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5 tips for using reflectors in portrait photography

One of the most versatile tools to use in your natural light portrait lighting arsenal is the popular 5-in-1 reflector. They are inexpensive, light weight, easy to carry and offers some styling above what you can get with natural light on its own.

Although often used in outdoor natural light portraiture, the 5-in-1 can easily be implemented in your studio lighting set up as well. You can use it with continuous lighting, strobe lighting or to maximize your natural light set ups when working indoors.

Simple as they look, using a reflector isn't as easy or intuitive as it first appears, specially if you do not have an assistant.

Before we get into the tips on using these handy little tools let me first explain what they are so those who may not be familiar with them can get caught up to speed.

The image at left shows a typical 5in1 reflector with all its parts. I'll explain all the parts in a minute but first understand that these reflectors are available in various sizes, shapes and configurations. I've seen them as small as 18 inches round and as large as five by seven feet oblong.

As with more traditional light sources size matters. While these do not generate their own light many of the same rules can apply here that would to a more conventional light source. The closer the subject the larger the source. The larger the source, the more light wrap you achieve. I suggest having a few different sizes on hand to suit your needs. As with most studio tools, having a few on hand is always a plus.

Parts of the 5-in-1

The beauty of these reflectors are in their construction. The base part (innermost part) is a translucent material stretched over a flexible metal hoop. This is typically used as a diffuser to cut down on the intensity of a light source, usually the sun but it can be any light source. This also acts as the frame for the various reflective covers.

Wrapped over this frame is a multicolored envelope that zippers over the diffuser. This envelope is made in a specific way that allows the user to select from a variety of reflective and light absorbing materials. Going in order in the example image here you have silver, white, black and gold. In actuality it is a reversible envelope that would have silver on one side, gold on the other side with white and black on the interior. Turned inside out you would then have the black and white on the two outer faces with the silver and gold on the interior. Simply select the side you want to use.

In addition to the 5-in-1 shown above there are a variety of other combinations as well. There are materials that combine silver and gold that creates a 'less warm' light. You can have a silver and white combination which offers less contrast. These combination patterns are sometimes referred to a zebra patterns. The choice is yours and is often based on need and what look you're trying to achieve.


  1. Remember Angle of Incidence Rule: The key word in this item is reflector, meaning it is used to reflect light coming in from one direction and bouncing it to another. While this seems simple enough, it can used to great advantage with some clever thinking. For example; placing the reflection point at a corner of a building to utilize light that is on the other side of the building.

    Keep in mind that when you use a reflector to bounce light from one source onto your subject, the reflector takes on the role as the main light source. For example; just because the sun is behind the subject, once a reflector is used to redirect that sun light to the front of the subject, the reflector becomes your main light, not the sun.

    A last little tip about the light off a reflector is this; watch out for discontinuity of light. This is not a topic I've discussed before so let me explain. When we look at a photo we can usually deduce from what direction the light is coming from. When using natural sun light we expect that light to be coming from above and one side or another. When you see a photo of someone where the direction of sun light is very evident yet you see light or shadows in an area that doesn't make sense for the angle of the sun, that's discontinuity of light (in a nutshell).

    Angle of incidence was discussed in a previous article. For a better understanding on the subject you can read more about it here Understanding Angle of Incidence.

  2. Don't blind your subject: Depending on the strength of the light being reflected, the power of that light can be very harsh. Of particular concern is natural sun light. Direct sun can damage eyes. When handling a reflector you (or your assistants) need to be very aware of where that light beam is being reflected to. You do not want to shine it directly into your subjects face without them being aware it's coming at them. Similarly, you do not want to direct the light to the front of the subject for the same reasons you would not turn your subject directly into the sun. It's too harsh and makes the subject squint.

    Another aspect of working with the more reflective sides (silver/gold) is heat transfer. There is a lot of thermal energy in sun light. That same effect will occur from reflected sun light as with direct sun light. Unless you want your subject well done, I suggest keeping the reflected light off them (or anyone else) until the photographer actually needs the light. Likewise, you don't want to inadvertently blind any onlooker or passerby as they pass near your shoot.

  3. The right color for the right job: Most commercially available 5-in-1 reflectors come in the standard white/black silver/gold combinations with a translucent scrim. Some will have hybrids, as I mentioned earlier, that are starting to gain in popularity. For example; a matte and shiny silver or gold pattern that helps cut down the amount of light being reflected from the more traditional shiny silver and gold materials. Which to choose is based on subject matter and your vision for the image.

    Black, obviously, is used to take light away, or flag the light. This is one of those sides that sees little use but it does have it's uses so don't be too quick to dismiss it. White, unlike black, is the most commonly used side as it gives a nice diffused light without being overtly bright. For light reflecting power the silver/gold sides are the way to go. Silver tends to reflect the light source quite well with a very slight cooling effect (often barely noticeable) while the gold side really adds a color cast to your subject, adding a warm tone. Some people like the warming effect the gold reflector gives their subject while others hate it with a passion. That's why it is purely a matter of personal taste. With a little experimenting you will soon know what to grab and when.

  4. Bend to focus: Ever seen a fun house mirror? Depending if the mirror bends outward or inward the image being reflected will either stretch out or compress in. The same thing can be done with a reflector. Bow it outward and you are 'stretching' the light over a larger surface, scattering the light. Bow it inward and you are 'compressing' or focusing the light into a smaller, more intense area. In effect, you are controlling light intensity (to a certain extent). This technique is more noticeable when using the silver/gold sides as they reflect a lot more light than the white material.

    Keep in mind that these reflectors are made by stretching a piece of fabric over a flexible metal spring hoop. They can be very tricky to manipulate. Usually a twisting effect will give you the desired results. Just be careful it doesn't spring out of your hands and smack you in the face, or worse, in someone else's face. Also, if you are focusing the light you need to keep tip number two, above, in mind. You don't want to inadvertently blind someone with a focused beam of sunlight.

  5. Use an assistant: Reflectors, no matter the size, can be very unwieldy to use. Having a good assistant to hold and direct the light where needed is a big help. Since it takes only a modicum of intelligence to use one of these gadgets you can enlist just about anyone to help. A client's friend or relative, your own friend or relative, another photographer, etc. You'll just have to take a few minutes to explain how a reflector works and what results you are expecting to capture.

    No matter if you have recruited a novice or are utilizing a knowledgeable volunteer, you need to maintain communication with your assistant. Remember they can not see what you see through your viewfinder. Another issue that occurs is that the assistant's eyes tend to acclimate to the directed light and within a short time they start second guessing what the light is doing. Also take into consideration muscle fatigue, specially if the reflector is being held up above their heads. Taking occasional breaks to revive circulation will definitely be appreciated.
Do you have any additional tips or tricks to using a reflector? Feel free to share them with others by posting your comments here.


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