Reflecting on Reflectors

No money for more lights? No problem! Here are sure-fire, no-power solutions to making your subject shine.

One of the most important lighting accessories that a video producer uses is the reflector. This handy tool gives you the ability to control light and focus it wherever you need it. In this column, we will take a look at the reflector, how it is used and the different types available.

A Reflector Review

There are primarily two main types of reflectors: hard and soft, or fabric. The hard reflector is a flat highly polished silver or gold surface that reflects the light source, be it the sun or a lighting instrument. Sizes traditionally come in two or four-foot square dimensions and are frequently called, "boards." They are used extensively in all feature and commercial work and can be pricey, however, inexpensive ones can be made out of foam core. Hard reflectors work very well outdoors where there is wind, bouncing light exactly where you want it. Most boards have a high reflective and a low reflective side to vary the intensities — which are often referred to as "hard" and "soft" sides; describing the quality of light they reflect, not the quality of the material they are made of.

The soft, or folding fabric reflector, is gold, silver, white or a combination of these colors. Its surface has a bumpy or irregular texture that diffuses the light it is reflecting, spreading it over a wider area and softening its effect. You can use the fabric reflector as a key or fill to light your subjects. This type of reflector provides a similar kind of light that a diffused light source provides. The fabric reflector is a wonderful light source for lighting your talent’s face because of its soft diffused value.

Reflectors Outdoors

If you are using the sun as your primary light source, reflectors are essential. Using the sun as your backlight and either a fabric reflector, or the low reflective side of a board as your key, you can light your subjects very effectively without them squinting in the sun. Place the talent so the sun is over their right shoulder at about the 10:30 position. This angle will keep the sun from shining in the lens thus preventing lens flare. Place the reflector at the 4:30 position in front of your talent at an angle high enough to provide a glint in their eye yet not cause them to squint. (See Figure 1) If you are looking for a soft white light, use a white fabric reflector. If looking for a bit of a sparkle use silver. If you want to warm up the talent’s face or body use a gold diffusion reflector. To soften the effects of all of these, you may opt for the combination reflectors now available in white/gold, white/silver, silver/black and silver/gold.

Keep in mind that the reason a surface has a color is that it is reflecting that color to your eyes. Therefore, a gold reflector will reflect gold light, a white reflector — white. Using this idea, you can also cool down the look of your talent by using a blue surface reflector or make them look extremely hot by reflecting red light towards your talent. Knowing the feeling and atmosphere you are trying to convey in your scene will determine which color of reflector you should use.

If you want to use the sun but your talent has to be in deep shade due to the background or scene requirements, don’t panic. Instead of hauling out the big HMI lights and stringing the 500 feet of power cables, set up a hard silver or gold surface reflector and bounce the light into the scene. Generally, you should not use a hard surface reflector as your key or fill light.

Remember, with a hard reflector you are actually reflecting a near duplicate of the sun and looking into the reflector is nearly the same as looking into the sun! Place the hard reflector so that it bounces the sun towards a soft reflector that then bounces the sun towards your talent. It is a bit like playing pool. The light from the sun moves in a straight line so if you reflect it, it will bounce off the reflector in the exact opposite angle from the direction it came.

If it comes in at a 45-degree angle, it will leave at a 135-degree angle. This is very effective if you need to bounce light under dense trees in a park or a shaded area in a city. The only time you might use a hard reflector directly on your subject is if you are either a great distance from your subject or if the sun is obscured by thin clouds.

There of course is one concern when using the sun. It moves. In fact, if your shot will take longer than just a couple of minutes, you should have someone adjusting the reflector between each take. Make sure you consider this when you set up your reflectors and plan your shoot. Early morning and late afternoon will give you the best lighting when using the sun, but a well placed hard gold reflector can extend those times if you watch your angles and change them as the sun’s position changes.

Reflectors Indoors

Some people think that reflectors are only effective when using sunlight outdoors. Actually, you will find reflectors very useful indoors as well. If you are shooting in a bright sunny office and the sun is actually coming through the windows set up a hard reflector and bounce the sunlight towards a soft reflector or even off the ceiling. Instant, very good looking, key light with the sunny window acting as your backlight. Of course you will want to add neutral density filters to the windows so that they are not too bright but that is the subject of another column.

You can also use reflectors with video lights. By placing a soft reflector opposite a strong backlight, you can bounce the light towards your talent and actually light them with only one lighting instrument. Adding a soft white bounce card will add fill light to the scene.

Sometimes it is hard to get a light into the right position because of constraints created by the placement of your talent. Remember, a hard reflector can bounce a near duplicate of your primary light source. So, focus the light from the primary source towards a hard reflector and bounce it to a soft reflector and from there to your talent. It’s all in the angles! A reflector does not require power and you can usually position them most anywhere.

Don’t forget the biggest indoor reflector of all; the ceiling. By bouncing a light source off a white ceiling, you can create a very nice fill light for your talent. Just make sure the ceiling is white. Remember, whatever the color of the reflector surface that is the color of the reflected light.

Final Reflections

Good lighting is created through the imaginative use of lighting techniques and the tools available. The reflector is one of the most useful tools you have at your disposal. Use your imagination and reflectors to help create the mood or feel of your project. Reflectors used effectively will provide lighting that is believable, beautiful and give your projects that professional polish.

Contributing editor Robert G. Nulph, Ph.D. is an independent video/film producer/ director and teaches video production courses at the college level.

Sidebar: Homemade vs. Professional

We have often talked about using homemade reflectors to enhance your videos. While fairly effective, homemade reflectors do not have the consistency of color, the reflective properties or the durability of professional reflectors. For example, automobile sun shades act much like hard reflectors because of their fairly smooth surface yet are not rigid and smooth enough to give you the true reflection of the hard reflector. However, they are too smooth to be good soft reflectors. The variety, durability and consistency of professional reflectors make them a worthwhile investment for the serious video producer.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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