Reflectors—or, More Correctly, Reflected Light

First I want to start by thanking everyone for the amazing support over the past several months. I obviously have not been posting much because I’ve been dealing with some severe back issues that just led to a hopefully successful lower back (L-4/L-5) decompression and fusion surgery. I am not “out of the woods” yet and have a long recovery road ahead, but at least now every day is step forward. So, with that said, and with a good deal of time on my hands, I thought I’d take a longer look at reflectors instead of posting snippets about the topic here and there. Parts of the following come from some of my previous books and/or articles and parts are new.

The proper title for this article/review is really: “Using Reflected Light,” rather than “Reflectors.”  A reflector is a thing—any thing—that bounces light around. Light is, and always will be, the critical factor in all photography. After all, light is what our cameras capture. We don’t photograph any scene, object or person. We record the light that bounces—or reflects—off of them. Reflectors move light around, usually “adding” light into the darker parts of our scene, which in turn reflects back to into the camera as an area bouncing “more” light, thereby appearing brighter than it had before. Many photographers use reflectors in portrait, fashion or glamour work and we will certainly look at some of those applications in detail. However, reflectors can be used to raise the shadow values in darker parts of contrasty scenes. Here is an example from our Essential Digital Photography Workbook that shows how to use a reflector to increase the exposure range in a scene with a lot of contrast:

The lower right corner of this image lacks the detail that I wanted to capture. I used a “prosumer” camera model, so I hear the comments already, but no, the problem was not the camera! Camera: Canon T2i, Exposure: ISO 200, f8, 1/400th of a second.

The exposure latitude of digital capture is still quite limited when compared to negative films days (transparency films are/were very similar to digital capture). The fact is that you simply cannot capture the extreme range of highlights and shadows in high-contrast scene. I usually recommend to my students to use reflective spot light meter to meter the darkest and lightest parts of the scene to see if the scene is within 6 stops. You can go back to the overall meter mode and shoot as always if you are within 6 stops. If you are not within 6 stops, then you need to make some decisions: lose some highlights, lose some shadows (I have always found it easier to bring up some shadows than to tone down too bright highlights in post-production), OR expand the range of exposure values in your scene by using a strobe to add light to the shadows….or use a reflector to bounce existing light into the scene.

I used the silver part of a 5-in-1 reflector set to bounce some light into the dark shadows and have a very different photograph with the exact same exposure values. Camera: Canon T2i, Exposure: ISO 200, f8, 1/400th of a second.

“Reflectors move light around, usually “adding” light into the darker parts of our scene, which in turn reflects back to into the camera as an area bouncing “more” light, thereby appearing brighter than it had before.” This sentence bears repeating and more thought. Remember that we are talking about capturing light the reflects off of your subject. Reflectors reflect light, so they ALSO reflect whatever else is reflected in the light bouncing off of the reflectors—including the colors and shapes in the reflections. This is an important idea from a practical point of view because you would want to make sure that the color of the reflected light would be complimentary to what you are photographing. For example, you would not bounce a strobe off of a green wall for a portrait (or for any reason!) Choose your reflector carefully.

We used a gold reflector of this portrait of Kirstie. The gold adds some “warmth” to the image, but can easily become “too” golden. I think I toned the gold down a bit in post-production. Camera: Canon 5DMII, Exposure: ISO 100, f4, 1/100th of a second.

On the other hand, you can use the idea that reflectors reflect everything as a creative tool. Water can be a great reflector, creating mirror images of the scene or a color whitewash given the situation.

Travel Photography: Waterways such as the Pasig River in the Philippines or boat docks make excellent reflectors to create mirror images. The fun part is that the mirrored portion changes depending on the condition of the current and/or your shutter speed. Camera: Canon T2i Exposure: f14, 1/125th of a second, ISO 400. Camera: Canon 5DMII Exposure: f14, 1/200th of a second, ISO 200.

Fireworks over the ocean can also create spectacular reflections of color on the water. Camera: Nikon V1, Exposure: Iso 100, f13, 5 second shutter speed.

Reflected light as a fill source in portrait fashion work: A lot of portrait or fashion work involves placing the main source of illumination off camera axis left or right. The result is a highlight and shadow side of the model’s face. The difference between the highlight and shadow exposure values is commonly known as the lighting ratio. Lighting ratios will vary depending on the look you want, but essentially it involves using a “fill” source of light to lighten the shadow side as much as you want. You can use a strobe or a reflector as your fill. The big advantage of using reflectors is you don’t need to do complicated “f-stop” math to figure out the “exact” ratio. You can SEE the effect as you move the reflector back and forth! Stop and shoot when you see the results you want.

I dug deep into the archives for this series of images of Naomye Leiza showing the obvious effects of moving a large silver card further away each time. The shadows are obviously darker with the card further away. This is due to the fact that the exposure value of light diminishes as it travels longer distances. Camera: Canon 50D, Exposure: f8, 1/125th of a second, ISO 100

Reflectors can be very helpful to “expand” the usable light sources when someone is just starting to build a studio. A very common “starter” kit will include 2 strobes and two umbrellas. Some people do not like the umbrella because of the “wasted” spill that spreads from an umbrella. I say: “use the spill to your advantage!” Catch it and bounce it around with reflectors!

Ashlee two lights: Portrait/beauty photography--Ashlee was modeling for one of our indoor lighting classes and I wanted to show how to use two umbrellas to act as three light sources, and then use reflectors create a “beauty” look. One umbrella is positioned camera left as the main light. The second umbrella is behind Ashlee camera right to act as a hair light. The back umbrella was positioned so the spill from it is used to add light to the background. The clean frontal lighting effect is created by reflectors camera right and under Ashlee. The cards also act as flags, keeping the light from the back umbrella off the set and out of the camera lens. Move or remove the reflectors if you like a more distinct lighting ratio on your subjects face. Camera: Canon 50D Exposure f8, 1/125th of a second, ISO 200.

What if your intro kit has only one strobe head?

Alexa: Portrait Photography--I presented a mini-seminar a few years ago to a group of photo enthusiasts at BYU-Hawaii. We were talking about lighting and the question of where to begin when you are just starting out came up. This image is an example of how we created a very effective image with one light! A Dynalite Uni-400 was placed behind Alexa camera right and two large cheap silver cards were placed in front and on both sides of our model. Great care is needed to position the camera to avoid a great deal of flare from the strobe (which, of course, is pointed back towards the camera), but it can be a VERY effective technique and will get you started on a low budget! Silver reflectors can still produce some bright hotspots that you might want to tone down in postproduction. Camera: Canon 5DMII Exposure f5.6, 1/125th of a second, ISO 100.

So….what can you do if you have no strobes:

You saw in an earlier post how using a wall of white cards along with a little silver created beautiful front-lighting while the “true” source of light was sunlight coming through a window behind Joan. The reflected “main” light will again measure at a lower exposure value than the backlit areas, allowing that light to act as hair and rim lights. Simple, effective and beautiful. Model Joan Dantzig. Camera: Canon 5dMII, Exposure: f1.8, 1/160th of a second, ISO 500.

I dug WAY back into the archives the archives for these last two i mages (I had forgotten about these!) You still need to careful when choosing a reflector because they can provide a very harsh light source. However, there is no reason why we cannot use a harsh reflector to bounce a bright light through a scrim for a much softer image (and much more pleasing for your model). Kat was a good sport as always. Camera: Olympus E-20, Exposure: f9, 1/60th of a second, ISO 80; Camera: Olympus E-20, Exposure: f 5.6 1/60th of a second, ISO 80.

I hope this quick lesson sparks some curiosity and creativity in each of you. We hope to be back to our live classes very soon!