Flags and Reflectors: Kit that every portrait photographer needs

 by Tina Eisen

Flags and Reflectors Kit That Every Portrait Photographer Needs

In the search of taking that perfectly lit image, striving to constantly improve ourselves and our art, we often get sucked into the idea that buying more expensive gear will fix all our problems and automatically deliver more striking images.

While it is a great starting point to invest in a reliable set of lights and a modifier that pleases our creative vision, many forget that we can refine and perfect available light further in a cost-effective way by introducing flags and reflectors for photographers into our kits.

WHAT ARE REFLECTORS & FLAGS

The clue to their function is definitely in their name, yet the internet has widely accepted the terms “black reflector” and “white flag”, both oxymorons counteractive in our quest to understand light and shadow.

Flags, in short, block light while reflectors act as a surface to bounce (reflect) light back onto the subject. Polar opposite in use and essential in every good light shaper’s arsenal due to their portability and affordability.

HOW PHOTOGRAPHERS USE FLAGS

Dark in nature, a flag’s main purpose is the blocking and cutting of light, which you can do in a couple of different ways.

SHAPING LIGHT

Carefully positioned in front of the source, the flag can modify the direction/ spread of light, adding some interesting shadows and drama to your images.

As an example, restricting half of the light streaming from a softbox by “flagging” its sides would shape your light in the same way a strip box would!

RESTRICTING BOUNCE

Rather than shaping light, their dark surfaces are most commonly used to restrict the bounce of light back onto the shadows of our subjects, making those more deliberate and taking light control one step further.

Reflective surfaces and ambient light such as white walls and windows affect the depth and quality of the shadows we create. When aiming for deep shadows, controlling the light reflected near our scene and avoiding it bouncing back in will give us the desired dramatic effect, also known as negative fill.

The impact of a black flag opposite the key light, while camera settings remain the same.

Bear in mind that just like with your light source, the distance of your flags to your subject plays an important part in its impact. The closer your flag is to your subject, the more noticeable your results.

HOLDING UP YOUR FLAGS

Flags come in a range of different shapes, sizes and materials. While some of them, like the double-sided flag/ reflector combination by VFlat World, stand by themselves, others need a hand (or a clamp!) to stand up.

An assistant can hold your flag in place, bearing in mind that this can get tiring and they can’t guarantee a consistent position. C-stands and clamps offer a great solution and once in the right position they stay put for as long as required.

ALTERNATIVES

While most flags are cost-effective, if you don’t have one on hand there are ways to make your own. 

My very first “flag” was an insulation styrofoam sheet from a hardware store, covered in black paint on one side. Before being THIS sophisticated, I simply used black cardboard from an art shop and even a black bedsheet at one point.

HOW PHOTOGRAPHERS USE REFLECTORS

Having covered the “dark side” let’s have a look at ways to use light, rather than block it.

Reflectors are surfaces able to bounce existing light back onto your subject, typically white or metallic in nature. They aren’t a source of light; therefore, their intensity depends directly on the light source that is being shone onto them.

FILLING SHADOWS

Photographers use reflectors as a way to fill shadows and recover detail without having to use additional fill lights – a handy tool when the number of light sources is limited, working in small spaces and looking to travel light.

Positioning a reflector opposite your light source or near the shadowed side of your subject bounces light back into your scene and will consequently fill in the shadows by lessening their intensity.

Added fill (and catch light!) caused by a silver reflector bouncing the single key light while camera settings stay the same.

Typically the model would sit next to a reflector brightening their shadowy side or have a reflector positioned below to weaken shadows underneath the chin.

Strobes aren’t the only light source that photographers can reflect. You can channel sunlight and daylight flooding in through windows similarly. The brighter your source, the more effective the bounce.

ADDING CATCHLIGHTS

The most important element of a portrait is undoubtedly the eyes, allowing a glimpse at someone’s emotions and story. Adding sparkle and depth into them brings a picture to life, connects the viewer with an image, and elevates your capture from a “nice” to a great, engaging picture.

Photographers can use reflectors to add catchlights into the eyes without having to use additional lights other than the ones you have already implemented in lighting your subject. 

Positioned near the head, a reflector can face the model straight on, at an angle, or sit underneath their head or torso. The impact of the reflection changes with every movement of the face and directing your model into subtle changes of angles and expressions will give you the best results.

Consider your reflector’s shape as the model’s eyes will mirror this, helping you create small, round, more natural reflections or long rectangular, more creative ones.

A great reflector for rectangular, almost linear looking catchlights is the Eyelighter by Westcott. It is unique in its curved shape, almost wrapping itself around the model, adding some sparkle into the bottom half of the iris.

TYPES OF REFLECTOR

With different shapes and sizes of reflectors available, it’s good to be aware of how the size and surface influence the effect of your reflector. The bigger the reflector, the softer and larger the area you’re affecting - a handy thing to remember when reflecting onto a full body rather than just a face or more than one person being lit.

The most common reflectors are white, silver, and gold.

  • White reflectors have matte surfaces, their bounce will be more soft and subtle than their metallic counterparts.
  • Silver and gold reflectors have a better ability to bounce light due to their reflective surface and their effect is, therefore, more punchy and noticeable.

While the silver surface is neutral in regard to its color cast, many often use a golden reflector to radiate a warm glow, mimicking that of the sun and making it a great accessory for outdoor photography.

DIY REFLECTOR ALTERNATIVES

Just like with flags, there are alternatives and DIY solutions when it comes to making your own reflectors. 

  • With walls being great reflective surfaces, positioning your model next to one can be useful in filling in the shadows.
  • A great homemade solution for metallic reflectors is a sheet of aluminum foil wrapped around a piece of cardboard!

PLACING REFLECTORS

Try asking your human subjects to double up as your reflector stand by letting them hold it. 

This will only work if you don’t intend their hands to be in the shot. 

Keep in mind that holding a reflector, even with hands out of shot, will affect their upper body posture, which might result in unflattering angles on shoulders and arms.

Assistants can make for great support systems for collapsible reflectors, as they can adjust their positions according to the model’s posing.

Stands and clamps make it possible to hold up to 3 reflectors at the same time, such as my personal favorite, the Lastolite Triflector Holder.

No stand? No problem! Positioning your reflectors on a table in front of your model will do the trick!

WHAT ABOUT DIFFUSERS?

After covering the dark, light, and shiny; what about the semi-transparent, round disks hiding inside of my handheld reflectors? I hear you ask!

These are diffusers, semi-translucent in nature, they don’t serve to block the light or reflect it. They rather let it pass through in a diluted, more scattered form, therefore changing the quality and intensity. Adjust your camera settings accordingly!

Use these to soften your light in the studio the same way the diffuser on a softbox would, or to weaken the brightness of direct sunlight when shooting outdoors on a sunny day.

CONCLUSION

With reflectors and flags being inexpensive and easily replicated with items we have at home, I encourage you to start playing and get creative!

Their effects are easily achieved, yet powerful. Use them in combination — deepen your shadows with flags while creating a spark in the eyes with the use of a reflector.

Shape and manipulate available light and use these inexpensive tools as a gateway to creative photography lighting!

I’m excited to see what you create, feel free to share your results with me on @tina_eisen.

Tina is a commercial and editorial beauty photographer based near London, UK.

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