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Photography Reflectors—The Golden Rule
It’s About Using The Right Tool
Heather photographed in Costa Rica with a Hensel Porty Premium and a Chimera softbox. The flash head was covered with a Rosco Bastard Amber gel.
While many will describe my photographic style as warm, and some will even state that I often rely on warming gels and white-balance, I for one will tell you I only use these more warming techniques when I practice photographing women whether it’s fashion, glamour, beauty or fine art photography, but rarely other genres.
The Rosco gels and white-balance techniques I use serve a purpose when I’m working with flash as it’s about the right tool for the right job. One of my other tools is my California Sunbounce Pro or Mini gold reflector.
While I often use these warming techniques of gold reflectors, white-balance and warming gels, one would think that I’m a big fan of the gold reflector, but I’m not unless it’s for one condition—to warm up my model skin tone when she’s posing in the colder light of open shade.
Let’s think about that for a moment. Since most photographers rarely carry color temperature meters, how do we know what is cool or cold light? Well the easiest way to remember is to pretend you’re in Texas on a hot summer day and you’re outside cutting the lawn. You then decide to stop and take a break as sweat pours down your face as the hot sun blazes down your neck.
What’s the first think you do after you shut down the power mower? You head for a shaded area, perhaps under a tree or porch awning. Why? You head for shade like a thirsty animal because it’s always cooler under shade. A simple lighting fundamental, if you’re outdoors, any area cooler than another adjoining area is illuminated by cool light or light of a high Kelvin color temperature, usually in the range of 6000 to 7500 Kelvin.
Since most full-time photographers have to work an entire day to pay their bills and many wedding and portrait photographers have outdoor studios, the gold reflector’s purpose was created to allow them to work in the middle of the day while their subjects stood in open-shade areas to keep cool and to avoid harsh, direct, overhead light.
Heather is photographed with a California Sunbounce Pro gold reflector during one of my Moab photography workshops.
The gold reflector was designed to add the opposite colors of cold light to properly expose color negative film before the days of digital photography and white-balance for still cameras even existed. Photographer’s assistants would pump-in this more golden, yellow-red light from the gold reflector, thus allowing the subject being photographed to appear normal and not ice-cold blue or cyan. The idea is to make your subjects appear full of life, not dead.
Sure, digital cameras today have “AWB,” or auto white balance modes, but if you rely on this, then your foreground or background that are not in shade, become much warmer than reality as the camera is adjusting the white balance the same over the entire image frame, not just on your subject standing under a tree. Because of this, the gold reflector is essential so you can maintain the white balance throughout the entire frame. While I prefer to shoot in the manual white balance mode, even if you don’t and prefer the AWB setting, then the entire frame is more balanced in color by using a reflector like the California Sunbounce Pro or Mini gold reflector.
Unfortunately many photographers use gold reflectors everywhere, not just the open-shaded areas, thus you often see an overuse of gold in images. While I’m known for my warm-toned photos of models, my style isn’t to make my models appear golden, nor will I use my white-balance and gel techniques for commercial or photojournalism work where I want to depict reality as reality.
It’s all about utilizing the right tool for the right job. Gold reflectors were meant to warm up subjects placed in the cold light of open shade while silver reflectors were meant to add contrast and punch with a more neutral colorcast. White reflectors are meant for a softer, north light appearance, but neutral added fill while black (yes, pure black reflects 10-percent of the light that hits it) reflectors are often used to add detail in highlighted areas like a bride’s wedding dress. California Sunbounce black reflectors also subtract light when used in this manner.
Normally my camera’s white-balance is manually set at 6,000K when photographing female models, but again, that’s my photographic style. When I shoot sunsets you’ll see me place a Rosco Bastard Amber gel over my Hensel ring-flash but when I’m not using flash as a main light source, then you’ll see me whip out a California Sunbounce reflector with zebra fabric. Sometimes I might combine the flash and the reflector too, but under open shade, it’s the gold fabric reflector.
All in all, it’s my photographic style, but for the most part, it’s also about using the right tool for the right job for the intended results and when my subject is standing under open shade, the golden rule is the gold reflector. With that I close and as always, I remind you to not forget the men and women who protect our nation. God Bless them all plus their friends and families too—Rolando.