Reflectors are a great tool, especially in natural light portrait photography. When shooting in natural light, you often have to learn how to work with and modify the light you have in a particular situation, as opposed to a studio lighting scenario, where you are in complete control from the start. Many photographers struggle with reflectors because they are not using them properly. Some are using the wrong color for the lighting scenario they are in. Others are not using the reflector in the right position.
A photographer needs to decide the reason for using the reflector, and what type of light they are trying to emulate. There are few different types of lighting in portrait photography- main light, fill light, and back light (rim light), and hair light. A reflector can be used to simulate any one of these types of light. The two most common uses for a reflector are for the main light or for fill light. Let’s talk about how to use a reflector in these two instances.
Using a reflector as a main light:
Some examples of a main light would be the sun, or a studio strobe. When using a reflector as a main light source, here is where many photographers go wrong. Think about this: where is a main light usually positioned? It is generally positioned above the portrait subject, such as where the sun would be most of the day. An incorrect use of a reflector as a main light source would be to position it below the portrait subject’s face, reflecting the light up. This method produces an unnatural effect for portrait photography, although it could be used to produce an interesting effect, if that is what you are looking for. The correct use would be to hold the reflector above the portrait subject’s head, mimicking the natural direction of the sun. In using a 5-in-1 reflector, a silver or white reflector would work well as a main light. Keep in mind that a silver reflector will more closely mimic direct sunlight, possibly causing the subject to squint.
Below are some examples of a reflector being used as a main light. The bright sun was behind the portrait subjects acting as a hair light and rim light. The reflector was supported by a chair for some of the images (thankfully, it wasn’t a windy day!), and is positioned evenly with the portrait subject. The reflector was silver, so having the reflector further away and to the side helped a little with squinting. For more tips on avoiding squinting go here.
Another issue with having the reflector in the wrong position is that it will not only produce unnatural shadows, but also unnatural catchlights in the eyes. In my opinion, catchlights in the lower part of the eyes only look alright as long as there is a catchlight in the upper part of the eyes also.
One scenario when you may use the reflector as a main light, but positioned low, would be to imitate the light of a rising or setting sun. You could use a gold reflector, held even with, or slightly below the subject’s face to help produce a golden light.
Using a reflector as a fill light:
The main purpose of fill light is to fill in shadows, and help even out the lighting. In my opinion, a fill light could be placed high or low, depending on the intensity of the light, and the desired result. In a situation where your main light is overcast sky, or directional light, such as under a porch, you may want to position your reflector below or even with the subject’s face. With brighter main light, you could also position the reflector higher mimic a double main light.
Below are some examples of a reflector used for fill light. For the first four images, a silver reflector was used. The setting sun was behind the portrait subjects, acting as a hair light. The main light was open sky in front of and above the portrait subjects.
For the next two images, a large translucent diffuser (scrim) was used to reflect the bright sun back at the portrait subject. A bonus of having a scrim is being able to also use it as a white reflector. Check out this post for more on using a scrim.
For the last two example images, a reflector was used to bring in some fill light under the portrait subject’s hat. Only one studio strobe was used. The main light was upper left, with the reflector positioned lower right.