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The Best Photographic Tool You Already Have (But Never Use)

By Ryan Kelly


January 20, 2017

Want to make your subject ‘pop’ off the image and look more 3D? How about give a person that perfect twinkle in their eye that lights up the whole photo?

We all love to pour over incredible images, dreaming about how amazing it would be to have access to the professional gear that helped make them possible. So what if I were to tell you that the one of the most well-used pieces of gear in a pro photographers toolkit is available to you right now, for free? It’s something so common and so portable that you can easily take it with you or find it wherever you are at the moment. It’s the one piece of gear that can take a mediocre image and make it a beautiful, striking, three dimensional looking image you’re proud to share with the world.

Enter: the reflector.

What is a reflector? It’s an object that you can, well…reflect or ‘bounce’ light off of, then onto your subject. It can be any colour, shape or size, but in my experience, a fairly large, white, circular shape does the best job. Having said that, I have used towels, sheets of writing paper, place cards, even the shirt of the person standing next to me to reflect some much needed light that put the final image over the top.

Here's just a few reflectors you can use, both photo-specific and most definitely not photo-specific.

A few different reflector examples, all of which I’ve used on professional jobs and for personal snapshots.

Not only are reflectors everywhere, but they’re also incredibly easy to use. Check out the before/after example below. I took the portrait on the left without using a reflector. It looks decent but maybe a little dark on Beth’s face.

To fix this I have three options:

1. I could bump up my exposure to brighten her face and risk badly over exposing the background
2. I could lighten up her face using layers or a brush back at the computer, but I’m not super happy with how flat the light looks to begin with, so I don’t think that’s the best option
3. I could use a reflector to bounce some sunlight back towards her to brighten things up and not touch my exposure settings at all. The portrait on the right was taken with the exact same exposure settings (f/2, 1/1000 sec and ISO 100) but as you can see, I’ve added some beautiful light using a $20 reflector. That lovely reflector has added dimensionality, separation from the background, and the all-important ‘twinkle’ in the subjects eyes.

A highly technical diagram of the image above. Holding the reflector at roughly a 45 degree angle to your subject gives it a three dimensional look. 

Here are another couple of examples of using a reflector to add some extra awesome-ness to a portrait. The reflector was on the right hand side for both this time. (Both were shot at f/1.9, 1/2000 sec and ISO 200 using a medium format film camera)

So as you can see, using a reflector can make a huge difference. Let’s go over a few things to keep in mind when getting your bounce on…
As we know, the bigger the light source, the softer or smoother the light will on our subject (if you’d like to learn more about light as well as other essential aspects of photography, check out The Beginner Photography Starter Pack) . I many cases, our reflector becomes the main light source, so if you want a soft, classically flattering light for your subject, choosing a relatively large reflector is the way to go. My reflector size of choice for portraits is 42” across because it’s big enough to cast some great light, yet still hand-holdable on windy days.

Reflectors are a staple for any professional photographer — especially food photographers.

The setup for the soup/bread photo was simple: ample window light coming straight in from the back and a piece of white cardboard to bounce some light back onto the bowl on the left. The 75 cent piece of white cardboard made all the difference for this shot because before adding it in, the front side of the bowl was quite dark and dull.

The next time you find yourself in a well lit/sunny bistro, use this same technique with a white napkin and your iPhone.

People might think you look a little crazy, but that’ll just be a funny story to tell your millions of new Instagram followers.


Here’s one more example I wanted to show you. For this shot of Peaty (the bird), I used Beth’s shirt as a reflector. All she had to do was walk up and stand in a position that bounced the window light off her shirt and onto Peaty. Look at the massive difference it made in the before/after example! I didn’t even need to change my exposure. It really doesn’t get much easier than this.

Reflectors are everywhere! At your favourite brunch place and you feel the need to capture that eggs benedict in all its glory? Grab a white napkin or menu to bounce some light where its needed like I mentioned above. How about walking around downtown on a sunny afternoon? Keep an eye out for reflections off of glass windows for some amazing pockets of light. What if you’re taking photos of a bride getting ready on her wedding day? Hotel towels are pretty much always white, so grab one of those to add depth and a sparkle in the brides eyes when taking a window lit portrait.
Apart from grabbing a towel or sheet of paper, you can pick up some inexpensive, photo-specific reflectors at most any camera store.I typically buy my reflectors from either Adorama or KEH.
The opportunities and options for reflectors are endless, so get out there, keep your eyes open and have some fun with it!

Ryan Kelly is a professional photographer and educator. You can find out more about his flagship class The Beginner Photography Starter Pack by clicking here. 

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