Light Modifiers

Today's post comes from the book Lighting Techniques for Photographing Model Portfolios by Billy Pegram. It is available from and other fine retailers.

Some light modifiers can be used with any light source, from sunlight to studio strobe. These are all handy devices to have around. Best of all, they tend to be inexpensive—and many can even be improvised with a quick trip to the hardware store. Reflectors, gobos, and scrims fall into this category. Other light modifiers, like softboxes and umbrellas, are designed specifically for use on studio lights. These can range widely in price, but are invaluable for exercising complete creative control.

A reflector is any object used to bounce light—it could be a wall, a white tshirt, a mirror, or a commercially purchased kit. This is an easy and effective way to control light. Unlike using flash for fill light, reflectors give you visual confirmation of where the light is. With reflectors, you can also set up and fine-tune your results more quickly than with flash. Additionally, you are not limited to the flash-sync speed of your camera.

Collapsible reflectors, available in a wide variety of finishes, are a very popular (and portable) type of reflector.

Surface. Reflectors range widely in size, color, and design. Typically, photographic reflectors have either a matte white, silver foil, or gold foil surface. The metallic surfaces provide more light intensity and contrast in the bounced light than the matte white surface. Gold reflectors also add a warm coloration to the bounced light.Mirrors are another type of reflector to experiment with. Because they return almost all of the light that strikes them, they can actually be used outdoors to turn backlight into front light.

Design. Round fabric reflectors on collapsible metal frames (often called disc reflectors) are a very popular design option, especially for location photography. They are easy to transport and simple to position—an assistant can simply hold the reflector in position, then adjust it according to your instructions. (Note:When I shoot on location, I typically bring a piece of white cardboard to use as a reflector, along with a Westcott disc reflector that is silver on one side and gold on the other.) For studio photography, large, white opaque reflectors (often called flats) are often moved into position on rollers or casters. Once in place, studio lights can be bounced into them to create a large, soft source of light.

For Fill. Reflectors are most commonly used to provide fill light, picking up some of the main light and wrapping it around onto the shadow side of the face to make the shadows less intense. To use a reflector for fill, place it slightly in front of the model’s face. Direct the reflected beam of light gradually toward the subject’s face until you get the desired results. Be careful when doing this; the reflected light can actually be quite intense if you shine it right in the model’s eyes. You must also avoid creating unwanted shadows of the nose on the opposite cheek. This is best accomplished by positioning the reflector to fill in the whole mask of the face.

Practical Example: Reflected Fill on Location. Let’s look at the different effect you can create using a variety of reflectors for fill when shooting on location. The image below shows the subject with no reflected fill.

In the next image , the assistant is holding a white card. The white board reflects the same color of light that is striking it and reflects back to the model a soft light that is usually easy on her eyes. This eliminates some of the squinting associated with shooting in bright sunlight. Even if the reflected light is not intense enough to increase the light value much in the shadow area, the reflector still creates pleasing catch lights in the eyes. The disadvantage of using a white board is that it is rigid and doesn’t reflect a great deal of light back to the subject compared to a silver reflector. However, its dual function as a gobo outweighs the disadvantages. Additionally, since it is rigid, it can easily be leaned against a tree or a stand while the assistant is busy or holding another reflector.

A white board is used to add soft fill light.

Like the white board, a silver reflector bounces light without changing the color balance (images below). However, because the surface of the reflector is metallic, it is highly reflective. This means that, used at the same distance to the subject as a white reflector, the light from a silver reflector will be more intense. To reduce the intensity of the fill, the reflector can be placed at a greater distance from the subject. The physical flexibility of the discs makes them versatile in kicking light to a specified area. They can be used to increase light levels in the shadow areas but also to create beautiful highlights on the hair, a piece of jewelry, or even a shoulder (to help separate the model from the background).

A silver reflector.

Below, a gold disc reflector reflects warm and romantic light back to the subject. The gold color can also compensate for some of the blue cast that is prevalent in a heavily shadowed area. Although I personally would not have chosen this image (because of the hand positions), it was the model’s favorite image from this series. To finish it, the image was cleaned up in Photoshop and the edges were darkened slightly to direct the viewer’s eyes to the model’s face.

A gold reflector adds warm-colored fill light.

Practical Example: Natural Reflectors. This image was taken with the late afternoon sun reflecting off a building and onto the model at an industrial park. The gray background was another building in the complex. Because I used a long lens, a 300mm Nikkor, and shot with the aperture wide open, the building in the background went out of focus just enough to look like the horizon line on a beach. Keep your eyes open for great natural reflectors in your environment—and when you see them, note the time of day to shoot there. These can be simple, beautiful light sources.

Natural reflectors, like the late-day light reflected off a building, can be very flattering light sources.

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