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The Only Light Modifier You’ll Ever Need

The photographer’s best friend: If you only buy one lighting modifier, this should be it

When you’re a photography beginner, you think bright sunlight is the best light for every subject. But as you gain experience you learn that bright sunlight is often too harsh and contrasty to be ideal. Anyone who has ever tried to shoot a portrait in direct sunlight knows how difficult it can be. You’ve got plenty of light to take your pictures, but the harsh shadows make those pictures unappealing. Fortunately, there’s an easy solution: a pop-up reflector! This simple device is perfect for filling in shadows and adding soft, flattering light to the subject. 

Pop-up reflectors are very useful for portraits, of course, but they can save the day in contrasty lighting for all kinds of subject—from macro photography to still life. 

To use a pop-up reflector to lower the contrast in a scene, first take a look at the shot and find where the shadows are. More to the point, consider where the main light in the scene is coming from so that you can position the pop-up reflector on the shadow side, opposite the main light. 

One way you’ll regularly see a pop-up reflector being used is with the sun at the subject’s back, and an assistant holding the pop-up reflector at waist level, bouncing light back up into the subject’s face. Seems fine, right? Well, no, not really. 


You see, with the reflector held low the light bouncing from the reflector to the subject’s face is coming from below—a classic pattern for what’s known as monster lighting. And monster lighting is simply not flattering. Because in life, light doesn’t typically come from below, it comes from above. The sun, skylights, room lights… Light comes from above, so why hold your reflector low?

Instead, hold the reflector at eye level or above. It will do just as good a job of filling the shadows, but without creating that unappealing monster lighting look. 


Another opportunity to use a pop-up reflector is when the subject is in shadow and simply underexposed compared to the rest of the scene in brighter light. Even if your subject isn’t troubled with harsh shadows, a pop-up reflector held high in the sun works perfectly to create a new key that adds a bit of pop to an otherwise ho-hum scene. 

If you’re having a hard time getting enough light from your reflector, or if it’s simply proving to be not quite soft enough, consider moving it closer to the subject. Just out of frame is typically ideal as it will provide the most fill light and make the reflector appear as broad and soft as possible. Moved far away, the reflector gets smaller and produces a harsher, more specular light.


The size of the reflector does matter. They’re available from small (a foot across) to very, very large (5×7 feet or more). Most, though, are typically somewhere in the 32- to 48-inch range. The bigger the reflector, the farther it can be from the subject, and the softer the resulting light will appear. 

You can also use a pop-up reflector when lighting with a flash. To turn a harsh speedlight flash into a soft, diffused light source, simply aim the flash into the white side of a pop-up reflector and bounce that light onto the scene. It’s a portable version of bouncing a speedlight into a white ceiling to diffuse it. But because the collapsible reflector travels so well, you can take that soft white ceiling along wherever you go. 

The other consideration for your pop-up reflector is the surface. The most popular finish is white, of course, but often they are often backed with a different finish–like shiny silver, matte silver, or gold. Sometimes they are black on one side, or have a zip-on black cover, to turn them into flags for negative fill. 


The best part of pop-up reflectors? The price. A large 4-foot round disc reflector will retail for around $75, sometimes less. In terms of bang for your buck, there’s no more valuable and versatile piece of equipment in the photographer’s lighting kit.

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