Reflector: my secret weapon in Portrait Photography
Enhance your portraits using equipment that costs less than a movie theater ticket.
If you’ve followed this blog in the passing year, you probably figured out already that I’m a freak of making portrait in natural light. You could say that 99% of my portraits are done under natural light only.
However sometimes, as you all probably know, natural light does not do what he’s told. So here comes into action what I like to call my secret weapon in outdoor Portrait Photography.
It is cheap, easy to carry and especially does not frightens my subjects, who themselves can be a little intimidating at times.
Reflectors for portrait photography
Reflector: It is just that! It reflects light. There are hundreds of different types of reflectors, which differ in sizes and colors (i.e. white, silver, gold, etc.). A reflector Is usually a reflective fabric, stretched over a bendy ring, allowing it to fold, and easy to carry.
With so many types of reflectors on the market, I cannot review them all. This mini-guide, will focus on the main reflector I use for my work.
12 ” in size, and costs less than a movie theater ticket.
I sometimes use other larger reflectors (mainly in cinematography productions), but this 12″ reflector suits my needs in travel photography; Mainly because it is small enough, allowing me to hold it with one hand and the camera with the other.
Why use a reflector in portrait photography:
1- To fill up shadows:
We all love taking pictures at sunrise and sunset. But when dealing with the harsh mid-day light, a reflector is almost a must.
In this picture, taken in the western Indian Rabari tribe, for the National Geographic Traveler magazine (Israeli edition), our model was sitting in a dark mud house. He was sick; therefore it was not an option to move him outside. On the left wall of the house, there was a small window (as can beautifully seen illuminating in the background), My trusty camera assistant Hardik Pandaya, held a silver colored reflector below the subject ‘s face in order to fill any shaded areas such as under the eyes.
This picture was taken on the border of Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Please note that although the woman is standing in the shade and the background is bright , the woman is not a black silhouette and the background is not burned out. I measured the light from the background (using spot metering). In such a situation, without using a reflector, the character will turn out completely black (silhouette) but with a reflector held on my left hand, I was able to light up her face.
This is 80 years old Getho. A fisherman from the small community of Sea Gypsy living in, Thailand. This image is a little bit complex in terms of lighting, because there are three sources of lighting here. Just like in the studio, my main light source (key light) was the house door (right side of the frame). The light was coming from a 45 degree angle, creating this dramatic volume on Getho’s face (you can read more about “sculpturing” with 45 degrees light in this post here). In my left hand I held the small Silver color reflector, filling the shadows (fill light) on his faceת and behind him was an open window for additional light on his beautiful white hair (back light).
Sometimes a reflector is the only option to shoot under strong sunlight, as you can see in this picture.
Useful tips on working with reflectors:
Choose the right color:
Most reflectors come in multiple colors. In this picture, taken in Western India for the National Geographic Traveler magazine (Israeli Edition), I wanted to preserve the golden- brown color which was dominate in this scene. So I asked Hardik to hold the reflector on its golden side giving the woman’s face a golden glow.
Choosing the right distance: It is important to keep in mind that the closer the light source is to the photographed subject, the stronger and less soften it will appear. Thus, a small reflector is easier to carry and hold; however it will be not as soft as a large reflector.
2- Creating that catch light:
A “catch light” is an interesting spark in the eyes of the subject, “pulling” the audience to look straight at them. There are lots of methods to create a catch light in the subject’s eyes. For example using a flash or a flashlight. However, as we are discussing on the usage of natural light, a reflector can become a great tool for creating a catch light. Just place the reflector under the person’s face.
You can see some catch light examples here:
Exercise your craft
One of the most useful techniques, in order learn how to work with natural light in my opinion, is by observing the images of other photographers. Try to guess the direction of the light and the position and color of the reflector in the images below:
One on One With the Masters of Photography – Interview with Steve McCurry, best known for his iconic image of the “Afghan girl” - Read more.
Best lens for Portraits? With so much variety to choose from and with confusing concepts, no wonder many people are confused about deciding which lens to purchase to achieve high quality portrait photography - Read more.