Use Reflectors to Ramp up Available Light

Often when you are in the field or studio, you may need to get light to places that just seem impossible. Either there is no place to hang a light or you don’t have a light to hang. By using reflectors and manipulating the light that is available, you should never find yourself in the position of the impossible. With this ability to manipulate light and make it work for you, you can create powerful, well-lit productions with that "professional" look. To achieve these professional results, you just need some basic lighting equipment and a little know-how.

In this article, we will look at the different types of lighting reflectors available and their many uses. We will also discuss inexpensive ways to achieve professional results using items found in most discount department stores.

The Gathering Process

Light is a videographer’s friend, but to achieve the best control over this wonderful medium, you need to use the basic properties of light to your advantage. One of those properties is light’s ability to bounce. Not only does light bounce, it bounces in a very predictable way. If the light hits a flat reflective surface at a 45-degree angle, it will bounce off that surface at a 45-degree angle. If the light hits a concave surface, it will collect its beam towards a central point much like the signal hitting a satellite dish.

With this knowledge alone, you can control the direction that the light is going. This comes in very handy when you need to get light to some place that doesn’t have any. One of the best examples of this is a setup used by photographers and videographers when working under a grove of trees. In this setup, the shade is so dark compared to the surrounding sunlight that it’s hard to get good lighting on the subjects. It is also very expensive to use electric lights outdoors. (Besides, they’d have to be huge to compete with the sun.) By placing reflectors in the sunshine at the edge of the grove of trees and bouncing it under the trees, the lighting designers duplicate the directional light found in early morning or late afternoon. While this example is a bit extreme, it illustrates the primary use of the reflector: getting light to fall on your subject without using a lighting instrument.

Light reflects back the same color as the surface it’s hitting. In the example above, if the reflectors were gold colored, the grove of trees would be filled with a warm gold light often associated with late afternoon. If blue, the light would have that cool early morning look. If you want your talent to look sickly (for some odd reason), bounce your key light off a green piece of posterboard. The resulting light will turn their flesh a ghostly pale and give the desired, if rather nasty, result.

By adding an uneven surface to the reflector, you can make the light bounce off in several directions in a wide, even pattern. This uneven surface reflection is called diffusion and creates a softer light that covers a much larger area.

Using these properties of light is quite easy with the right reflector. You can divide reflectors into three types: hard reflectors, umbrellas, and flat, framed-fabric reflectors.

The Straight Bounce

The traditional type of reflector is the hard reflector. This reflector can be made of a wide variety of materials and surface types. You can use a hard reflector in any lighting situation, either outdoors or indoors. With this reflector, you can redirect sunlight or lamplight usually in a straight line. Keep in mind that the surface of many hard reflectors is smooth and highly reflective. The light it bounces toward your subject will have the nearly same intensity as the source. If that source is the sun, this can be incredibly bright. To control the intensity of the reflected light, you can tilt the reflector so that less light bounces to your subject. You can also use the textured surface found on one side of most hard reflectors to bounce a diffused light towards your subject. Another way to control the intensity of this reflection is to use a hard reflector with a white or colored surface.

A 4X4-foot sheet of white foamcore or heavy cardboard works great as a reflector for bouncing soft white light onto your subject. Posterboard is one of my favorite hard surface reflectors because I can bend the board without creasing it and direct the light with a fair amount of control. You can find these materials in any art supply or hobby store for just a few dollars. Hold the card close to your subject and bounce the light towards his or her face. The great thing about these reflectors (besides their low cost) is their lightness and portability. Just beware of windy days; they make great sails.

The Curved Bounce

If you do most of your video shooting indoors with electric lights in small areas, you may want to look at reflector umbrellas. These sturdy, heat-resistant, easily portable reflectors come in a variety of styles and sizes. In general, you mount the reflecting umbrella on a stand with a light shining into its reflective inside surface and that surface facing the subject. The light becomes the size of the umbrella and depending on the undersurface of the umbrella, a hard or soft light source. A silver lining will provide a hard light, ideal for a key or main light. A white surface will diffuse and soften the light source, ideal for fill lighting. The closer the light is to the reflective surface, the brighter its reflected light. However, the further away the light source, the tighter the focus of the light and the harder the shadows.

The Soft Bounce

Fabric reflectors are the most versatile of all reflector types. This type of reflector comes in a wide variety of styles, colors, sizes and shapes. You can use these reflectors indoors or out. They are lightweight and durable and have frames that you can easily fold or disassemble.

Reflective fabrics are made of heat-resistant nylon with reflective material bonded to them and come in a variety of colors and styles. You can use a white reflector to reflect a soft, diffused light towards your subject. This is ideal for lighting faces and shiny surfaces.

Silver and gold reflective fabrics each have a unique role in lighting. The silver reflector bounces a hard light with a slightly blue tint, giving a cooler feel to the light. The gold reflector bathes the subject a warm light. Photographers and videographers often use these types of reflectors for shooting on the beach or ski slope. Because they are lightweight and easily maneuvered, they are ideal for shooting in out-of-the-way places.

By adding black zebra stripes to the white, gold or silver, you can incrementally reduce the amount of reflection without changing the light quality coming from the reflector.

Guerilla Techniques

Whether you are a weekend video warrior or a video professional, you’ll find your productions look better when properly lit. Reflectors are an easy way to get light where you need it, in the intensity you need. If your budget doesn’t have room for purchasing a professional reflector, try a few homemade models. For a soft white reflector, try bouncing light from a white wall or ceiling. If you are shooting in an office, flip charts or even ceiling tiles (put them back when you’re done) come in pretty handy. If shooting in a house, a bedsheet draped over a frame makes a great, lightweight soft white reflector. On the beach, you can use white towels, white Styrofoam chest lids or white t-shirts stretched over some stiff cardboard.

For a hard silver reflector, try mounting aluminum foil on a piece of white foam core. You will end up with a reversible silver/white reflector for a few dollars! Wrinkle the foil and the light will become more diffused and give you some interesting reflections. You can also use shiny silver car shades and for extremely hard reflections, make-up mirrors.

All you have to keep in mind is the basics of light control and the effects that different colors have on light when it is reflected.

When purchasing reflectors or any lighting or video equipment, always keep in mind your production needs and your potential future needs. Reflectors are one piece of lighting equipment you will always use no matter how advanced you may get.

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