Wednesday, November 28, 2012

6 Reflections on Reflections

This portrait was shot on a cloudy, overcast day 
minutes before the rain started. See the image
below for how the reflector was used.
Controlling light is a vital part of creating commercial photographs. This article discusses three types of photography accessories used for controlling or bouncing light. Collapsible reflectors come in white, silver, gold and zebra, and are great for location portraits and studio work. Smaller silver or white cardboard or mirror reflectors are used for table top product or food photography, and finally cocoon shooting cubes are used when no reflections are wanted. See for more portraits.

I taught a portrait seminar in Denver, Colorado mid-summer. I was hoping for a sunny afternoon, but heavy clouds rolled in as we took out models outside, and day became overcast and shadow less. The workshop students were surprised when we started using reflectors to redirect the skylight into the model’s faces, bringing direction to the low contrast lighting. The reflectors created catch lights in the model’s eyes, and much better directional lighting than the students expected.

On overcast, cloudy days, I will often have my model hold a reflector at their waist level for a head and shoulder portrait. I take care that their arms look natural, and are not too wide from holding the reflector. The light from the sky bounces up in their face, creating catch lights and  filling shadows under their eyes. As the color temperature of light on overcast days or in shadow can be two or three thousand degrees Kelvin bluer than light in direct sunlight, I often use gold or zebra reflectors in shadow. Zebra reflectors alternate between gold and silver stripes. The warmth of the golden light tones down the blue from the skylight and makes the model’s skin look tan instead of blue / grey.

On sunny days I often like to place the model with the sun behind them, hitting the top of their head and shoulders. Then I hold a large reflector in front of the model, picking up the sunlight coming from behind and bouncing it into their face. This creates much more directional and natural looking light then fill flash from right above the camera lens.

The highlights on the meat are created by the key light behind the plate.
Notice the shadow in the front below the chicken. However, the detail in the 
foreground shadow is lit by the small reflector I put in front of
the plate. See for more examples.
Many food photographers put the key light behind the food, shining across it. This causes wet or oily food to reflect the light with beautiful highlights. I personally usually use a ProPhoto head with a 7 inch reflector and a 10 degree grid as the key light for much of my food photography. The key light is positioned behind the food and just over the top of the background, where it will create shiny highlights on the meat on the plate.

However, with the strongest light coming from behind the food, dark shadows are created at the front of the plate, where the eye will go first. I place small, silver mylar-covered cardboard reflectors in front of the plate, to pick up the key light and bounce it into the front of the plate where the shadows are. A reflector works better than adding another light, as it can be positioned and controlled better than a light on a stand could be.

At times I use white cardboard reflectors or small mirrors for still life photography, but the silver mylar cardboard reflectors are my favorite. You may make your own reflectors from “mirror paper” sold at art supply stores, or purchase them from Light Right, at

The wood behind the desk reflected my softboxes until
I bounced the light off of the wall. 
Reflections caused by studio lighting as well as from windows or room lights must be controlled or eliminated in many location shoots and still life shoots, or the final image will be unacceptable. I remember shooting an executive portrait in a legal firm office that had beautiful polished wood cabinets behind the subject’s desk. Every position I tried for my lights resulted in glaring reflections off the shiny wood, and it looked horrible. Larger softboxes resulted in larger reflections. I finally bounced the lights off of one wall and the ceiling, and changed my camera angle until all the reflections were gone. A great portrait and happy client was the result.

The plastic film on the outside of these bottles reflected
every light I put on them, until I put them in a cocoon.
I tried the same technique with a still life product photography shoot last month, and it wasn’t good enough. I was shooting soft drinks that were packaged in bottles, and then wrapped with plastic film printed with the logo, flavor and ingredients. The top of the bottle was like a curved mirror, and I had glaring reflections right where the logo and name of the drink was printed. Bouncing the light off of walls or ceiling only made bigger reflections. I switched to a totally different approach that I normally reserve for chrome, glass or stainless steel products. I put the bottles in a cocoon shooting tent cube made by Redwing. Shooting cubes are much like dome tents. They have metal or plastic frames covered with white cloth.

I cut background paper to fit into the inside of the cube, then placed the client’s drink bottle inside. I put three softbox lights around the cube, left, right and overhead. The camera lens goes through an opening cut in the front of the cocoon. With reflective products made of chrome or stainless steel, your lights, stands, tripod and you will reflect in the product if you don’t use a cocoon. By sticking the lens through an opening in the front of the cube there are fewer things to reflect in the shiny product. My drink bottles now had well lit logos and flavor names, with no reflections. The client was happy, and I got paid, which was the whole purpose of the exercise anyway. 

No comments:

Post a Comment