When Do I Use the Different Reflector Colors?

photography reflectors: gold, white, translucent, black, silver

Notice the diffuser held above the models and the gold side of a reflector held underneath the models

If anyone in my classes is interested in portraiture, I usually tell them that the best piece of gear they can buy to improve their photography is a simple reflector.  When they hear that a good one only cost about $25, they run out and buy one…. then, I know it’s coming.

They come into class the next week and ask when to use each of the colors on their reflector.  Let’s settle this one.  First of all, I need to point out that some reflectors have 5 different materials on them that can be removed and changed out to use a different material via a zipper.  Other reflectors just have one color.  I personally recommend the Westcott 5-in-1 reflector for size, versatility, price, and durability.  I’ve tried other brands and they don’t seem to be as durable in my experience.

The White Side

I use the white side most of the time, but I usually recommend that beginners use the silver side in most situations.  The white side casts a very soft, clean light at the model and is useful in studio where flash is used, or when there is ample light outside like during a sunny noon-time shoot.

The reason I usually get beginners started off on the silver side is that beginners rarely put the reflector close enough to the model, so the white side shows no effect at all.  Also, the white side is useless in low light situations unless it is extremely close to the model’s face.

The Gold Side

The metallic gold material casts a very strong warm light onto the subject.  Every time I decide to get fancy and try the gold, the subject ends up with a radioactive-looking gold face.  I have seen some reflectors with a zig-zag white/gold side that I’d like to try, but I haven’t given it a shot yet.

I have used the gold side with success only a few times for sunset portraits when the sunset was very yellow.  Other than that, it is not overly useful in my practical experience.

The Black Side

The black side isn’t a reflector at all.  It’s an anti-reflector.  Photographers use a black reflector to cast a shadow on certain areas of the image.  For example, if the lights are producing too even of a light on the model’s face, a the black side of the reflector can cut out the light on one side to create more artistic shadows.  If you want to sound like a photographer who is in-the-know, you should call the black side of a reflector a “flag” when used for this purpose.

The Silver Side

As I already mentioned, I recommend this side for beginners who never seem to realize how close the reflector should be placed to the model.  The silver side is terrific for shooting in low light or where a strong light is needed; however, the light is often too strong for mid-day shooting unless it is feathered away.  Many photographers use the silver side more than any other, but I personally end up using white more.

The Translucent Center

When you zip off the reversible material on a reflector, the middle of the frame is a translucent material called a diffuser.  This side of the reflector is usually held directly above the subject to soften the sun’s natural light.  It will always go between the light source and the subject.

I use the translucent diffuser quite commonly.  When I shoot sunset portraits on the beach, the wind is often too strong to use an umbrella or a softbox, so I like to use the diffuser as a convenient way to soften the hard light produced by my bare strobe when I’m in a pinch.

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About the Author

Jim Harmer

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Jim Harmer is the founder of Improve Photography, and host of the popular Improve Photography Podcast. More than a million photographers follow him on social media, and he has been listed at #35 in rankings of the most popular photographers in the world. Jim travels the world to shoot with readers of Improve Photography in his series of free photography workshops. See his portfolio here.

Comments

  1. The gold side fooled me for a while too. It’s for filling shadow when the background is in sunlight. This matches the shadow colour temperature with the background.

    Hope that helps,

    Greg

    1. All sides except the black are used to fill in shadows. Most people don’t know how to use the gold properly. Apart from the silver side, the gold side is almost as reflective so it casts a very nasty, strong, yellow-gold tinge if you’re too close to your subject and if you don’t feather it properly. To not have your subjects look like oompa loompas, as Jerry Ghionis once said, you have to put some distance between you and your subject so the gold is just strong enough to only cast a warm, subtle gold fill.

      The same exact technique applies to the silver, The only side you need to be fairly close to your subject with is the white side because white is not nearly as reflective as silver or gold, even in harsh sunlight, because of the nature of the colour, except on glossy surfaces, white does not by nature reflect all the light bounced into it; it absorbs a bit and bounces the rest. But if you don’t have a white reflector in strong sunlight you can still certainly use a silver one. Just stand further back and feather it off your subject so that you reflect light from the outer edges of the reflector for a softer, more subtle fill, as opposed to the hotspot in the middle.

      No matter the light source, light works the same way for reflectors as it does for softboxes and umbrellas. Just like with softboxes and umbrellas, the farther towards the edges of a reflector you get the softer the bounced light will be. So, essentially, you almost never want to use the light bounced from the middle of a reflector in harsh sunlight as that’s the harshest light being bounced. So feathering is best.

      Lastly, for those who find that the gold is way too yellow for your taste and/or just find it too difficult to get a nice enough fill from it, there’s the gold/silver mix, sometimes referred to as Sunfire (it’s known by other names as well). It’s the perfect warm reflector that you can bring in close to your subject and not worry about your subject’s skin looking like it has jaundice. It casts a beautiful warm glow that doesn’t have any yellow tones to it whatsoever; just a beautiful, more subtle warmth that I usually favour 99% of the time over a gold reflector..

  2. Exactly my experiences as well. Silver is too hot, too bright in the sunlight. I’ll have to try it in low-key situations now! Thanks!

  3. I used the gold side for fall family photos. We were all wearing “fall” colors–orange, red, and brown. I really liked the way they turned out!

  4. Which size of reflector is more recommended for more close-ups portraits and full-body or little less portraits?
    And does the shape really matter? As some reflectors I saw were round, some oval.
    Thanks!

  5. Black side can be used two ways. As a flag or a “cutter” to do just that, cut direct light. It can also be used to “cut” ambient and non directional light by placing it next to a subject. This application is called by some “negative fill.” (This effect works best with the black pretty close to the subject, generally just off camera…it sorta sucks up the ambient on the fill side.) Also, don’t give up on the gold…just don’t use it directly on a subject. Use it for bounce to get edge or back lighting…this image is with a gold reflector as an edge light. http://taylormeritt.com/#untitled-gallery-3/15 (It mighta been the wavy metallic gold…what’s called “microwave”, but it’s gold in color.) Only an astute picker of nits would notice that some of the other images have white sunlight in the deep BG and that’s the color it really was. Other of the shots use the gold bounce simply to separate the subject from the flat and darker background by providing a contrasting bright spot for her to be against.

  6. I just used the gold for sunset shot. Still a little gold but better than the color difference between the shadows and the light than the white. You gotta be close with the white .

  7. I like reflectors because it give the eyes good effect. I only use sunlight in my photos so reflectors are necessary , I can’t believe that I didn’t get reflectors all this time.

  8. The mix of silver and gold, known to pros as “herringbone” is in fact, one of my favorite bits of inexpensive kit. It ditches the nuclear furnace factor, and provides a slightly warmer, more flesh tone friendly option than the somewhat chilly straight silver. It’s great for exterior day, sunset, or even in studio when you want just a kiss of warmth for a flattering, yet natural effect. I also rely on it heavily for film and video shoots, run and gun, when full scale reflectors aren’t needed or practical. Far from being the odd man out, “herringbone” bounce is my most used bounce in 25 years of shooting.

  9. I use the gold side very rarely. As Geoffrey above said the silver/gold mix is in my opinion the better way to go as it provides that beautiful middle of the road compromise between the harsh orange of the gold reflectors and the neutrality of the silver reflectors, providing that soft, beautiful semi golden soft light for portraits.

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