If I had to recommend one accessory to photographers getting started with portraits, it would be a reflector, over and over and over. Cheap—especially by photo-gear standards—and extremely versatile, reflectors are matched only by gaffer tape on the scale of photographic utility. Depending upon your needs, they come in all shapes and sizes, from hulking 5 x7-foot behemoths to dainty 1-foot-diameter discs.
A well-placed reflector can go a long way, improving the quality of a photograph. Collapsible reflectors offer the added benefit of flexibility, allowing you, or an assistant, to carefully bend and bounce light onto your subject with precision. The creative possibilities offered by a bright window working in tandem with a reflector or two never ceases to amaze. On the other hand, if you prefer shooting in remote locations, packing a few reflectors is much more convenient than hauling a lighting kit to the top of a mountain or the middle of the tundra.
Many portable reflectors use a flexible metal frame with a translucent fabric as a base support along with multiple sleeves (silver, gold, etc.) that can be used to cover and change the character of the light being bounced. This translucent material can be used not only to bounce light but also as a diffuser to reduce harsh outdoor lighting when positioned between your model and the sun. In studio, these sets are equally useful for bouncing or diffusing light sources, as well as shaping or blocking ambient light.
When choosing a reflector, there are two primary variables to consider: color and shape. There are numerous reflective surfaces available from which to select, the most common being silver, white, and gold. If you want the hardest light possible, get silver; for a more muted effect, choose white; or for warm light, go for gold.
Circular reflectors are probably the most frequently used and are especially desirable when shooting portraits because they give you nice, round catchlights in your model’s eyes. Rectangular reflectors work well for larger subjects that require more light. If larger enough, you can also use one as a makeshift portable background. The greatest challenge faced when using a circular or rectangular reflector comes when working without an assistant. Reflector stands are available to lend additional support when an extra set of hands is not available. Triangular reflectors offer another possible solution when shooting solo, because they provide an easier grip position, supposing you are comfortable shooting one-handed.
There are a couple of variations on the reflector styles worth mentioning. Westcott’s Omega Reflector 360 has a removable center disc, lending the reflector a donut-like shape. This allows you to shoot through the opening while the reflector adds an effect not unlike a ring light. For headshot photographers, the Lastolite Triflector MKII offers three articulating triangular reflectors that can be mounted on a light stand to control fill light when your light source is above your model.
What role do reflectors play in your workflow? Share your experiences in the Comments section, below.
The “Things We Love” series articles are written by B&H Photo Video Pro Audio staff to talk about products and items that we love. Opinions expressed in the articles are those of the writers and do not represent product endorsements from B&H Photo Video Pro Audio.