Reflector Photography: How to Use a Reflector for Stunning Portraits

by John Stapel

A Post By: Dennis Drenner

a guide to reflector photography

How does a reflector work? And how can you use a reflector to capture beautiful portraits?

A reflector is one of the simplest photography accessories you can buy – yet a basic, $40 reflector can make an insane difference to your portraits. As a seasoned portrait shooter, I never leave home without a reflector, and neither should you.

In this article, I explain everything you need to know to use a reflector like a pro, including:

  • The different types of reflectors and which one you should buy
  • How to position a reflector for flattering results
  • A simple trick to create reflector photos, even when you don’t have a reflector handy!

So if you’re ready to become a reflector photography expert, then let’s get started.

What is a reflector?

A reflector refers to any object that bounces, or reflects, light toward your subject. Technically, a reflector can be made of anything – a mirror, the hood of a car, even a shiny pocketwatch – but photographers tend to use large sheets of fabric that look like this:

group of men holding a reflector

Many reflectors fold up so you can carry them with you everywhere, and that’s part of the magic of reflectors: they’re extremely portable and take about two seconds to unpack.

But here’s the real reason why reflectors are useful:

They let you control the quality and direction of the light hitting your subject – even when you’re not able to adjust the main light source.

If you’re shooting outdoors at midday, there’s nothing you can do to change the sun’s light, but you can add a reflector that softens the shadows on your subject. And if you’re shooting in the studio but you can’t get the gradual light falloff you’re after, you can stick in a reflector opposite the main light for a softer effect. Make sense?

Common reflector types

You can find reflectors in many different colors and styles, but the main options are:

  • White
  • Silver
  • Gold

Many 5-in-1 reflectors offer all of the above styles, as well as two additional types:

  • Black
  • Translucent

So what’s the difference? White reflectors tend to be both soft and neutral; when you use a white reflector, you’ll get a very flattering, even result. Whereas silver and gold reflectors create harsher light (and gold reflectors also give a very warm result, so they match well with the light of the setting sun).

Black reflectors, on the other hand, aren’t really reflectors. Instead, they create shadows, also known as negative fill, which is nice for dramatic shots but not so great if you’re after conventional portraits. Then there are translucent reflectors, which are just handheld diffusers – put one between your subject and the harsh sun, and you’ll get a softer effect. The latter is useful if you often shoot in harsh light (especially if you can’t find nice shade).

Unless you’re dead set on a specific reflector type, I’d really recommend you go with a 5-in-1 option. They’re very cheap, and you can test out each type to determine what you like best for each situation.

How to do reflector photography: 5 simple approaches

In the next section, I discuss the practical details of reflective light photography. I show how to use a reflector when shooting outdoors and in the studio, plus I explain how to use natural reflectors when you’re outside.

Starting with:

1. Use a reflector to create fill light

It’s the simplest way to do reflector photography: Just add light into shadows on your subject.

This is hugely useful when you’re shooting around midday and the harsh sun is creating shadows under your subject’s nose, eyes, and chin. And even if you’re shooting in the shade or on a cloudy day, a reflector can help alleviate darker shadows.

For the image on the left (below), I shot without a reflector – but then I added a reflector under my subject’s chin to get the image on the right:

with and without reflector examples

In the photo on the left, my subject is photographed in soft light, but there are still pretty deep shadows under her eyes and chin. Thanks to the power of the reflector, however, I lifted the shadows for a more flattering result. If my subject were an older person with more textured skin, the difference would be even more dramatic.

Note that your subject can often hold the reflector on their own:

subject holding a reflector

2. Use a reflector as the main light source

athletes with reflector lighting

This is one of my go-to reflector moves, and it’s an easy way to wow your friends and family.

You’ll want to start late in the day, when the sun is low in the sky. Position your subject with the light hitting them from behind (backlight), then use a reflector to bounce the light into their face.

You will get nice soft light on your subject, plus a dramatic rim light on the back of their head (thanks to the setting sun). The soft frontlight on your subject should add plenty of illumination, while the rim light should create depth and separate your subject from the background.

It’s pretty easy to do, though you’ll need to position yourself so the light doesn’t go straight into your lens and create lens flare (unless you like that look, of course!).

using a reflector example

In the photo above, the sun is hitting the left side of my subject’s face and arm, while the reflector bounces some of the sun back to light up her face.

the reflector in action

Note that, by changing the distance between the reflector and your subject, you can achieve different effects. For the example above, I positioned my subject against a tree, while a friend reflected a spot of sunlight from about 10 feet away. At that distance, the light from the reflector looked more like it was coming from a grid spot or snoot (hard light) – in other words, it was a focused and dramatic beam (notice the dramatic light falloff on her legs). Whereas the photo of my subject in the grass (above) used a closer reflector for a softer effect.

Pro tip: For a slight variation on this technique, you can move the reflector slightly behind the subject and compose a profile shot. You’ll get a dramatic rim light on the face:

using a silver reflector

3. Use a reflector to block light

If you’re shooting on a sunny midday, it often helps to work in the shade – but what if you find gorgeous, shady light, except for a pesky sunbeam that finds its way through the leaves?

Don’t make any adjustments, and the sunbeam will create an ugly spot of overexposure on your subject. But thanks to a reflector, you can block out the light and still get a great shot. (A light-blocking reflector is sometimes called a flag or a gobo).

A few years ago, I was doing a maternity portrait photoshoot in a local park. I found some nice, shaded light, but a bit of sunlight was streaming through the leaves. My response was to block the light with my reflector, as you can see below:

using a diffuser maternity shoot

That way, I was able to get a beautiful final result:

woman maternity shoot

Bottom line: Reflectors aren’t just for reflecting light! They can also block stray light, which is another great reason to keep one around.

4. Use a black reflector to create more dramatic shadows

Sometimes, you don’t want to fill shadows; instead, you want to deepen them, either to add drama or depth. I use this technique all the time in my headshot studio, with – you guessed it! – my reflector.

Below is a photo of me with a white background. I have a silver reflector opposite the main light, which has sent the light back toward my left cheek:

example with silver reflector

As you can see, the lighting on my face is very balanced, with very little difference between the two sides. But I often like more depth in my headshot portraits, so I’ll use my black reflector instead of my silver reflector to get this result:

example with black reflector

The lighting setup is identical, but the effect is pretty significant. The black reflector adds lots of negative fill and created a more interesting headshot. (You can also use this technique to give someone a photographic facelift; the shadow will trim pounds from the dark side of the face and under the chin.)

5. Use reflectors in the environment

Once you get the hang of reflectors, you’ll want to take your 5-in-1 reflector everywhere you go, and that’s great.

But I’d also recommend you learn to use natural reflectors. That way, if you’re ever shooting without a reflector and you need a little extra pop, you can quickly identify a nearby option.

For instance, ever seen a white building getting blasted by the sun? That’s nothing but a giant reflector! Ever walk by a white car on a sunny day? That’s a reflector, too! And you’re not confined to large reflectors, like cars and buildings; you can also work with white shirts, newspapers, sand, and more.

The more you look for natural reflectors, the more you’ll start to see them. And pretty soon, you’ll be able to find reflectors in seconds.

Who holds the reflector?

At this point, you may be saying to yourself, “Reflectors sound nice, but I don’t have an assistant! Who’s going to hold the reflector for me?”

First, as I demonstrated above, you can often ask your subject to hold the reflector, especially if you’re using it to add fill. Alternatively, there will often be someone nearby who is more than happy to help, be it a family member, a wedding guest, or even a random passerby.

And if you’re in the studio, or you’re outside without too much wind, you can just pop the reflector onto a light stand or clamp it to a tripod.

In the photo below, I was shooting wedding portraits on a beach in the Florida Keys. My reflector assistant that day was one of the bridesmaids, who truly enjoyed helping her friends out with their portraits.

woman holding reflector

And here is the final result:

wedding photography couple kissing

Reflector photography: final words

using a reflector child portraits

Although they may not be as impressive as strobe kits, reflectors can often yield similar or superior results, plus they’re cheaper and easier to use.

So remember the guidelines I shared above. Learn how to work with your reflector. And capture some stunning reflective shots!

Now over to you:

Do you plan to use a reflector? How do you plan to work it into your next photoshoot? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Reflector Photography: How to Use a Reflector for Stunning Portraits

Read more from our Tips Tutorials category

Dennis Drenner

Dennis Drenner

is a Baltimore-based portrait and event photographer and photojournalist. He has photographed over 350 weddings, completed thousands of portraits, and worked for a wide array of clients such as the New York Times, Washington Post, American Red Cross, Lululemon Clothing Stores, and JP Morgan Bank. His work has won awards in the Pictures-of-the-Year competition, three Maryland State Arts Council grants and two Fulbright Fellowships.

I need help with...