F/ocused: Reflectors—The only piece of equipment you need

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Yousuf El-Jayyousi

Every time I post one of my senior portraits, I’m always asked, “How did you get the lighting to look like that?”, “Did you use an on-camera flash or strobes?” and my favorite, “How did you get your photo to look like SilverBox Photographers (a local professional photographer)?”
The only source of light I use for my senior portraits is natural light. I do, however, use a reflector to manipulate the light in ways that can create a more flattering image of the subject. A reflector is the only thing keeping you from creating a professional looking portrait.
A reflector looks like a sunshade for your car but comes in many different shapes, sizes and materials. Most reflectors come in what is called a 5-in-1 reflector. This does not mean you will receive five different reflectors, but that the fabric covering the structural part of the reflector can be turned inside out, each side having a different type of material or reflector.
The five types of reflectors that will come with a 5-in-1 reflector are:

  • Silver – This will reflect the most amount of light in a cooler temperature
  • Gold – This will also reflect the most amount of light but in a warmer temperature
  • White – This will reflect significantly less light but create the softest and most diffused light
  • Black – This is not used by many people but can block out unwanted light hitting the subject
  • Diffuser (the middle structural part of the reflector) – This is a translucent material that does not reflect light but diffuses light coming through it to make harsh light softer
A photo taken on a cloudy day using a silver reflector resulting in studio-like lighting on the subject. Photo by Yousuf El-Jayyousi
Most photographers only use three of these: the silver, gold and white sides. The one you use depends on the amount of natural light available and how you want the end product to look. In a natural light situation, a silver reflector is perfect on cloudy or overcast days. This is because the clouds are already diffusing the light, so further diffusing would be unnecessary, therefore, the silver reflector will most likely be appropriate. Using a silver reflector on a sunny day is a bad idea. For one, the light on your subject will be incredibly harsh, giving lots of deep shadows and overexposed highlights. On top of that, the light reflected will be so harsh that the subject will likely have trouble keeping their eyes open and could potentially damage their eyes.
A photo taken on a sunny day with a white reflector. Even with the sun back lighting the subject, the white reflector is intense enough to light up the subject’s face. Photo by Yousuf El-Jayyousi
In a situation in which you have a lot of harsh light, it is best to use a white reflector. In this case you would have the sun coming from behind the subject at an angle filling their hair with light, and the reflector should be held in front of the subject and directed slightly towards the sun at an angle that will reflect light up on to the subject’s face to illuminate the shadows.
A reflector is a piece of equipment that every photographer should have. It will take your photography to a whole new level without breaking the bank. Reflectors can be as cheap as $10 from amazon.com depending on the size you purchase. The one I use is quite large (32in x 48in) and are found on amazon.com for $25 here(link).