Take Control of Natural Light with Reflectors and Diffusers
Shine some light on the situation

By Rick Sammon

As photographers we often need to control the natural light that falls on a subject, usually be redirecting it or modifying it.

One way to control light is to use reflectors and diffusers. These devices redirect or alter the amount and direction of existing light. Disc or oval-shaped reflectors and diffusers are available from Adorama in several different sizes, from a foot to several feet in diameter. Portable, they collapse and fold so you can store and carry them in handy carry cases.

Diffusers soften harsh light that passes through them for a more pleasing effect. Reflectors, which are available in white, gold and silver surfaces, bounce light onto a subject to fill in shadows and can add highlights and contrast to a subject. Gold reflectors bounce a “warmer” light onto a subject, giving the subject the appearance of being photographed in the late afternoon or early morning. Silver reflectors bounce a “cooler” light onto a subject giving a more intense or harsher feeling.

For most professionals, reflectors and diffusers are essential accessories.
I never leave home without them.

Here are several examples of how diffusers and reflectors can enhance a picture.

A midday sun produced harsh and unflattering shadows on the face of my nephew, William. This behind-the-scenes
shot shows my son,
Marco holding a diffuser over William. As you can see, harsh shadows are everywhere, except on William.
(Photo by Laura Rickett)
Look at the big difference the diffuser made. A soft and flattering light is now falling on William.


Diffusers can be used to bounce a soft light onto a subject, too. While on assignment in Kuna Yala, Panama, I encountered a Kuna woman I wanted to photograph. She was standing in the shade, where there was very soft, low-contrast lighting. To increase the contrast of the portrait, I had my assistant, Gilberto, hold a diffuser under and near the subject’s face. He moved the diffuser around until it caught the light in such a manner that light was reflected onto the subject. Here is the portrait of the Kuna woman. The soft light looks totally natural, because just a hint of light was added. Had I used a gold or silver reflector held that close and under the subject’s face, the effect would have been what pros call “Halloween” or “Frankenstein” lighting,” unflattering lighting coming from underneath the subject’s face. (Stand in front of a mirror, hold a flashlight under your chin to see the “Halloween lighting” effect.)


Reflectors can dramatically improve a portrait when the subject’s face is in the shade, while his or her body is in bright sunlight.

Reflectors can also be used to add light and color to subjects standing in the shade. Notice how the lighting is fairly flat in this portrait of the cowgirl.

Standing off-camera, a workshop assistant held a gold reflector to bounce light onto the cowgirl’s face and upper body. If you did not know the behind-the-scenes story of this picture, you might think it was taken late in the afternoon, because the light has a beautiful, warm glow.

I carefully directed the cowgirl to move her chin down so that her hat hid her eyes. By not being able to see her eyes, the picture has more of a sense of mystery. Of the two close-up pictures, which one is more appealing to you?

Simply holding a reflector near a subject, by the way, will not always bounce light onto that subject. For the maximum effect, the reflector needs to face the sun. When the sun is at an angle to the subject, you need to move the reflector around to get the best possible light on the subject. Reflectors can be used on overcast days, but they are much less effective under these kind of “flat” lighting conditions.

Finally, when using a reflector on a sunny day, keep in mind that when you are working close to a subject and the sun is behind them, the light from the reflector can be blinding, and give intense heat. As always, talk with your subject and keep him or her comfortable. to achieve the best results.


Rick Sammon is the author of Rick Sammon’s Complete Guide to Digital Photogrpahy. See www.ricksammon.com for details.