How to Use a Reflector for Outdoor Portraits

A reflector is the quintessential tool for modifying light in almost every lighting situation. As long as the source of light is intense enough to be reflected you can use a reflector to bounce light,  to lower the intensity of the light, or to add a bit of color to a scene. In this video, photographer Daniel Norton demonstrates how you can use a reflector on a bright sunlit day to create interesting images:

Fill Light

To demonstrate, Norton places his model inside a tunnel in Central Park. The background is a nice bright semi-circle that contrasts with the model’s uniformly lit face in the shade. To add a bit of light, he used a silver reflector.

Some photographers prefer to place their model directly under the sun and then use one reflector to get a bit of shadow going while using another to fill in. Norton explains why this approach is unsuitable:

“If you do that, not only does it usually look blotchy but your model is going to melt.”

Another thing Norton advises not to do is to use a reflector from down below. If you do that you direct light from below, which is not the right thing to do. Instead, hold the reflector up and direct light back to the model’s face. It’s going to look a lot more natural that way.

Here’s the first shot without a reflector:

using a reflector in shade

Test shot without the reflector

As you can see the image is a bit flat. So Norton added a silver reflector:

Using a reflector for portrait photography

A silver reflector is now added

This one’s clearly a better image with a lot more punch to it.

Hair Light

In this scenario, Norton decides to create a hair light. However, the problem here is that with the light coming in all the way from the back of the tunnel, there’s no way it can be used as a hair light. The solution? Bring in the gold reflector. Held behind the model, it adds the much needed kicker effect. A white reflector was held close to her face to clean up the light on her face:

using a gold and white reflector for portrait photography

Gold reflector for hair light and white reflector as fill-in

A reflector is a simple, inexpensive tool that makes a huge difference in outdoor portrait photography. If you only buy one modifier, a reflector is the way to go.

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