Photographers are very susceptible to a serious virus: Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Symptoms include back pain, fatigue, stress, an empty bank account and a serious lack of storage space. The cure? Going back to the basics, and purchasing only accessories that have multiple purposes.

The 5-in-one reflector is one of those accessories. From food photography to portraits, indoors to out, reflectors are inexpensive tools that can make a big difference in a variety of shots. You can get a basic 42-inch five-in-one reflector for about $30. But don’t let the “five-in-one” title confuse you. There are a lot uses for a reflector.

There are many different ways to use a reflector, but in its most basic form, it reflects light back into the image. Adjusting the angle and position of the reflector will change how much light is bounced back–the brightest angle is directly opposite the light source. Exactly where you should place it depends on the look you are going for, so experiment with a few different spots. You can hold the reflector yourself sometimes, but often it’s best to use an assistant or a stand.

The best way to learn how to use a reflector is to spend a lot of time practicing. But first, you should know what this little gem can do.

1. Eliminate under-eye shadows

Nothing can ruin a portrait faster than under eye shadows. The reflector offers a simple solution—bounce back light on those shaded areas. Reflectors can help fix those weird under eye shadows as well as chin and nose shadows. Place the reflector on the ground near the subject, or if you are only going for a headshot, have them hold it at about chest level.

how to use a reflector - under eye shadowsImage by Donovanmagee via Flickr

2. Combat backlighting

Backlighting creates an interesting look, but is tricky to execute. You can just expose for the subject, but the background will be washed out. To bring some of that background back, bounce some light back on the subject with a reflector. You’ll still want to expose for the subject, but with less contrast between the subject and background, you won’t blow out the background completely.

3. Light up a food shot

Food usually looks best shot with natural light, so it’s easy to use a window to light up the shot. However, light coming from just one direction sometimes creates undesirable shadows. Place a reflector opposite the window, and you’ll get a more evenly lit shot.

4. Emphasize a portrait

The easiest way to shoot portraits outdoors in bright sunlight is to find full shade, but this often leaves you with flat, uninteresting lighting. Have an assistant stand with the reflector in the sun (or clamp it to a tripod or light stand) and direct sunlight back to your subject to make the lighting a bit more interesting.

5. Add a warm glow

Reflectors come in different colors (or you can get a five-in-one with most of the options in one product). Those with a gold surface will add a warming effect to your images. These reflectors are best used outdoors.

6. Use as a hair light

Reflectors are wonderful for mimicking studio looks outdoors. A reflector can be placed behind the subject to highlight the hair–or what’s called a hair light. The reflector shouldn’t be in the picture, rather, it should be placed so that the light source is bouncing back towards the back of the subject’s head. With the light directed here, the hair will have a glow to it (like in the image above). A hair light also helps separate the hair from the background, which works well when you are shooting dark hair with a dark background.

how to use a reflector - hair lightImage by Luis Hernandez via Flickr

7. Even out dappled lighting

When you seek out shade, sometimes it’s not even light. When the light filtering through the tree creates funny shapes on your subject, you can bounce some sunlight back on them. Or, if you pick up a five in one, the black side will block out light—you can use it to create even shade.

8. Diffuse sunlight

Many photographers prefer working in the studio because the lighting is easier to control. A reflector is one of the handiest tools you can get to manipulate sunlight. The inner part of a five-in-one reflector is actually a diffuser, and comes in handy when the sunlight is just a little too harsh.

9. Block the wind

Okay, so reflectors aren’t really meant for this, but if the wind is creating havoc on a portrait subject’s hair, many reflectors are big enough to help. Be careful though, some of these guys are so big, they can start to act like a sail and pull you over.

10. Use as an impromptu backdrop

Some photographers have used reflectors not to bounce light, but as an impromptu white backdrop.

11. Block or absorb sunlight

The black option in that five-in-one reflector isn’t really a reflector at all. It can be used to block light, or if you place the subject in between the light source and black “reflector” you’ll emphasize the shadows instead of reducing them.

12. Set your custom white balance

Since reflectors are so big, the white side is a handy way to measure a scene to set the correct white balance.

13. Add interest to boring even lighting

Even lighting is easy to shoot in—but it’s also boring. Add emphasis by bouncing back in a little more light with a reflector.

14. Create studio lighting looks outdoors

You can’t change the position of the sun, but a reflector can help you achieve looks often associated with studio lighting outdoors. Reflectors can be used to create secondary light sources–in other words, they aren’t the only light source, but can help complement the available lighting as a fill light.

15. Change the color of sunlight

Okay, so you can’t really change the color of the sunlight, but you can change the tone of the light that you bounce back on the subject by switching between the different colors of reflectors available.

how to use a reflector - girl sitting in a barnImage by Robert Bejil via Flickr

16. Eliminate the need for fill flash

Fill flash helps combat those crazy shadows you see in bright sunlight, but you can create a similar look using a reflector instead. Unlike a fill flash, reflected light will match the tone of the light in the rest of the scene, or you can change it by using a gold colored reflector.

17. Increase contrast

Contrast creates drama, and contrast is created through light. Increase the intensity of the light in your scene by just a bit using a reflector.

18. Emphasize the clouds

Bright blue skies mixed with puffy white clouds make for challenging lighting scenarios, but they also make for a great backdrop. To keep those clouds in the picture, compose the shot using backlighting, then use a reflector to bounce light back on the subject. By bouncing light back, you’ll reduce the contrast between the subject and the sky, which will prevent you from overexposing the sky (which will eliminate those clouds).

19. Bounce your flash outdoors

Bounced flash is much more flattering, with fewer harsh shadows, but sometimes, there isn’t always something to bounce the flash off of. If you are outdoors, or in the middle of a large gymnasium with high ceilings, you can use the reflector to bounce the flash.

how to use a reflector - four guys in front of headlightsImage by Sean McGrath via Flickr

20. Shoot a portrait at sunset

Gold reflectors can help you use the sunset as a backdrop for a portrait without turning the subjects into silhouettes. Bounce the sunlight back, or bounce your flash off one. The gold tone will help reduce the difference in tones between the sunset and your flash.

21. Add catchlights to a portrait

Catchlights are the lights reflected back in the eyes—they’re the “sparkle” in someone’s eye and can really help liven up a portrait. Reflectors are great for creating catchlights, because they come in different shapes if you’d like to change the shape of that sparkle.

22. Impress the world with your folding skills

You’d be surprised at the small case a 42 inch reflector is expected to fit in. With a little practice though, you’ll get the hang of folding them up and may even impress someone with your mad folding skills.

Understanding light is an essential step to becoming a better photographer—which is why there are so many different things you can do with a simple tool that reflects (or diffuses or blocks) light. The larger the light source, the softer your light will be, but anything over about a 42 inch is difficult to handle without an assistant. And if you don’t have anyone to help, use your tripod with a clip as an impromptu stand.


Featured photo by Dwayne Bent via Flickr

  • VickiC

    Great list. My fave, of course, is #22 !