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Photography Reflectors—Size And Shape Does Matter

Size And Shape Does Matter

In part one of “Photography Reflectors And Reality,” we covered the differences between silver, gold, zebra and white reflector fabrics, a few fundamentals, plus the reality that reflectors are light modifiers like soft boxes, beauty dishes, etc. This series of blog articles on reflectors started with the questions I receive on a constant basis, like, “Which size of soft box do I use, small, medium, or large?” This is a question that is very similar to, “Which size of reflector do I use?”

Model, St. Maarten Photo Workshop

During our St. Maarten”s photography workshop, I illuminated Heather with a California Sunbounce Pro, Zebra fabric reflector.

Before I answer, let’s look at the shapes of photography reflectors, as there are many out on the market. The majority of these reflectors are circular discs that range in slightly different sizes. The makers of these round reflectors tend to target the amateur and prosumer markets because they are inexpensive to manufacture, thus ideal for the average photographer on a small budget. There are even a few triangular-shaped ones too, but as you continue to read this article, you”ll understand why I don”t even address those types.

Like most consumer purchases, you get what you pay for; hence, why top professional photographers, cinematographers, and videographers will pay extra for rectangular-shaped reflectors like those from California Sunbounce.

But let”s take a look at these low–price-point round reflectors and why I don’t necessarily recommend them. First, they are round, usually small in comparison to your subject, thus they produce a more specular or harsher light source. If you’re trying to illuminate a fashion model that is 5’10” or taller, a 3- or 4-foot diameter circle will not evenly light her from head to toe. A reflector can’t reflect more light than it receives and under the physics Law of Reflectance, a flat reflector can’t increase the size of the reflected light either, though often it appears that way as most fabric reflectors are not polished mirrored surfaces.

This appearance of “enlargement” of the light reflected is caused by diffusion of a non-mirrored-polished surface (the fabric material) hence why some professional photographers will take reflector fabric and run it through a wash cycle (without soap, only water) to “season” the surface for more diffusion. This added diffusion minimally increases the overall size of the reflected light shape and helps reduce the contrast of the reflected light.

This is a negative trade-off in using a cheaper round reflector. You are reflecting, not projecting, a round light path no larger than the size of the reflector itself, to illuminate a geometrically shaped larger rectangle, because a human standing is a tall rectangle, not a round object. In essence, you are using the middle rectangle section of a round reflector, thus throwing away the outer two-thirds of the (circle) light source which increases the chance of spill-light on other elements in your scene.

Understanding Circle vs. Rectangle Photography Reflectors

In this illustration you can see what a 4″x6″ California Sunbounce will cover in comparison to a 3- or 6-foot diameter circle reflector.

So now that we’ve established why top professional photographers prefer rectangular reflectors instead of round reflectors, let’s answer the original question, “What size of reflector do I use?” Just like soft boxes, rectangular reflectors come in small, medium and large, and in the case of those made by California Sunbounce, there are even larger (big) and smaller (micro) versions, plus even strips (strip light).

The answer has a few things to consider, but since I tend to photograph more women than men or children, like soft boxes, I will use the largest reflector (light modifier) as possible because the truth, not myth, is that the larger the light source, the sweeter, or softer the light is, or the more forgiving the light source becomes for the human skin. Keep in mind, soft boxes, like those made by Chimera, enlarge light through diffusion, reflectors do very little, if any, enlargement of the light source due to limited diffusion (Law of Reflection) so size matters even more when it comes to reflectors. While California Sunbounce does manufacture a “Big” reflector, my favorite that fits my shooting style is the  California Sunbounce Pro, primarily with the zebra fabric. It”s the quality of light that will make a difference in any photo.

Round reflectors equal harsher light, plus wasted light and larger rectangle reflectors equal sweeter light, less waste. While round and rectangle reflectors are directional, i.e., you can direct the light path. Rectangular light paths are more controlled (less spill-light) and allow you to get closer to your subject with a larger light shape, thus more light intensity if needed for a higher aperture setting.

Now someone is probably asking, “If there is more light intensity on the subject isn’t the light harsher?” Not necessarily, as the key here is keeping the light source close to your subject. The larger the light source, the softer the light especially when it’s closer to your subject. Basically, soft is relative to reflector distance and size to your subject, thus greater light intensity at one-foot is softer than lower light intensity at ten feet from the same light modifier.

Just like large soft boxes you can have the largest reflector, but the minute you begin moving it away from your subject, it becomes a specular light source relative to your subject based on distance. So as the light modifier, in this case reflector, moves further away from your subject you are defeating the purpose of having a large light modifier.

So until the next blog article in this series about reflectors, as always, I close by saying let’s not forget the men and women of the military services, plus their families, for the sacrifices they make for our freedoms. Their selfless service, courage and patriotism are a direct reflection of their character. God Bless them all, Rolando Gomez.

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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.

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