Serious Reflections: A Buyer's Guide to Reflectors

But wait: reflectors are amazingly simple, durable and cheap. They’re so versatile that a newbie can master them in a matter of minutes and pros still use them on gigabuck shoots. (I once lit 90 percent of a feature film with reflectors alone.)

So let’s see how to work with reflector products for the casual shooter, the serious hobbyist, and the entry level professional. Remember too that you can create homemade reflectors for pennies that work extremely well.

At each level, we’ll show how you can use these shiny slabs in the studio as well as out in the field.

Reflectors 101


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But first, a quick reprise of reflector basics. (For more on reflector lighting techniques, see the Light Source column “Reflecting Light” in the April 1999 issue of Videomaker or read the article online at

Essentially, a reflector turns one light source into two by bouncing light from the source back onto a subject from a different direction. Outdoors the original source is the sun. In the studio, it’s a light. You can use reflectors for key, fill, rim or wash lighting. For simplicity, we’ll stick to outdoor examples for the following explanations.

  •  Key: Position the subjects with the sun behind them to create a rim (edge) light that separates them from the background. Then use a silver reflector for the principal front lighting.

  •  Fill: Let the sun provide the key light while a soft silver or white reflector reduces shadows on the opposite side with softer illumination.

  •  Rim: With the sun still working as key light, move the reflector opposite until it’s behind the subject. (This works best with a hard silver surface and positioning can be tricky.)

  •  Wash: Brighten up a dull background by bouncing a broad splash of reflected light into it.

    Placing reflectors is simple. Outdoors, spot them in direct sunshine and in proper relationship to your camera and talent (as outlined above). In the studio, position the reflector within the cone of illumination produced by the source light. That source is usually (though not always) a spotlight or small-size fill unit because very large lights throw beams too broad to reflect well.

    Aiming reflectors is equally simple: just wiggle the unit until you see the pattern of reflected light; then move the unit until the light bathes the subject. Roughly speaking, reflectors work best when angled anywhere from 45 to 90 degrees from the light source .

    Once you’ve aimed the bounce light, you need to control its strength, and here too, reflectors are simplicity personified: the closer they are, the stronger the light. You can also vary intensity by changing the reflective surface from polished aluminum (brightest) to matte white (dimmest). Check the result in a monitor: if it looks good, it is good.

    With direction and intensity set, you have to support reflectors and make them stay where you aimed them. Human assistants work well here or you can use several kinds of stands.

    Beyond this point there are lots of cute tricks you can do with reflectors, but we’ve covered the basic techniques.

    Reflectors for

    Casual Shooters

    When you’re out shooting a vacation or family event, you want lightweight, compact and simple reflectors. Here, you can’t beat fabric-covered hoops. The least expensive models are really auto sunshades, available in silver or white. (Look for the larger sizes intended for truck or RV windows.) The oval wire hoops can be twisted to fold the reflectors down to 1/4 of their original size, for easy storage.

    Indoors, in addition to hoops, all videographers from beginners to pros can also use foam core. A foam-core board consists of a sheet of Styrofoam a 1/4-inch to 1-inch thick and laminated between sheets of paper. The result is light, stiff, easily cut to size and cheap enough to replace when needed.

    Foam core is available in a variety of colors and metallic surfaces, so you can get all kinds of lighting effects. Look for it at any art supply store and select sheets at least 1/2-inch thick to insure strength and sturdiness.

    For about $20, Photoflex Products offers the LiteDisc, a 12-inch diameter circle reflector and the F.J. Westcott Company features the Illuminator Reflector, a 14×14-inch square reflector. There are a whole host of reflectors that a number of companies offer for less than $50 (see the accompanying Reflector Buyer’s Guide grid for a complete list of features and prices).

    At the casual hobbyist level, you don’t want to bother with reflector stands, so draft a friend into service to hold a hoop. Since the breezes easily move these flexible fabrics, silver models tend to throw shifting highlights that are visible in your shots. For this reason, white reflectors are easier to manage.

    Working indoors, you probably don’t use video lights, so reflectors might seem impractical. But when shooting under ceiling fluorescents, say in an office or classroom, or where outside light enters a window, a reflector can help you make the most of the available light.

    And if you do use a simple light (like a halogen work light on a stand) a judiciously placed reflector will give you an instant fill light. Hoops are simple to use indoors, of course, where conditions are not windy.

    One Rung Up

    At this intermediate level, reflector products are much the same as in the previous category, only better. The workhorse here is still the hoop, but a hoop beefed up to industrial strength. A pro-grade reflector will start with a steel frame as much as 1-inch wide and the fabric is upgraded for strength and longevity.

    Visual Departures, for example, makes a complete line of hoop reflectors in sizes up to four feet wide, like the Flexfill 48-inch diameter ($110) and 60-inch diameter ($154) hoops.

    Other reflectors feature a choice of different surface material. Larson offers a number of different surfaces to choose from. The Reflectasol ($49, $59, $79, $89 and $199, depending on the size) comes in several fabrics. Why different surfaces? For different kinds of light. For example, bright aluminum throws a hard light like a spotlight; soft aluminum is softer and cloth fabric casts the most diffused light of all.

    And then there’s color. Many shooters find that a gold reflector throws a warm, flattering light on the subject. Other hues are available for various special effects. For more versatility, some reflectors like the Photoflex circular Litedisc ($79) and the F.J. Westcott’s 42″x42″ Illuminator Reflector ($77) offer two sides with two different colors.

    At this level, you may want your reflector on a proper stand. While Larson’s Reflectasol comes with an aluminum stand, some manufacturers offer specially designed holders that add rigidity to wire hoop models, which you can then clip these to any light stand.

    For more versatility, consider a “C-stand” (its nickname comes from the Century company that has built so many of them). A C-stand adjusts like a light stand, but the movable clamp on its head holds an arm with a clamp of its own at the end. This arrangement lets you hold a reflector at any height and angle within a wide range. Bogen sells a variety of C-stands and you can get them from other vendors as well.

    Incidentally, the best sources for reflectors, stands and other accessories are full-service camera stores and mail order catalogues. For starters, consult the suppliers in our ad pages. You can also find such equipment on the Net.

    For The Pros

    On professional outdoor shoots, the rigid, stand-mounted reflector makes its appearance. The classic version mounts on a yoke stand and pivots so you can select either the hard aluminum face or the softer back.

    Rigid reflectors are great because they resist the wind. Set ’em, lock ’em, and forget ’em. And if you’re shooting in monsoon conditions, anchor their stands with water weights. These are collapsible plastic jugs of water with hooks or handles to hang them on your reflector stands. Instead of hauling sandbags around, simply fill these bottles on the spot. Lowell Light sells a well-proven design.

    Lowell also makes a stand reflector that overcomes the usual problems of weight and bulk. It’s called the Variflector II. The Variflector II consists of aluminum strips glued to a backing, like the door on a roll-top desk. Locked into a rigid frame and stand, this flexible unit forms a curved surface that you can vary to focus the reflected light.

    The great thing about this reflector is that it rolls up into a tight cylinder and the whole shebang stores in a tube.

    With all the lights in a pro studio, why bother with reflectors? Because they can deliver a precise color and quality of light that’s harder to achieve with other hardware.

    But whether you spring for these big ticket reflectors or go for hoop auto sunshades, reflectors will improve your lighting kit more simply and cheaply than any other purchase.

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