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In photography, lighting is everything – especially when it comes to portraiture. For portrait photographers, there’s nothing better than that early morning or late afternoon natural light, but the sun isn’t always gracious enough to behave how we want it to. That’s when we have to call in help from external lighting equipment, which can come in many different forms. 

While handheld flashes and studio lights are great for illuminating a subject, they can also be bulky and inconvenient to use. Large flashy lighting equipment can also be intimidating for a new or shy model. Reflectors, on the other hand, are easy to transport, require no batteries or electricity and can have a dramatic effect on a photo’s quality of light. Plus, they’re much less intimidating than hot, blinding electronic lights. Let’s break down the effects of the most commonly used reflectors.

White: The white reflectors reflect light neutrally, meaning they doesn’t affect the tone or huge of the image.

Gold: These reflectors bounces back a warm light, making blue tones more golden. This is a great option if you’re going for a warmer look, but can be overpowering when it’s held too close to the model.

Sunlight: These have a similar effect as the gold reflectors, but create a less yellow and more natural tone. You’ll notice the color of the fabric has a slightly more silver tone than the gold.

Black: The black reflectors block or subtract low light, which increases the contrast over the overall image. This can create an interesting artistic effect, but can sometimes be too intense for a classic portrait.

Silver: These reflectors also create a contrasty look, but the silver hue gives the image a cooler tone, rather than a yellow or gold one. Silver reflectors create a less contrasty look than black reflectors do.

Diffusion: These reflectors soften harsh light, making them a great option for bright days. Diffusers decrease the level of contrast of an image.

Zebra: Zebra striped reflectors are a mixture between silver and gold fabric, creating a nice blend between cooler blue and warmer yellow tones while also slightly increasing the contrast. This is a great, versatile option that works in a huge variety of situations.

So how do you use them? The lighter colored reflectors (white, silver, gold, sunlight and zebra pattern) reflect light, or bounce more light onto a subject, making them helpful in a number of situations, one of the most common being filling in shadows. Many times, especially when shooting in direct sunlight, part of a subject’s face can be cast by a dark shadow, creating an extreme, contrasty look. While this harsh effect has its own artistic appeal, it’s not always an ideal look for portraiture – and this is where reflectors can be your saving grace. By holding a light colored reflector up to the shadowed side of your subject, you can reflect light from the sun (or whatever your light source is) back onto the shadows, which reduces the contrast and can give your subject a more natural and softer look. The closer the reflector is to the subject, the stronger the effect will be. The farther away, the softer the effect.


Light colored reflectors also work great as a mock secondary light source. If you don’t have access to a secondary hair light, you can use a reflector to create the look instead. By holding a reflector behind and to the side of a subject, light will bounce onto the subject’s hair, creating a nice halo or backlit effect. This is a great trick if you’re going for a softer, dreamy portrait shoot.


Reflectors can also create a nice catch light in a subject’s eyes. This is the small circle of light that reflects in a model’s eyes when shooting in the studio or with a flash, but the effect can also be created with a reflector. Simply hold the reflector beneath the subjects chin, facing upwards. The light will bounce off of the reflector and up into the subject’s face and eyes, creating a nice glow.


Reflectors do have their downsides that you should be aware of. The first is that they can be hard to handle without the help of an assistant or a stand to support it. It’s exceptionally awkward to try to hold a reflector and shoot at the same time, and equally awkward for the model to hold it up themselves. If you plan on using a reflector, try to find a friend to assist during the shoot or invest in a sturdy stand. 


The fact that reflectors are so lightweight makes them great for traveling, but also a hassle on windy days. If you’re shooting outside, check the weather conditions and make sure to bring the proper equipment. If you don’t have an assistant, you’ll need not only a stand with clamps to hold the reflector, but also sandbags to keep the stand in place, or you’ll risk your reflector blowing away or smacking your model in the face.  

With the help of a reflector, you can improve the lighting situation of any photograph without wiping out your bank account. Buy a set of five for less money than you would spend on a single handheld flash and watch your images improve before your eyes.

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