It’s a pretty straightforward technique, the kind of thing you learn early on in portrait lighting study. And, out in the world, whenever you see a photographer on location photographing a portrait, you almost always see that photographer—or his or her assistant—employing a reflector for this very purpose. Unfortunately, at least in my experience, you frequently see them using it incorrectly.
How can you use a reflector wrong? It’s either working or it’s not, right? Well, it’s too easy to use a reflector incorrectly, which is presumably why it’s done so often. It seems that many people think that if the reflector is bouncing light onto their subject’s face, it’s working. In fact, one of the most effective ways to bounce light into a subject’s face is also one of the worst. It happens when the photographer or their assistant positions the reflector below the subject’s chin or chest, just out of frame, and bounces bright light from below up into the subject’s face.
It must be done this way so frequently because it seems to work so well. But what does it look like? It looks like bright light is coming from below the subject. And what do we call that? Oh, yeah: It’s monster lighting, because it’s been used for generations to make people look monstrous. It’s also too easy to add too much light this way, overpowering the presumably attractive natural light that brought you outdoors in the first place. Lastly, a reflector positioned too low bounces too much light below the subject’s face, on her neck and upper chest, as in the bad example pictured below. This unrefined technique is a great way to take the focus off the face, which is usually a bad idea.
So how should you reflect light onto a portrait subject if not from the most obvious position? You must remember that the reflector, once it’s bouncing light onto the subject, essentially becomes a new light source, so you should position it where you would want to position any other light source—in a flattering position at or above the subject’s eye level, for sure.
For fill light, a position closer to the lens axis is ideal, as the reflected light will fill the shadows most visible to the camera. If the reflector is being used as a key, you’ve got more options for appropriate placement, although slightly above eye level and as close as possible to the edge of the frame is a good place to start.
This type of positioning may make you have to work a bit more to find the best angle to reflect the light, but it will also be more versatile once you do. On blue-sky days, it can make for a very strong key light when positioned above eye level in bright sun, and a high reflector position will make the bounced light subtler when working in light overcast or open-shade conditions. But don’t worry, that’s actually a good thing. After all, the job of the fill light in soft natural light situations is to open up the darkest shadows and keep the image from looking too dark and contrasty.
Get in the habit of keeping your reflector at or above the subject’s eye level, and you’ll find your portraits take on a subtler, more polished appearance.