How to use a REFLECTOR the right way for better portraits

Stop it! Stop it! Stop it! Seriously – PLEASE STOP using reflectors to create crappy unflattering light. TV shows, movies, and unfortunately even YouTube photographers seem to think it’s really cool to do that low angle gold reflector that blinds your subject, makes ridiculously bright catchlights in the bottom of their eyes and puts shadows in weird places.


Seriously – I get it – it looks much cooler and much more athletic to lean in close to the model than to standing on your tiptoes behind the camera with a reflector over your head. And I know, as a new or young photographer, the first time you light somebody’s face up golden yellow and three stops brighter than the background, it seems really cool- even if you are causing retinal damage in your subject’s eyes.

Can we all agree that the idea of a portrait is to flatter someone, not to make them look bad, right?

Before I show you the right way to use the reflector, let’s look at a little science. I know, you heard the word science and got scared. Sorry, but I’m not talking about looking cool while holding a reflector, I’m talking about cognitive psychology and physics and how you can use those to make great photos. So don’t skip ahead – you need to learn this stuff.

All creatures on earth – humans, reptiles, birds, the list goes on – have evolved to perceive light as coming from above, just like natural sunlight. The light casts shadows that tell us about the shape of objects. If you change the direction of the light that changes the shadows and can change the perceived shape. That’s also why we put lights in the ceiling instead of the floor.

As you advance in your understanding of lighting and how to use it, you will also learn that the placement and direction of light can dramatically alter the shape of a person’s face.

Watch this young lady’s face below as the light begins above her head and then travels in a full 360 degrees below her and then back to the top.

The shape of her face is constantly changing, not to mention that the low angle lighting simply looks ghoulish

The shape of her face is constantly changing, not to mention that the low angle lighting simply looks ghoulish, which is great if you’re doing portraits of zombies.

What does all this mean?  It means that where you place your light source matters; it has consequences. This is a lesson that applies for ALL types of lighting, not just reflectors.

Now, before anybody gets confused, I have talked about this in the past and had people point out that I sometimes put a reflector below a model’s face for fill light, as seen below. The key phrase there is fill light– filling in the shadows.

reflector for fill light

In this article, we’re talking about using a reflector as your key light to redirect the sunlight outdoors to light a portrait or a modeling shot.

Here is the classic hold-the-gold-reflector-below-the-model set-up that we see so many people doing. The model is in the shade and we are using the reflector to redirect the sunlight.

Gold Reflector below the models face

Now, here is that same setting with the gold reflector held above my assistant’s head and angled to direct the sunlight down on the model to create a more natural lighting effect.

Gold reflector above the model

The result:

Comparison of over /under

On the left, with the reflector below the models face, her face is unnaturally yellow, we have really intense catchlights in the bottom of her pupils, and worse yet – we have shadows on top of her nose and mouth instead of below them.

One the right, with the reflector above the models face, the skin tone is warm, but more natural. If you look close you can see the effects of the gold reflector in the shadows – something that I’m not a fan of – but we will get to that in a minute. We also have catchlights on the tops of the pupils and we have shadows that are below her nose instead of on top.

For the next example, I simply posed my model in the shade of a tree. If you have enough assistants, you can use a diffuser over your model pretty much anywhere to create shade and then use a reflector as your key light.

On the left is the version with the gold reflector below the model. Hopefully I don’t need to point out to you that this is just not flattering. On the right is the version with the reflector above my model. The lighting is much more natural and appealing.

Comparison of reflector over and under

Now, let me try and make my point another way…

Many of you also take portraits indoors, maybe in a studio and maybe in your living room.  Some of you use speedlights, some of you use continuous lighting, some of you use monolights. Now, how often do you place your main or key light below your subject if you are trying to create a flattering portrait?

Why would you suddenly do things differently just because you go outside to shoot? You wouldn’t; well, you shouldn’t. Lighting a flattering portrait outside is no different than lighting a flattering portrait inside, except that you have this one EXTREMELY bright light source that you can’t move or dial down at will, and it’s called the sun. So you have to diffuse or re-direct it, but that’s not an excuse to turn things upside down and put your key light below your subject’s face.

I promised to tell you why I don’t like gold reflectors.

Unfortunately, I am old enough to remember the 1970s when gold reflectors first became a thing. The famous pin-up and glamour photographer Peter Gowland was using white bed sheets and cardboard as reflectors on the beach in Santa Monica California. Then companies started to sell gold reflectors so that photographers could recreate Gowland’s look anywhere, even when the model didn’t have a golden-brown tan. That’s why Gowland always used white and not gold; he didn’t need it.

Now these gold reflectors worked fine for FILM, because we didn’t have Photoshop to warm the skin up in post-production.

The fact is that the bright gold reflectors are just too yellow. On the rare occasion that I do use gold, I go with a zebra pattern like you see on the California Sunbounce Micro Mini. Would I recommend that you buy one of these? Not really. They will set you back about a hundred and fifty bucks, and while they are very nice and fold up in a small bag, if you are not doing tons of outdoor work in bright sunlight it’s just not worth it. My go-to reflectors are of course the Walmart reflector and a simple and reasonably priced white and soft silver reflector from ExpoImaging, the same folks that make the Rogue Flashbenders.

Ok… my rant is over. My hope is that I have convinced you that if you are serious about creating great photos on a consistent basis, it is more important to create lighting that is flattering than it is to look cool doing it. And this reflector stuff – it isn’t that difficult if you think it through and learn to see light – requires practice.

So why does Hollywood show it that way in the movies?  Because it looks cooler to have actors leaning in close to the model with the reflector instead of standing back with their arms up in the air. Why do some other YouTube Photographers do it that way? I don’t know – you’ll have to decide for yourself if you want to shoot Beauty or look cool turning people into zombies.

Now, you have some practicing to do, because your best shot is your next shot. So, keep learning, keep thinking and keep shooting. Adios!