Ask David: When Do I Use the Different Reflector Colors? :: Digital Photo Secrets

Ask David: When Do I Use the Different Reflector Colors?

by David Peterson 2 comments

If only you could control the weather. Whip up a little wind to make your model's hair move. Conjure up a cloud or two to diffuse that awful direct sunlight. Make the rain that's ruining your photo shoot go away until tomorrow.

Well, there really isn't much you can do to stop the rain or create wind in the middle of a wheat field, short of packing a circus tent, a fan and a gas generator in your camera bag. But you can change the light, even on one of those dreadfully bright afternoons. And it's easier than you might think: just bring along an inexpensive set of reflectors (and, if you can, someone to help you position them, though in a pinch you can use a tripod or just figure out creative ways to prop them up).

What is a reflector?

Have you ever shot a photo of your child or a friend/family member on a bright day and then been disappointed by the "raccoon effect?" Portraits shot in harsh, overhead lighting conditions often create black holes where your friend or loved ones eyes are supposed to be. Hat-wearing subjects may have faces that are half or more obscured by this type of shadow, and subjects shot against bright backgrounds may have very little detail in their faces at all. Subjects shot under trees may have that "cammo" look, with blotchy shadows covering their faces and clothing.

Happily, you can greatly reduce these effects by carrying a set of portable reflectors in your camera bag. A reflector is really any object that reflects light, from a piece of foam core to a sheet of cardboard covered in aluminum foil to a piece of nylon manufactured for this express purpose. Reflectors can be large or small - larger ones are often used in a studio setting while the smaller ones are designed to be portable.

How to Use a Reflector

Reflectors are actually fairly simple to use, though you do have to be careful not to overdo it since too much reflection can be obvious. Think stealth reflection.

First position your subject in your chosen setting. Now hold the reflector so that the available light is hitting it, and then angle it slowly towards your subject until you can see a noticeable lightening of the shadows. Now tilt it away from your subject a little to adjust the amount of reflection so that it isn't too obvious. If you need to take a few experimental shots with the reflector held at slightly different angles, do it. Eventually you will learn where that fine line is between enough fill light and too much, and you won't have to worry about crossing it.

What about all those different colors?

Reflectors that are manufactured for photography often come in five different colors: silver, white, gold, black and translucent. There is a difference in the results you will get using the different colors, so it is important to know which situations call for which reflectors.

A Side of Profile by Flickr user christianyves


If you're new to reflectors, you may find it easier to start out with the silver side. Silver creates a neutral effect on your image, which means that it won't change the color cast of your photo. Because it is much more reflective than white, its effects are more obvious - which can be both a blessing and a curse, since it can be a lot easier to overdo. It is also more versatile than the white side (which also creates a neutral effect), since it can be used in both bright sunlight and low light.

When using the silver reflector, try placing it at varying distances from your subject. You may find it helps to be a little further away in order to avoid over-lighting your subject's face and losing detail.

Once you master working with the silver reflector, you will probably want to reserve it for lower light situations. Because the silver side is so reflective, it can be difficult to avoid blowing out your highlights when the light is coming from directly above on a sunny day.

Nadya by Flickr user christianyves


Now that you have a good idea of how to use your silver reflector, you can move on to the white one. White is much better suited to those over-bright summer days. The light that reflects off of the white side is much softer than the silver side, which means that it will fill in those black shadows without over-brightening the highlights. You will find, though, that you have to place the white side much closer to your subject or you will get very little effect.

Like silver, white creates a neutral effect, so you don't have to worry about changing the color cast of your image. It also doesn't have much effect on the quality or quantity of light that is falling on your subject from other sources. It is not, however, useful in low light situations since it is much less reflective than silver.

Devin by Flickr user Robert Bejil Photography


The gold side has reflective qualities that are similar to the silver side, except that they will radically change the color temperature of your scene. You can easily overdo it with a gold reflector, so think carefully about the shooting conditions before you decide if you need one.

The gold reflector will create a strong warm light and is best used to fill in shadows when your subject is in the shade (which naturally has a bit of a cool cast). It is also useful for adding a warm glow to subjects who have darker skin - or at the opposite extreme, for improving the skin tones of someone who is very pale. And if you haven't yet reached that magic hour and you'd like to simulate that coveted sunset effect, can try using the gold reflector to add a golden cast to your subject.

Gage by Flickr user Jer Kunz


Black isn't really a reflector, but it is often one of the colors included with sets of portable reflectors, so its use is worth discussing. Black is used for the exact opposite purpose that the other reflectors are used. Use black when you want to create a shadow, rather than take one away. You may want to do this if one side of your subject's face is a little too brightly lit, and you want to tone it down a little. You can also use it when the light is too even, to add some deeper shadows and make your image appear more three dimensional.

Ana L by Flickr user Luís Ferreira


Like black, the translucent part of your reflector kit doesn't actually reflect. Instead, it acts as a diffuser, which will soften the light rather than fill in the shadows. The diffuser should always be placed directly between your subject and the light source. You can also use the translucent side to soften your flash, which can be useful when you need the extra light but don't want to turn up your ISO or use a wide aperture.

Some Other Reflectors

Silver and gold striped reflectors are not typically a part of most portable sets, but they can be useful when you're looking for something between a silver and a gold reflector. A silver/gold striped reflector has a softer warming effect than a gold filter alone - it creates a warm tone without being overwhelmingly warm. Try this kind of reflector when the gold one just seems to be a little too much.

While gold reflectors create warm tones, blue ones create cool tones. If you're shooting at sunrise or sunset but you don't want that golden light in your image, you can use a blue reflector to help counter the natural light.

Once you get the hang of them, I think you'll find reflectors to be a very useful tool for changing the light according to your own personal vision of what you want your photo to look like. True, you can't use a reflector to change the weather, but changing the sun is surely the next best thing.

Most people think this post is Awesome. What do you think?


  1. Kayla says:

    Finally! I have always wondered about this and was never able to find an article or website that could properly explain it. Now I understand and cant wait to buy my reflectors! Thank you for this :)

  2. Jacob says:

    Thank you for the clear explanation. It was very helpful in understanding why they come in such a collection.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

10 minutes
About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.