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Photography Reflectors—Basics, Fundamentals, And Myths

Basics, Fundamentals, And Myths

I’m constantly bombarded with questions like, “What type of lights, cameras, lenses, etc., do you recommend? It’s difficult for me to recommend specific equipment unless I’m there with you to see the scene, subject, and lighting conditions. However, there is one piece of equipment every photographer should have in their toolbox that I will recommend, it’s a reflector—specifically, fabric type reflectors held by humans or light stands and please don’t confuse them with the metal reflectors attached to studio flash heads.

Photo of Son

This photo of my son was illuminated by his 9-year old sister holding a California Sunbounce Pro reflector with a Zebra fabric.

So over the next few photography articles I’ll post on my blog, I’m going to provide you some basics and fundamentals of reflectors. These series of articles are designed to help you choose the right reflector for the right photographic result.

In the first few articles, we’ll talk about some basic and fundamentals of reflectors, then I’ll provide examples of their use in my photo shoots for future articles. The most important thing to remember is a reflector is another form of a “light modifier.” Just like a soft box, beauty dish, strip light, grid, etc., i.e., reflectors are modifiers of light.

There are also at least three reflector myths I hope to diffuse. The first, reflectors are for reflecting the sun only, not true. Reflectors reflect any type of light (source) whether it’s the sun itself, a flash, or even a continuous light like tungsten or LEDs. Second, reflectors are meant for outdoor use only, not true, reflectors are usable indoors too! And finally, reflectors only reflect light, not true, they absorb light too.

Yes, there are reflectors that “absorb” light, but we’ll save that one for an upcoming post as for now we’ll focus on what Wikipedia defines a reflector as, “…an improvised or specialized reflective surface used to redirect light towards a given subject or scene.”

So let’s start with the surface of a reflector. The most common fabric reflectors come in white, silver, gold and silver and gold combined. A white reflector is designed to give a subtle fill of shadows, or a “kick” of light that doesn’t totally eliminate shadows, but merely softens them. The quality of the reflected light is softer, more romantic, and provides less contrast than a silver, gold, or in the case of my favorite reflector fabric from California Sunbounce, “zebra.”

Photography Reflectors, silver, white, zebra

Notice the shadows and light temperature change between silver, white and zebra photography reflectors.

While there are many brands of reflectors that sell silver/gold combos, the best and the favorite of many top professional photographers is the California Sunbounce Zebra. It’s a combination of silver and gold in a herringbone pattern. A pattern designed to not appear on your subject’s skin, no matter how close you place the reflector to the subject. Plus, its pattern gives a 400K (Kelvin) reduction in your original light source, thus, 5000K (midday sunlight), becomes 4600K, or a tad warmer than clear, neutral, boring light.

California Sunbounce notes their Zebra fabric outsells all their reflector surfaces two to one. Personally I like the fact that this combination of silver/gold provides a tad less of intensity and contrast found in the silver or gold solid surfaces. In fact, the amount of contrast produced by the zebra fabric is precisely what I prefer for most of my photos. More contrast than white, less contrast than silver, a third the warmth of gold, thus a perfect match for photographing female subjects or even children, that’s why zebra takes the “best of show” award when it comes to reflectors.

Made For Photographers By A Photographer
I fell in love with California Sunbounce products over ten years ago and haven’t stopped using them since. These products are created by photographer Peter Geller, winner of the 1971 World Press Photo Award, and photographer of over 10,000 Harlequin Romance covers. Peter originally invented the first reflectors in California and manufactures California Sunbounce products in Germany.

On occasion, I might switch to a California Sunbounce solid gold reflector. Why solid gold you ask? Because gold provides intense warmth needed for shooting in open shade outdoor and indoor areas. If I placed a model under a tree, roof overhang, or a shaded area outdoors, the light is going to range from 6000K o 7500K, or cold, blue light. A gold reflector from California Sunbounce is designed to reduce light temperature by 1200K, thus if my assistant “grabs” natural sunlight (5000K at midday) and then directs it with the reflector to my subject, we’ll remove the bluish cast naturally caused by open shade. This works great if a model is posing just slightly indoors through a doorway or open window.

If I decide to go with a silver California Sunbounce reflector, then obviously I’m looking for a harsher, stronger light. Silver creates harder shadows too. But normally I switch to silver when I have to increase the distance between the subject and reflector due to shooting conditions, and/or, if I want to keep my light temperature neutral, outline or define lines or curves, and to make the highlights sharp and crisp. Silver is great for edge or rim lighting on the sides of your subject or for a backlight or hair-light.

Midday Photography, California Sunbounce Reflector

Magnum photographer Eli Reed, a World Press Photo Award winner himself, photographs Rika using a California Sunbounce to reflect light on her in open shade.

The key to reflector surfaces or fabrics is to understand what each surface type will provide. White, soft, subtle, used for filling in or softening shadows; zebra is just a doubling of white with a slight increase in contrast and intensity plus added warmth; gold adds a pinch more contrast and warms the light even more and is ideal in open shade and indoor areas; silver provides the most contrast, no added warmth and is the surface that will give you distance when needed as it’s the most powerful reflector.

In a future article I’ll provide you some master photographer tricks with zebra, gold and silver materials that you can use to change the tone, contrast, and intensity of your reflector fabric to a more “seasoned” reflected light source. Our next article will focus on reflector shapes and sizes and hopefully these articles will provide answers to questions you might have. Consider these articles as indirect recommendations by matching what you read to what you need to accomplish your final photos. With that I close, as I normally do, let’s not forget our military servicemen and women, plus their families. God Bless them all! Rolando

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Welcome to LensDiaries.com (Lens Diaries™), a hybrid photography blog with social flair. The photoblog provides photo tips, photo tutorials and photo diaries by professional photographer, author, writer, speaker and social media consultant, Rolando Gomez.

Lens Diaries™ is open to all levels of photographers, beginners to advanced, including fine art photography, fashion photography, wedding photography, portrait photography, people photography, baby photography, sports photography, nature photography, iphoneography, landscape photography, studio photography, underwater photography, etc.

Our primary photography focus is digital photography and digital cameras. From iPhones to Canon’s and Nikon’s, you can count on us!