Enhance Your Photos with Inexpensive Reflectors

Never underestimate the power of reflected light. It can totally change the look and feel of an image, and sometimes, it can make or break the shot. Reflectors are a must in certain situations, and you’d be amazed at the difference just a small piece of white foam core can make. Whether you’re shooting portraits, product or food photography, it can take a photo from blah to wow.

How Do Reflectors Work?

What a reflector does is simply diffuse and reflect some of the light back on the object or subject and, depending on the light, it can either make a shadow disappear altogether, or help fill in the shadows to bring out more detail.

Large gold reflector and foam core by Cattie Coyle Photography

Choosing a Reflector

There are many different kinds of reflectors you can buy, but you really don’t need anything fancy – there are many inexpensive alternatives available. I personally use both homemade and purchased ones and like them all for different reasons.

I often combine two different types, such as foam core and a mirror, or a mirror and foil, because I like to control different areas of the image separately. If you prefer to only use one reflector, and you are shooting by a window, try angling your reflector so that it’s reflecting on both the front and side of the object, otherwise you risk the front being a bit underexposed. But if you’re going for a blown-out background and sides, reflect the side, expose for the front and then lighten the entire image with curves in Photoshop.

My Favorite Reflectors

Here is a short rundown of my favorite reflectors (with a comparison chart showing the effects of each at the end of the article):

Foil


Easily accessible (who doesn’t have foil in their kitchen?) and because of its stiffness, ease to work with, and minimal cost, regular aluminum foil makes a perfect reflector.

Mirrors


A mirror does not diffuse the light; it reflects all of it, which makes a small mirror a great tool for creating a spotlight when you want to highlight a particular part of an image.

Foam core


Large sheets of foam core are great both as surfaces, backdrops and reflectors. Use different colors (or white) for surfaces and backdrops, and white as reflectors (you can use colored ones if you want, but your image will have a color cast). To use as reflectors, lean them against something or make your own little foam core stand. Since they are so lightweight, they don’t need a whole lot of support – I just use a couple of spring clamps to keep mine in place.

Small Collapsible Reflector


I have had this small reflector for about 20 years, and still use it all the time. Because of its small size (12”), I carry it with me everywhere and use it both as a reflector and background (when the object I’m shooting is small enough). It has one white and one silver side. They do come in other / more colors, but these are the ones I use the most.

Large Collapsible Reflector


This large collapsible reflector / diffuser is basically the same thing as the small one, but larger and with more colors. It comes with 5 different surfaces: white, black, gold, silver and translucent (to be used as a diffuser, works great as a backdrop as well). It’s a bit too big and unwieldy to use with spring clamps and doesn’t always want to stay in place on its own, so I use it with a light stand (or ask someone to hold it). Great for when you need a lot of fill light, or as a backdrop. And since it folds up, it easy to bring along for shoots on location (although I wouldn’t bring it on a hike; for that I use the smaller version).

You get different effects from the various surfaces:

  • White gives you a nice, even light, just like the foam core does.
  • Gold results in a warm light, not the best choice for my photo here, but I like it for portraits.
  • Silver adds a little bit more contrast to the light, which I like a lot.
  • The black side does not reflect light, but rather absorbs it, so it’s good to use if you want to remove reflections.
  • The translucent base disc is to be used as a diffuser, so if you are shooting next to a window with really strong sunlight, put the diffuser in the window and instead of harsh light with dramatic shadows, you get a nice, soft, even light. It can also be used as a white backdrop.

White sheet / Table cloth

If you need to fill in a larger area (like a full body portrait), and don’t want to invest in a large professional reflector, you can hang a white sheet or tablecloth from a stand or the ceiling. When I use this method, I use a simple clothing rack I got at a department store and clip the sheet to it with spring clamps. This method also works really well if you want to use the sheet as a backdrop (just make sure to iron it first, unless you want a textured background).

There is so much you can do with light. Play around with all these options and variations and experiment until you find what works for your particular style. There is no better way to learn, and once you have it down, you won’t have to guess but can envision, and will know exactly what you need, to get the final result even before you set up the shoot.

Photography reflectors comparison chart by Cattie Coyle Photography

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Never underestimate the power of reflected light. It can totally change the look and feel of an image, and sometimes, it can make or break the shot.

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