You know all about the "golden hour", that hour after sunrise and before sunset, when the light is beautiful and soft. Photographers dream of this light that flatters their subject and makes their work look like a million bucks. Now back to reality. What about that afternoon birthday party you booked, or your own child's first steps on the beach at midday? There are always occasions when you are forced to shoot in less than ideal lighting situations. The harsh, midday light casts shadows and makes your job as a photographer more difficult, but you can still get great pictures even when it is bright outside. If you are doing a lot of portrait photography, just add a simple, relatively inexpensive tool to your kit - the reflector (and maybe a personal assistant to go with it)!
You may have seen photographers use reflectors and think that is only for the very advanced. They are actually pretty simple to use, and are invaluable in harsh sun conditions. Reflectors are not just for studio settings. In fact, they are probably more useful in natural light settings and specifically outdoor photography. You may not want to show up to your child's birthday party toting one, but if you have paying gigs add one to your wish list. For around $25 you can be more prepared for less than ideal lighting conditions.
The Problem with Hard Light
As you probably know one of the biggest issues when shooting a portrait in hard light are the shadows that are created. The underside of the face in particular is hard to light up. Dramatic shadows are unflattering and really exaggerate things like wrinkles, blemishes, etc. Even the most beautiful of subjects do not look their best in hard, unforgiving light.
MFawverWedding-057 by Flickr user TrishaLyn
Notice the harsh shadows on the bride's face in the photo above. The photo was taken in partial shade, but the sun is coming through the trees creating a dappled effect on the subject's faces. This photo could be greatly improved by using a reflector to bounce light into the subject's face. Another option is to use a diffuser. Most commercial reflectors also come with a translucent diffuser. You will need to hold the diffuser over your subject (this is where your helper comes in) to spread the light striking them creating a much softer and in this case more even effect.
Reflectors typically come in white, silver, or gold. Many vendors offer a combination kit that also includes a diffuser as mentioned above. The different colored reflectors serve different purposes. Silver reflectors tend to bounce a cooler light onto the subject that gives a more intense or harsh feel - basically the opposite of what we are discussing in this article. They are very useful in low light situations or when a strong light is needed. In the bridal photo above, this could be useful if the subjects were first moved entirely into the shade. In that case the silver reflector would be a useful tool for softening the shadows and brightening the portrait.
Gold reflectors bounce a warmer light that can add color and give the appearance of being photographed during that golden hour. This can be useful, but you do need to be careful not to overdo it. If you hold the gold reflector too close to your subject you will create a very unnatural look. Picture that childhood trick of standing in front of a mirror with a flashlight under your chin! You may be striving for beautiful, golden skin tones only to find your subject looks rather orange. So if you are a beginner, steer clear of the gold side.
White reflectors are very useful for lighting your subject's face and adding soft fill light. They cast a soft, clean light and are great for outdoor shoots in bright light.
Regardless of the reflector you use, it will take some experimentation to discover exactly where it directs the light. Before you begin to shoot, move the reflector around and take note of where the light is falling with respect to your subject. For safety's sake do not reflect sunlight directly into your subject's eyes. Reflectors can generate a lot of light and heat so be sure you are keeping your subject comfortable and safe.
Reflectors also come in a variety of sizes. Unless you are a pro you probably want a small version that can fold up and be compact for transport.
Adding Fill Light
When shooting in bright, harsh conditions your biggest enemy is harsh, contrasty shadows. In this case, add fill light from below to soften the effect. Place the reflector just slightly below the subject's eye level to fill chin and nose shadows. For close ups, try a diffuse white reflector for a natural look. For close shots your subject can even hold their own reflector to provide the same effect. The shot below utilizes a reflector to brighten up the model's face and avoid hard shadows.
Before you shoot pictures that really matter using a reflector, you should practice. Do not take this out for the first time with paying customers! In most cases steer clear of the gold side because you are likely to light up your subject with a strange glow. Try the white side for a soft, natural look when there is plenty of light. Slowly move the reflector toward your subject until you see the effect. You will need to experiment to find the sweet spot. With a little practice the addition of a reflector will greatly improve photos taken even in the harshest of light.
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