get the best looking shot possible with it. We will also touch on which colors to use and when, because as many of you know, reflectors have up to five different surface color options to use – black, white, silver, gold and silver/gold.

Let’s start with the surface colors and what each color is for:

  • White: Used to reflect whatever color light is out there. It does not warm or cool down the color of the natural light. Used best for reflecting direct sunlight.
  • Silver: Used to add a little more light to your images if the white side isn’t “popping” enough light in, but reflected light can look a little cold at times. Used best for reflecting indirect sunlight.
  • Gold: Used to warm up the light you reflect. Used best for reflecting indirect sunlight.
  • Silver/Gold (also referred to as “sunlight”): We use this reflector side the most often – it’s a great balance of the gold, which sometimes can be too warm, and the silver, which is sometimes too cold. The color it reflects best matches the natural sunlight outside. Used best for reflecting indirect sunlight.
  • Black: Used when too much lighting is bouncing around and you want to subtract some of the light.

Now onto the placement of the reflector!

When using a reflector, it is critical to know whether the light that is bouncing off of it and landing on your subject is the “main” light source, or if it is a “fill” light source.

FILL: When there is already some decent light on your subject that is soft and pretty (like in open shade), and you just want to enhance the light a little (or “fill” in the shadows), you are then using the reflector as a fill light. Where you put the reflector is not as critical as when it is the main light source. Usually we put the reflector wherever we can to fill in the shadows or put more light in our subjects eyes. Most of the time what we are looking for is lots of light in their eyes because that is typically the focus of our portrait shots. We also tend to use a surface on the reflector that will bounce more light towards our subject because they are already in some soft light, and are not in direct sunlight. The surfaces that reflect light really well are the silver, or gold/silver for open shade or cloudy day type lighting situations. The white side of the reflector many time just won’t bounce enough light onto our subject when in the shade.

(the colors each side reflects)

Let’s take a look at some example images!

Below is the reflector set-up that we used for the demonstration while we were doing our IN-CAMERA: Workshop last week. On camera right is a 42 inch diffuser and on camera left is our silver/gold side of the reflector. Even though we are diffusing the harsh sunlight, look how perfectly lit our model, Lindsay is… no dodging and burning!

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This fist shot was with no diffusion and no reflector so you can see what the light looked like as is. This was at 4pm in the afternoon and the sun was coming in from camera right and hitting our models hair, nose and forehead. There was some slight cloud cover which softened the light a bit, but it still looked pretty bad, and created shadows on her face.

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In this next image we added the diffuser (as seen on camera right in the set-up shot) to give the light more of an open shade style look – no hot spots of light. The lighting is much better, but we still have those dark eyes that are not too pleasing.

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Now in the final shot, we have added a reflector to camera left as a fill light to open up the shadows and give some nice light to the eyes (as seen on camera left in the set-up shot) and, BAM! The shot finally looks really good. All of these images are edited exactly the same with the exception of some luminance added to our final. You can clearly see the light from the reflector in our models eyes giving that nice catch light and because the reflector is not the main light source, we were able to position it lower in relation to the model than we would have if it was the main light.

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This image was done a few minutes later using a very similar technique. We sat our model down with the sun hitting her directly in the face, used a big diffuser to soften the light (we put the diffuser as close as possible) then put a reflector right under her chin to fill in the shadows.

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It’s amazing the HUGE difference that one reflector can make!!!!

Camera specs on all demo shots:

Canon 5D Mark 2, 85L 1.2 lens at f/1.2, ISO 100 at 250th of a second. Minor adjustments done in Adobe Lightroom 3.

Ok, moving on!

MAIN: When the reflector is the main light source, you use the reflector to fully light your subject because there is no good light on them (this is usually done by bouncing direct sunlight off of the reflector and onto your subject). WHERE you put the reflector when using it as the main light now becomes very critical. We could go on and on about lighting styles and different ways to use the light, but the main thing you need to keep in mind when using the reflector as the main light, is how high to put it. We use a Westcott 42 inch pop-open reflector and when it is the main light, we always put the bottom of the reflector at chin height. When you do this, it ensures that the center of the reflector is above the pupils of our subjects’ eyes, thus giving the subject a perfect catch light in their eyes. You can put the reflector in an array of lighting patterns once you get it to that height. You can put it straight on (glamor light) all the way to 45 degrees off to the side to get different effects. We also almost always use the white side of our reflector when bouncing direct sunlight onto our subject because the white side reflects light back very evenly and creates the softest light possible. (If you used the silver/gold side in reflecting direct sunlight it would create a hot spot on your subject). The other trick to make your images look even better is to get the reflector as close to your subject as possible without it being in the shot to get the softest, most painted on look you can get.

A good rule of thumb to remember – The bigger the light source, the softer the light. The smaller the light source, the more contrasty and harsh the light source will look.

In this behind the scenes image below, you can see that the place we wanted to shoot (in-between these nasty old trailers) was actually very dark and the light was pretty bad. We liked the light that was coming in behind our subject, but the light on the front was terrible. So in this instance we bounced some direct sunlight into where our model was in order to light here face. At first we tried using white side of the reflector to get the softest look we could, but the white just didn’t reflect a strong enough light source onto her because she was so far away from the reflector. We then went for the silver/gold side of our reflector. The problem with that was it looked too much like a spotlight and because we were so far away, the light was also very harsh. So what we did was first position the bottom of our reflector at chin height so it would hit her in the most flattering way, then, we used what’s called a feathering technique to slightly soften the light. We did that by shooting the bright light at her, then ever so slightly panning the light to the side so that it tapers off a bit and does not seem so harsh.

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Here is the resulting shot! The other cool thing about using the silver/gold reflector, is that the color is warmed up from the gold which makes the background get cooler during the afternoon time (at sunset, silver gold is similar in color to the sunset colors). This makes our subject really stand out because her skin tones seem so much warmer than the background.

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Now we want to show you how we apply this in “real life” and not just at workshops :) The below is a real life wedding image that we shot a few weeks back. We had our bride Sarah in some open shade because it was a very bright and harsh lit time of the day when we were shooting her images. Some light was bouncing off of a wall and coming back in her direction and the light was OK, but not great. So we brought in the reflector and grabbed some direct sun that was off to camera left and bounced it in to act as a main light source to really over power the existing light. The result is pretty incredible on this one.

The Before image with no reflector:

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The After image with reflector:

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Both of these images were shot seconds apart, have the exact same editing done to both of them and the only true difference is the lighting from the reflector. And what a difference! Look at the awesome catch light in her eyes and how by just adjusting the light, the image POPS!

To get that nice catch light above the pupil, we made sure the bottom of the reflector was positioned at chin height, and we brought the light in as close as we could to make it look soft and pretty, we exposed our camera for her face and took the shot.

So here is a little re-cap of things to remember when using your reflector:

  • Keep it in as close as you can for the soft, pretty light
  • If it’s the main light, keep the bottom of it at chin level (if you position it way below the face, then you get “scary movie” lighting as we like to call it… typically not very flattering, unless you’re going for that kind of look….)
  • Keep an eye on their eyes – when the eyes have good light in them, the shot will look great
  • Try and use white in direct sunlight whenever you can for the softest light possible
  • Feather the light when using silver or gold in direct sunlight
  • Use silver and gold in open shade or on cloudy days to get more fill light on your subject
  • If working alone, get a reflector stand – Better yet, get an assistant!
  • Take tons of awesome shots that will impress your clients and your friends! :)

The reflectors we use are the Wescott 42” 6-in-1 reflector (image below) and the cool thing is, when you order these reflectors it comes with a free DVD.

If you don’t always have an extra set of hands to hold the reflector then you can get the Westcott 42″ 6-in-1 reflector KIT – comes with a stand and everything :)

Have at it!!