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When Do I Use the Different Reflector Colors?

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    Even seasoned photographers need a few tricks up their sleeve for achieving perfect shots in less-than-ideal conditions. One of those tricks is to manipulate the light. If we waited until weather and lighting conditions were ideal, we’d be waiting forever.

    While it’s true you can’t make rain stop or generate wind (unless you somehow can cram a portable generator and fan into that little camera bag), you can change lighting conditions in any setting, even when it’s so sunny your eyes are burning. All you need are a set of reflectors, softboxes and diffusers, an inexpensive investment on your part, to manipulate the light in your favor.

    Reflectors are a must-have tool for any photographer, and I can tell you they’ve made a huge difference for me on days where the lighting gods were not watching out for me. Ideally, having someone that can help you position them is the best way (not to mention the fastest way) to score those shots you want but if you’re flying solo, you can test your creativity by finding other ways to prop them up. I’ve even used a tripod to hold mine in place with amazing results.

    If you’re new to photography, you might not really know what I mean by reflector, so keep reading as I dive right into that.

    Portable Collapsible Multi-Disc Photography Light Photo Reflector for Studio and Outdoor Lighting

    What is a reflector?

    A reflector isn’t the same thing as a flash light. It’s doesn’t create light per se, but rather, redirects light that already exists. You can use it to redirect light from your flash or even a studio strobe. It’s super-important to understand that a reflector can’t create light when there is none. So while you could use a reflector to light up night portraits, you actually need a flash, coupled with a light diffusor or some other light source as well to make that happen.

    Another thing you should know, and this is really cool, is that the reflected light will match the scene lighting. This can make for some truly special portraits, particularly at the golden hour, when you get that orangey color reflecting off of your subject. Sometimes though, you won’t want that, or you may want a different color.

    And that’s exactly where colored reflectors come in. It’s a good idea to have a traditional white reflector to help bounce the light off for a nice, soft effect. But you may also want to look at other types of reflectors to create different looks for illuminating your scene. Silver reflectors don’t change the light color but they do reflect more brightly than a white one, a nice option to work with for nightscape photography. Conversely, gold reflectors add more warmth.

    Reflectors aren’t just for helping redirect light. Their main function is to get the shadows right. During the day, unwanted shadows can ruin a perfect portrait outdoors. Your subject could be cast in a shadow from a wide-brimmed hat or turn out like a silhouette without a reflector on your side. In this way, it can replace the fill flash.

    Reflectors can do so much for your outdoor portraits and are very versatile. You can even flip them over to the black side (available on most reflectors) to block out light rather than reflect it. You’ll get a lot of use out of them and they’re not expensive, all the better for making your photos even more spectacular.

    How to Use a Reflector

    If you can manage a camera and its accessories, you can easily manage a reflector. They’re very easy to use though you should take a few precautions because if not, it will be more than obvious that you’ve used them. You’ll want to position your subject for your portrait in the setting you want first. Then get your reflector and hold it so the light source you’ve got is hitting it.

    Now, slowly angle it toward the subject of your portrait until you can see the shadows lighten. Tilt it away a bit to adjust the reflection just enough that it looks more natural. A great way to make sure you’ve got it is to take a few experimental shots while you hold the reflector at slightly different angles. Eventually, once you get more experience, you’ll just know without the need for test shots, but they’re worth it to make sure you don’t waste time on a shoot that comes out less than stellar.

    How do I use the different reflector colors?

    I briefly mentioned different reflector colors in the beginning of this post. Silver, white, and gold. Though there are a couple more – black and translucent – that you can get too. They all create different results for your portraits so knowing which one you should use will help you get the most out of them. Sometimes, you’ll need more than one of them at once to reduce shadows and get the light just the way you want it.

    I’m going to tell you a bit more about each one so you’ll have a better understanding of when to use these light reflectors and what they’re best for. I know you’ll be excited by the end of this post to go try them out!

    – The White Reflector Side

    This is the side that’s most commonly used for bouncing soft, fresh light into the shadows to brighten up your scene. The thing with the white side is that it needs to be rather close to your subject to create a noticeable difference and you need to be working with strong light.

    In my experience, I only rely on the white side when I can get the light reflector close enough to my subject and when I have enough light going for me to work with. It has the potential to add very subtle, flattering light when done right, but if you’ve got a cloudy day or low light, the white side simply won’t cut it. You’ll need to go more dramatic with it.

    Feel free to play around with the reflectors on your shoots too. If you’re just starting out, you might want to enlist some friends like I did and try out different reflectors in different settings to see the results. A bonus to this is that you get a better feel for them and more practice, which can only help you become an even better photographer.

    – The Silver Reflector Side

    Now the silver side is one I love and was the easiest to work with in my beginning days. In fact, I often find it is still my old reliable for a great neutral effect. It doesn’t change the color cast of your photos, a fantastic advantage for using it. However, because it is so much more reflective than the white one, you’ll really need to watch the effects as they might come out looking extremely obvious.

    I like the silver side for use in bright sunlight as well as low light. I think it’s important to experiment with the placement of it in relation to your subject though. Sometimes, further away is best to prevent over-lighting your subject’s features and losing the very details you’re trying to capture. Other times, you may need to move closer to get it just right.

    Mastering this reflector, you’ll find it incredibly handy for lower light scenarios. Again, the key is to practice until you get a feel for how it influences the way your subjects look. It never hurts to take those test shots. Better to learn now than to ruin a shoot because of lack of technique.

    – The Gold Reflector Side

    With metallic gold, you get a very strong and warm light on your subject. I’d like to offer up my own personal experience when I was just starting out. Thankfully, I was shooting a friend of mine. I wanted to experiment with each reflector and taking those test shots really helped me see where I was doing well and where I needed to make improvements.

    But the one that had me laughing at myself was the gold side. It made her, a most stunningly beautiful woman, look like some alien creation with a bright gold face. I did find though, after much trial and error, that this gold side was truly golden (pardon the pun) for perfectly capturing sunset portraits. As a result, I use it only during those types of shoots when the sun is getting lower in the sky with that orangey-yellowy glow. It seems to work very well in those scenes. Of course, if you want to go all artsy and have that alien-gold face, then it will be very useful.

    – The Black Reflector Side

    The dark side, as I jokingly refer to it, or the black side, doesn’t reflect anything at all. If you knew anything about the color spectrum before getting into photography, you’re probably well aware that black absorbs light (hence why wearing black on a hot, summery day is like being on the surface of the sun). The black side’s job is to block light.

    You need contrast with shadows for the subjects of your portraits. Of course, not every shadow is one you want to come to light, which is why you use the reflectors to diffuse light. Good shadows take your photography to the next level because they add an element of depth and reality to it. The trick is in manipulating those shadows to get the right effect. That involves even more experimenting on your part, but if you love photography, spending the time playing around with reflectors and shadows on willing subjects feels like no time at all. Sometimes these movements are so tiny and subtle so it takes a willingness to hone your skills in the right direction. Play with the black side and see how it can be useful to you too when taking your portraits.

    – The Translucent Reflector Side

    Take the reversible material on your reflector and unzip it. There in the middle, you’ll find a translucent piece of material, the diffuser. This is one I use quite often and I think you will too. It’s a very useful reflector though it needs to be positioned above the subject to soften the natural light from the sun. With this side, you want it as your go between for the light source and your subject.

    It’s very useful for outdoor settings, especially when the wind is too strong for a softbox or an umbrella. Once in my early days, I dared to tempt fate and was lucky that I made a fast swipe to catch my umbrella before it blew away and became Mary Poppins’ latest accessory. Now I know better, and you will too if you use the diffuser to soften the hard lights your strobes will cast when you’re outdoors.


    Reflectors can truly help you create better portraits, but don’t expect to nail it on the first try. It takes time and practice to work with different lighting situations to discover how each can be useful to you.

    Don’t get hung up on their fully-intended uses either. Photography is an art which means you really should be up for exploring new methods and styles. You’ll learn what works and what doesn’t, and discover some cool effects along the way. I highly recommend enlisting friends or family for practice shoots as you learn to use diffusers to your advantage. Who doesn’t love being the subject of portraits? They’ll have cool new photos they can use and you’ll have more experience. With that experience comes knowing what works best in different settings and light situations. You can bring your own strobes to add more light on a cloudy day or lower-light setting too and use all these elements together to create a name for yourself.