Using Reflected Light

Using reflectors in your photography will teach you a lot about light.

Even with all the controls, buttons and menus on today’s DSLRs, the best adjustments you can make to many images are achieved by using light properly, thanks to a few simple techniques.

The sample photos included here show photographs taken with and without reflectors. Every other exposure parameter, light, sensitivity, lens settings, aperture, etc., are all identical. The only thing happening between shots is the photographer starting the self-timer and placing a 24 x 36 inch reflector close to the subject.

Increasing shadow detail

By filling in the deep shadows of the subject, the reflector evens out the subject’s lighting. In the first photo, the subject is backlit. Light coming from behind is so strong that we lose facial features and texture. Increasing the light just a bit more would produce a silhouette.

In the “after” photo, there is more balance. The background is still about the same, but we’ve used the reflector to bounce light onto the subject’s face. This has decreased overall contrast, and has covered the subject’s face in diffuse, softer light.

What have we learned? Not only does the reflector reduce contrast, it also softens the light. Why is the light softer? Because it’s coming from a large surface. So please remember you can rarely go wrong with a large reflector: use the largest one that is convenient.

Wondering how close to your subject your reflector should be? Easy answer! In most cases, the closest you can get without the reflector entering the frame is the way to go!

Interior lighting

Our second demo simulates indoor lighting that is frequently available when shooting without flash. In this case one highly-directional light source lighting the subject from one side. Once again, the “after” photo is taken with the same exact camera settings, with much nicer results. In both cases, we have not changed the feel of the available light, but we definitely have offered our subject more balanced, more pleasant lighting.

Go ahead! Have fun with reflectors and observe the way they alter lighting. Not only will you improve your photos, but soon enough you’ll find yourself using walls, tabletops, sometimes even entire buildings as “natural” reflectors… and making better photos.

You can make your own low cost reflectors out of sheets of foamcore or some other cardboard. But have a look at your local photo store: the reflectors available there are not only much more portable, but in addition they come in reflective shades of white, gray, and even amber slightly “warm” the reflected light.

Next time you are confronted with difficult lighting conditions, remember. Yes, your camera can do a lot of wonderful things, but you can help it along a lot if you can see the light!