Guide to Different Types of Light Reflectors

The ocean in the Caribbean is a beautiful aqua-blue. Its shores are a glistening white. It is a great place to shoot a video, especially during the time of year when all your friends are looking forward to Groundhog Day and hoping for a short winter. Excitedly, you set up your camera, place your talent so you can see the beautiful ocean, with its colorful boats and sandy shores. It is early morning. The sun is glistening off the beach in the background providing a wonderful back light for your talent. You look through the viewfinder and see a beautiful ocean, colorful boats, glistening beach and a dark silhouette of your talent. Never one to get worried, you pull out your handy silver reflector and carefully bounce the light of the morning sun onto your talent’s face. The entire scene comes alive and you get a great piece of video.

Reflectors are some of the most important pieces in a videographer’s accessory kit. In this column we will look at reflectors, both commercial and homemade, and discuss how to use these light movers in various shooting situations.

Reflecting Light

One of light’s most useful characteristics is that it moves in a straight line. When you hold up a lighting instrument, the light shines where you point it. If you place a smooth reflective surface in the beam, the light will bounce off the reflector at the same angle that you have positioned the reflector. If the reflector is set at a 45-degree angle in front of the light, the light will hit the reflector and bounce off at a 45-degree angle from the reflector or 90 degrees from the light. It’s much like shooting pool. You look at the reflector as if it is the side of the table and angle your shot so that the light goes towards your intended target. You can also use multiple smooth-surface reflectors in much the same way you would use a double bank-shot to get your light into hard to reach places (see the Let the Sun Shine In sidebar.)

Another handy characteristic of light is that it will reflect color off a surface. Reflect the light off a green wall and it will be green. Shine the light on a blue surface and it will reflect blue. To warm up a scene, you could reflect the light off a gold surface to light your subject in a golden glow.

Commercial Reflectors

Manufacturers of reflective material take advantage of the characteristics of light and provide a variety of options for the videographer. Primarily, reflectors come in three varieties: smooth surface, pebbly or dimpled surface and reflective scrims. Manufacturers also sell sheets of flexible reflective material or hard metal plates as reflectors.

Smooth-surface reflectors reflect the light towards your subject at the same intensity as the source. You can also use these reflectors to get light into hard-to-reach areas or to provide a harsh, hard light to dramatize the shot. These reflectors are usually stiff and can range in size from small hand-held reflectors to huge, six-foot-by-nine-foot stand-mounted reflectors. You can buy these in silver or gold. A crafty videographer will set up a bank of gold-colored reflectors to reflect the noon sun at an angle that imitates the golden evening glow of the setting sun. You can use large silver reflectors to change the angle of the sun or reflect it into places that don’t normally see the light of day. This can be quite handy if you are attempting to shoot a scene that needs a lot of "natural" light.

Pebbled surface or pitted surface reflectors diffuse the reflected light so that it isn’t so harsh. These reflectors come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are the most flexible of the reflectors. A popular type of diffusion reflector has a soft gold surface on one side and silver on the other, stretched over a flexible frame that you can twist into a small 12-inch circle. Crew members can hold these reflectors to reflect the light exactly where it’s wanted at all times.

A very useful, third type of reflector is the reflective scrim. A scrim is a piece of material that looks like a thick piece of screening. Light will shine through it, but it has enough surface area that it can also reflect light. You can stretch most scrim material onto flexible frames to make better use of its non-reflective black side and its reflective silver or gold side. The black side acts as a scrim to reduce the intensity of light shining through it. This is useful if you are shooting a scene and the sun or other light source is too intense. While you can move a light, the sun is a little harder to move; a scrim can reduce its intensity. The reflective side provides a soft diffused glow, used to supplement your lighting setup.

Homegrown Reflectors

If your budget will not support a trip to your local theatrical and film supply store, it might support a trip to the local discount store. Making your own reflectors is fun and pretty easy to do. While at the store, pick up some heavy-duty aluminum foil, a roll of silver duct tape, a hula-hoop, a couple of 3-by-4-foot sheets of foamcore and a can of glossy gold spray-paint. You might also look for a flexible automobile window shade that is silver on one side and gray or black on the other.

Take your supplies into the garage and begin building your reflectors. Measure the hula-hoop. Then cut sheets of foil long enough to cover the frame, overlapping the edge by about two inches. Starting from each end, place the sheets of foil on the floor with the shiny side down. Make sure that the center sheet is the last sheet of foil that you place on the floor. Spread the sheets out from the center so that there is a slight overlap and you can’t see the floor. Continue doing this until the entire hoop is covered. Make sure that the foil is kept as smooth as possible. Tape the seams between the pieces of foil with long strips of duct tape. The resulting reflector should be a fairly strong, smooth-surface reflector that is lightweight and easy to maneuver. For flexibility, paint the backside of the reflector (the side with the tape) with the glossy gold metal paint. You now have a smooth silver reflector and a slightly diffused gold reflector.

To create a soft silver and gold reflector, tightly crinkle up the foil, then smooth it out to put on the frame. It will keep its small wrinkles, which will provide a great, diffused surface.

Foamcore makes a great bounce card that you can use to reflect a soft white light onto your talent. You can use a meat tenderizer to lightly dimple one side, then spray-paint it with the glossy gold paint to create a diffused gold side.

As for the automobile shade, it is ready to use. This is my favorite homegrown reflector because it is designed to fold up into a tiny package to store under the seat. Its reflective side provides a great soft diffused light that looks wonderful on the talent’s face.

Final Reflections

Now that you know how to make reflectors and how to use them, there should be little chance of finding places where you can’t get light or supplement the main light source. Use your imagination and a few reflective tools to create powerful and exciting video images.

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