12 Jan Selecting Reflectors and Diffusers
Reflectors and diffusers are typically the first modifiers photographers buy when they start experimenting with light manipulation. It’s a great thing… you’ve taken the step to start playing with light, rather than just throwing your arms up in defeat when you can’t seem to achieve favorable light conditions in a given shooting situation. A reflector/diffuser combo is a very wise choice, regardless of your existing gear status, as they are useful all the time and in combination with other lighting tools. I think that at times people feel that “controlling light” translates to blasting a flash in someone’s face and calling it a day. Adding flash lighting or redirecting ambient light with a reflector is a way more delicate process than you might think. It doesn’t have to be a huge, dramatic change in the overall exposure. Just adding a little of spark to your main light, or filling-in shadows to bring some more detail into the composition can make a night and day difference. It’s not a game of miles or even feet, we are talking about inches. Small increments of addition/subtraction of light to make all the world of difference in your portrait work. Here are a couple thoughts, more of a checklist, to keep in-mind when you go out to make this purchase.
I will always recommend a convertible, all-in-one reflector/diffuser product. This type of tool is first and foremost a diffuser at heart, with a white diffusion material making up the body of the tool. It also comes with covers or skins, whatever you want to call them, that fit over the diffuser. These covers come in a multitude of colors, but most common are silver and gold, which will produce a different kind of reflective quality to the light. All lighting situations may call for a different kind of “feel” to the light, so it’s nice to have options. One of the covers will most likely have an all black side, which can be used to block or subtract light.
Buying a convertible setup will cost more than if you were to just by a standalone diffuser or reflector, as you can probably guess, because there is more included with the product, but well worth it. Photography is just like the rest of life (surprise!), you are always tossed curveballs and asked to perform feats of photographic magic in some of the most ugly lighting conditions known to man. You often don’t know if you’ll need to reflect, diffuse, or subtract light, so a convertible tool is ideal.
All-in-one’s will always come with a number of different colored reflectors, and as you can guess, provide a different color cast to reflected light. Most, if not all, will come with straight gold (to add warmth) and silver (to cool down light), with some more robust option packages coming with varied combination of gold and silver mixed (typically in a repeating striped orientation) to avoid crazy color shifts.
Reflectors come in all shapes and sizes, and this can play a critical roll in their effectiveness. Most reflectors are constructed with a flexible wire frame that will allow it to breakdown into a convenient size for packing and storing. The rigidity of this wire frame should be well-understood before purchasing (read reviews). Most reflectors are circles or a circular-like form and are… well… pretty darn floppy. This can play in your favor as you can twist the reflector and bend it to concentrate or scatter light. I look for this quality in a reflector when I want one to toss on the ground in front of my subjects. Regardless of what’s on the ground, the reflector will kinda just wrap around objects. The floppier reflectors will also play fairly nicely if held straight up and down. They will immediately become a pain in your ass the second you try and hold this thing at any kind of angle. It doesn’t like it, and does what it does best… flop and bend. It’s a two-hand job to keep the thing steady with anything beyond horizontal and vertical positions, which means you need a dedicated assistant, using both hands, if you want to ask anything beyond “simple” from this type of reflector.
If you are looking for a reflector that will perform well with angles, being clamped to a stand (due to lack of hands on-set), or even allowing you to hold the reflector with one hand and using the camera with the other (not the best situation, but sometimes you gotta suck it up and deal), well… you are in luck. Lastolite makes a reflector/diffuser product called a “Tri Grip.” These tools are triangular in shape, have a dedicated handle on them, and make the task of holding reflectors exponentially easier. They are a more rigid construction, and really do hold their form, no flopping over when held out at an angle, even one-handed. They do their job well, whether they are held by a single hand or clamped to a light stand. These also breakdown into a small size for mobility. The rigidity of the reflector will not take kindly to bending, and will fight you to spring back into the triangle form it loves to be in. Below are links to all of these tools I’ve mentioned.
When You Don’t Have a Reflector Holding Assistant
Speaking of hanging reflectors off of stands, there are tools specifically designed to make this task a little easier. All of us photogs get stuck out on-location without an assistant from time to time when you are in desperate need of an extra pair of reflector-holding hands. Looks like mr. light stand just pulled double duty. Of course, you can use just about any clamp out there to McGyver your own assistant-less reflector solution, some more elegant than others. A lot of the times, I’ll just lean the reflector against a light stand for a slight reflector angle. The Tri Grip will be your best friend in this assistant-less situation, just affix this reflector to a light stand using any kind of clamp right on it’s designated handle, it’ll hold true. The Tri Grip’s floppier cousin will require a lot more work to coax it into playing nice. There are a lot of different solutions for the floppy guys, and you’ll find that it’s best to just try and use these in a vertical or horizontal position. I’ll link a couple here at the bottom of the post.
Here is your standard convertible circle reflector/diffuser:
Here is a Tri Grip (these come in different sizes):
Various reflector grip adapters for light stands:
Don’t underestimate the effectiveness of a well-placed reflector. Sometimes is all a photo job requires, especially when mr. sun is out in full force. Sometimes is just easier to take a hint from the sun and use it’s lighting power to your advantage instead of fighting it. Here is an example, a shoot where I only used a big circle reflector for lighting. I used a gold reflector because I wanted a little more warmth in this series. It was shot mid-day. Click here for that shoot. For this shoot I also had a dedicated assistant holding the reflector just off-camera (required with the floppy circle type).
The Tri Grips are more expensive, but ease of use can be a lifesaver and ample reason to spring the extra dough for it. I do have both kinds, I use them all, and for different jobs. I keep my tri grip in the back of my car, just in case, for spontaneous shoots. Spontaneous usually translates to shooting alone (sans assistant), and I can get away with even holding the reflector myself if I have to.
Do some poking around, read buyer reviews before just picking one, and spend more for an all-in-one.