The obvious ‘must have’ when photographing a portrait is some kind of camera. (Duh.)
Of course, and this is especially true of portraits, you can easily expand into flash photography, lighting systems, tripods and more for either your camera or phone. But there’s this little known thing you can add to your gear to help you take really flattering portraits. And it’s just a few dollars, like maybe $20 or less. What is it?
Yup, a reflector.
I must confess I don’t use reflectors often enough. But I vow to use them more. They can make a big difference and make ‘bad’ light seem OK. And there’s nothing electronic about them – no cords, buttons or batteries.
The main use of a reflector is to bounce existing light onto something else. In this case, we’re bouncing light from the sun onto our subject to create the results you want – like overall warmth and pleasing catchlights in your subject’s eyes.
I have 24- and 43-inch, 5-in-1 reflectors. Both sets are lightweight and collapsible. When opened, the reflector looks like a 2-sided circle, with different colors on either side. There’s a zipper around the edge that opens access to turning the cover inside out, so you can use other colors. All told, you can use the reflector on its white, silver, gold, black, and semi-transparent white sides.
Here are some tips on using a reflector in an outdoor setting under natural light.
1. Decide your goal
Are you looking to create soft, flattering portraits, or are you going after something with dramatic shadows or a warm glow? Reflectors can help with any of these and more.
2. Use a reflector size and shape that will help achieve your goal
Large reflectors, such as a 45” model, are known to bounce light that is the most flattering for all skin types. But larger sizes can be unwieldy to use. Smaller reflectors have an important plus: they’re easy to hold, and this comes in handy when your subject does the holding.
Another consideration is shape. I like round reflectors, but there are other shapes, such as rectangular with rounded corners. Some also have handles and frames. An important point is that the catchlights created in your subject’s eyes will mirror your reflector’s shape.
3. Experiment with different angles
Using a reflector is easy. Just position it in a way that reflects how you want the light to land on your subject. Some photographers swear the only way to use a reflector properly is to have an assistant hold it high, even above their head, and position it so that it casts light downward onto your subject, just as the sun would.
Having your subject hold the reflector around chest level (or even higher so long as it’s not in the frame of your shot), will help to fill in under-eye shadows and brighten eyes. Positioning the reflector flat on the ground can give you similar results.
4. Ask your subject or an assistant to hold the reflector
Well, the above tip makes this clear, but it’s worth a dedicated mention. Having an assistant (like a friend or parent) hold the reflector can be a great thing, enabling you to give direction without the reflector in your hands, and allowing your subject to stay focused on being your subject!
5. Start with the white side if you want super flattering portraits
The white side is great because it can act as a fill light to brighten shadows. The closer you get to your subject with it, the softer your light should be.
6. When to use silver
Light bouncing off a silver reflector is usually more intense than the white side. With that in mind, silver is not a good choice when the sun’s extremely bright. But when it’s low or not harsh, silver can be a wonderful choice. It increases highlights and contrast yet does not change the color of available light.
7. Gold = warm glow
Although many photographers don’t like the gold side, I love the sunset-inspiring look it gives – along with glowing skin tones. Yes, you can create a similar glow using an editing program, but to me there’s satisfaction in achieving this inside the camera.
8. Reach for the black reflector to block light or create shade or shadows
You can imagine the possibilities, like shooting a portrait under a tree when that one stream of bright light spews unwanted speckles across your subject’s cheek.
9. Semi-transparent side is a diffuser
While being the opposite of a reflector, this side is a smart choice for softening harsh light between the sun and your subject.
I admit, writing this post inspires me to do more with reflectors. They’re certainly able to prove their worth as handy, powerful and inexpensive tools for taking better portraits.