Reflecting Upon Reflectors

by Steve Meltzer

Courtesy of Handmade Business

Using reflectors is habit-forming because they are just such an easy way to get better pictures--although sometimes it can get a little extreme. Once, while touring a museum, I was asked by the public relations director to take a quick shot of a large ceramic sculpture for an exhibition press release. Although I had a camera with me, I had no lighting gear. The light in the gallery was not very good and the sculpture looked like a mass of dark shadows and glare spots. For a moment, I panicked. This was awful. Then I took a deep breath and began to improvise. I rounded up half-a-dozen staff people who were wearing white shirts and blouses that day. I placed them strategically around the sculpture and used them as living reflectors. The staff people had a lot of fun, and the PR director got her press shot!

Image take with a single light.

Taken with a single light, and no reflector, this photo of the garlic head, shallots, and ceramic olive dish appears "off" somehow. the garlic's stem is very dark. It definitely could be improved.

After adding one reflector.

Adding one reflector to the setup made a visible difference. The second attempt lightened the dark areas, but the photographer still wasn't satisfied. He didn't care for the shadows.

Adding multiple reflectors.

This was what Meltzer was seeking. The overall appearance was tighter and more interesting.

Modifying the lighting of a subject--for instance, the aforementioned museum sculpture or your own craftwork--with diffusers and soft boxes is a "global" approach that will control the overall lighting. Still, some part of the photographed piece might fall outside the range. This is where reflectors, which can add light "locally" to a specific part of a scene, truly come into play. It is perhaps the simplest way to match the scene's contrast to your camera's dynamic range.

How does this happen? Reflectors do this by bouncing a bit of light into a distinct area of a scene. Whether they are collapsible professional reflectors, or a piece of white poster board, don't mistake their simplicity with their utility. Reflectors are the backbone of professional photography and, by the way, of motion picture production, too.

I own many reflectors of different sizes and usually keep a small collapsible one in my camera bag. I like these collapsible reflectors because they fold up very small and then with a "flick of the wrist" expand to several times their carrying size. Best of all, they are cheap. On eBay, you can locate sets of these for under $25.

Reflectors come in several flavors: white, silver, gold, translucent, or black. White and translucent surfaces soften the bounced light and are great for shooting shiny objects and also for portraiture. Silver-surfaced reflectors bounce harder, crisper light, which works well with things like fabrics and wood. Gold reflectors warm up the light and are particularly useful for fashion photography to "warm" models up. I like using them for photographing gold jewelry because they make the gold a richer color.

Reflectors are amazingly versatile. To illustrate how they work, I set up a ceramic olive dish, a garlic head, and a couple of shallots. The idea was that the vegetables would add a textural contrast between their matte surfaces and the dish's shiny glaze. They also extended the scene's long dynamic range so that I would have to capture the texture in the garlic's bright white paper and at the same time details in the black background.

For lighting, I placed a 160 LED array-light on a stand to the right of the dish, about three feet above it and slightly behind it. With the light in place, I took the first photo, just with this light and without any reflectors. While the exposure is generally okay, notice that some of the back side of the garlic is burnt out and its stem is very dark.

To start to fix these things, I stood a small reflector to the left of the objects, adjusting it to put some light onto the garlic. I took the next shot, which looks better, since the dark areas are lighter. This is the photo that is labeled as the second attempt. However, the whole picture felt too dark because of the shadows on the stem and on the right side of the subjects. To fix this, I set up a second reflector.

I put the second reflector in front of the dish and to the right. Then I stepped back to include the reflectors in the photo. The resulting image (the third photos) is what I was looking for. The two reflectors have added light in dark areas and the overall photo looks a lot brighter and interesting. The additional light also affected the overall exposure.

These images demonstrate how reflectors produce "local" effects. Notice that the dish looks the same in all three images, despite the addition of reflectors.

Coaxing the Most out of Your Camera's Dynamic Range

Are your photos flat and tired-looking? Do friends and potential buyers look at them and say "ho-hum?" Well, next to grayed-out backgrounds, poor contrast is one of the biggest problems in crafts photography.

To begin with, let's define "contrast" a bit. Contrast is the way you get from black to white in a photograph. When there are lots of grays in a photo, it is called a "low-contrast" photo. When there are very few gray steps between the black and white, it's a "high-contrast" photo.

Here on this page is a standard Kodak Gray scale card, which is a visual representation of contrast. Each gray bar or step is an F/stop apart from its neighbor, and the scale shows the steps between white and black. It was simply made by photographing a white card at different aperture settings.

For example, if the white card appears white at F/1.4, then the next frame is taken at F/2, the next at F/2.8, and so on. As the aperture gets smaller, less light reaches the sensor until finally the white card photographs as dead black. The steps from white to black are called the "dynamic range" of the light-sensitive material, whether it's film or a digital sensor.

Speaking of film, slide film had a very narrow dynamic range, perhaps 5-6 steps. Ironically, this limited range made well-exposed slides more brilliant than photographs made on negative film, which have a longer 9-10 stop range. Today, although it varies by specific models, most digital compact cameras and "superzooms" have a 5-6 stop dynamic range, like slide film; while high-end digital SLRs have a bit more, 7-10 stops.

The problem with the narrow dynamic range of digital cameras is that exposure has to be very accurate. Otherwise, highlight areas will be washed out or dark shadows will have no details. The trick, then, is to match the contrast of the scene with dynamic range of the sensor--the whole rationale behind photographer Ansel Adams's Zone System.

However, matching dynamic range isn't always easy. When a part of a scene (or your craftwork) is outside the sensor's dynamic range, you get either hot spots or dead shadows. Hot spots--or glare--are the reflection of things like the sun, the camera flash, or studio lights off a shiny surface. Exposing a scene to keep the highlights from washing out can have the unforeseen consequence of drastically underexposing the shadows.

If caught between too bright or too dark, most professionals prefer to work in the lighting-controlled studio environment. Adjustable lights and accessory light modifiers--such as reflectors--give the photographer the tools to get the most out of a photo.