What in the heck is that thing for? A photographer's guide to using the black flag :: Digital Photo Secrets

What in the heck is that thing for? A photographer's guide to using the black flag

by David Peterson 0 comments

If you own a set of photographer's reflectors, you've probably got a pretty good handle on what most of the different versions are for. The white reflector can be used on a bright sunny day to bounce light back into the shadows, softening them up and eliminating the dreaded raccoon eyes look. The silver reflector can be used on an overcast day, when you need just a little extra boost to the highlights. Similarly, the golden side can be used to simulate the look of golden hour sunset or sunrise light. And the translucent side is actually a diffuser — to use it, you simply place it between the light source and your subject and it diffuses or softens the light, which eliminates the need to bounce light into the shadows. But there is another surface included with most reflector sets that you may find just a little bit perplexing. It's the black side—and if it's not at first obvious to you what it's for, you are not alone. Many photographers simply archive that black side because they can't really think of a use for it, and the rest of those reflectors seem to do everything that's needed anyway. Aren't you just a little curious, though? Read on to find the answer.

What if I told you that there is actually a good use for that black side, and that you shouldn't simply squirrel it away in your camera bag, never to be seen or thought about? The black side of your reflector kit is called a black flag, and it's use is referred to as "flagging." Once you really understand how the black flag can help improve your photos, I think you'll find a lot of different uses for it.

What is a black flag?

A black flag, although it seems to be in a completely different category than those reflectors and diffusers, is actually a very similar tool. The black flag can be used to control light, just like a diffuser or reflector can. Diffusers soften the light, reflectors bounce the light, and flags actually remove or block light. If you don't have a set of reflectors, you can use a black piece of foam core as a black flag, just as you can use a white piece of foam core as a pseudo-reflector.

Just as with any reflector, diffuser, or similar tool you either need to have someone to hold the flag for you or you will need to have some light stands and clamps that you can use to adjust and position the flag before you take the photograph.

Westcott 306 20-Inch 5-In-1 Reflector (Black)

When to use the black flag

You can use a black flag to increase contrast in a scene. One example of when you might want to do this is if you are shooting on an overcast day, which tends to be very flat and almost two-dimensional looking because the light just doesn't have that much dynamic range. Another example could be a studio image where you're trying to achieve a high contrast look. It could be that you're shooting a small object and you'd like to deemphasize the background—you can do this by placing your black flag in front of your light source and moving it until the shadows fall on the background. This is a way of reducing the light on the background without also having to underexpose the shot, which would have as much effect on the subject itself as it would have on the background. This can help separate subject and background and create a more dramatic and more three-dimensional look in your photograph. You may find that you need to combine reflectors with the black flag and that's perfectly acceptable—let's say you darken the background so much that part of the subject falls off a little bit at the edges. Use a reflector to create an outline on that side of the subject and bring it a little forward from the background.

  • Canon EOS 40D
  • 320
  • f/4.0
  • 0.005 sec (1/200)
  • 100 mm

Cake On a Dark Background by Flickr user Forrest Tanaka

A black flag can also be used as a sort of stand in for a lens hood – if you have a light shining towards the camera in such a way that it may create flare, you can place a black flag between the light and your camera so that the light still hits your subject where you want it to but is directed away from your lens so it doesn't create any unwanted glare.

Using a black flag with your flash

You can also use a pseudo-black flag to modify the light from your onboard flash. A piece of soft black foam, wrapped around the bottom of your flash will stop your flash from hitting your subject directionally, and will also prevent the light from spilling out into the room in such a way that it creates a distraction for people who might be in the area. This can help improve your photographs, but it can also help make you, as a photographer with a flash, more tolerable to the people who are around you simply trying to enjoy the event. All you need for this technique is a soft, flexible piece of foam that you can buy at any craft store and one or two pieces of elastic, such as basic elastic hair ties, to hold the foam in place. Wrap it around the bottom of your flash and up the sides and it can be used to bounce light even though it is not white or silver. The bounced light you get from a flag will be much softer and less obtrusive than bounced light from a direct source such as a white ceiling or wall. Position the flash so that it is pointed over people's heads, and you'll get a soft light with beautiful highlights and shadows.

  • Nikon D600
  • 200
  • f/8.0
  • 0.006 sec (1/160)
  • 105 mm

12/365 by Flickr user Jomochito

Using a black flag on an overcast day

On a sunny day, you can use the black flag to block off a little bit of light at the same time you're bouncing light back in with the white reflector. On an overcast day, you can place the black flag on the opposite side of your subject as the sun (or wherever the sun would be if it wasn't behind those clouds). You want the black flag to be close enough to block light that is coming from that side—this will help put it back that third dimension that is so often missing from images shot on flat, overcast days. If you're not sure about the effectiveness of these techniques, I always recommend taking two test shots, one with and one without the modifier so you can see exactly what's happening to your subject's face when you add the black flag.


Think of your black flag as a portable shadow. You can use it any time you need to add a little bit of dimension to your scene, or when you need to block out the intensity of light from any sort of light source. You can use it to create compelling, three-dimensional-looking photographs by strategically positioning it in such a way that it darkens at the background or adds shadow in places where it would have otherwise been difficult to achieve. Remember when you're traveling with your black flag to also travel with a reflector, because there may be situations where you want to add a little extra light at the same time as you're removing it from other parts of the subject. But whatever you do, don't just a stash that black flag in the back of your reflector kit and pretend it's not there. You can really achieve great results with the use of a black flag, just so long as you understand how to use and position it.


  1. When to use a black flag
    • On an overcast day
    • To create higher contrast
    • To separate subject from background
    • To block light or prevent lens flare
  2. Using a black flag with flash
    • Wrap black foam around your flash
    • Use it to bounce light
  3. Using a black flag when it's overcast
    • Place it opposite the light source

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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+.