Reflecting Light

If you have ever taken pictures outdoors in bright sunlight, you’ve probably seen the old standard – the family all squinting at the person taking the picture, with their foreheads overexposed pure white and the shadows under their eyebrows, noses, and chins underexposed to pure black. You may have seen photographs taken indoors with flash even though the window behind the subject was fully sunlit. Of course, we’ve all seen the odd color cast and lighting of pictures taken in deep shade on sunny days. There’s one tool that will help you solve all of these tricky lighting problems, and it’s a very inexpensive one. No, you don’t have to go buy a new flash, or a new camera, or some kind of fancy light. All you need is a simple, inexpensive reflector.


You can make a very useful reflector inexpensively using the white foamcore board you can get at almost any craft store. A medium sized piece will work for individual subjects, but you might need a big one for a group. Get some tape, a knife, and a weight (in case it’s windy!). Cut the first layer of the board about 1/3 of the way up the front, then fold it into an “L” shape. Tape the corners so that it will stay bent, and put the weight on the short end of the “L”. Now, put the reflector out of the picture below your camera’s line of sight, and examine your subject. Move the reflector until you see the shadows lighten, and take the picture. You’ll see that the contrast has come down quite a bit, and everyone looks much more evenly lit.

Sometimes you can get away with laying a large white reflector flat on the ground so that the light is reflected up into the shadows of your subject. Be careful, and experiment – you can get too much of a good thing and end up with flat, odd looking pictures.

Windshield Reflector

Another good alternative to the white foam core is the collapsible silver windshield reflectors for the front dash of automobiles. They’re designed to reflect the sun’s light (and heat) back out of the car, and they’ll do a very good job reflecting light for us, but again, be careful! It’s even easier with these large silver reflectors to overwhelm the lighting in your image.

When you’re shooting inside, and you see that there is sunlight coming through a window, a reflector placed judiciously in that beam of light can allow you to avoid using a flash, making your images much more natural and beautifully colored. Once you try this, you’ll be hooked by the images you create. Feel free to experiment  with more reflectors – throw one in the sun, and one on the opposite side of the subject reflecting THAT light back at them.

When you find yourself shooting pictures in the shade, look around for an opportunity to reflect sunlight back into the image – this will lighten it, give it the depth and color it’s missing. It works particularly well for macro photography of flowers and anything that will hold still. You’ll probably still need a flash if you’re going to shoot macro pictures of moving things.

If you find yourself needing more control over just how the reflectors influence your image, you can purchase a light stand for around $30-$40, and buy some spring clamps at your local hardware store. With this combination, you can clamp your reflectors in almost any position you need to put fill light wherever you want it.

Another option to consider is to look for natural, pre-existing reflectors such as white building walls, light-colored sand or pavement, a white car – almost anything with a light, neutral color will work and help fill in your shadows and improve the lighting in your image.

A word of warning for DIY’ers – Purchased reflectors can be good (and cheap) too.

Photo Reflector by Impact

Photo Reflector by Impact

While the DIY version of a reflector can work just as well or better (in some cases) than a purchased reflector,  make sure you don’t spend too much on a DIY project.  The costs can quickly add up to more than purchasing a professional quality reflector from a photography supply store.  B&H Photo for example have over 300 collapsible reflectors for sale starting as low as $10 for a small size.  A reflector made by some of the top companies can be an inexpensive light source.  Purchased reflectors also have the advantage of being very compact when folded down and sturdy when full size.

Whatever reflector type you choose – the most important step is DOING.  Get your camera, get yourself a sunny day and a subject to take pictures of, and go experiment. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the way reflectors will improve your images.

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Posted on March 23rd, 2010 in Tips / Tutorials | tags: , , , , ,