When working in a studio, you have the utmost control of the lighting, but even there you have to know how to best manipulate the light to get the most impressive results. The primary way of controlling the light is with specific light units known as Studio Flash Strobes and Monolights. These are used in tandem with a lamp reflector which is attached to the front of the flash head or moonlight and the light shoots into the reflector and bounces back at the subject. The reflected light is usually softer, more diffuse and therefore more aesthetically pleasing. A reflector allows you to have better directional control of the light, and still achieve the soft, shape-defining shadows and the proper contrast ratios for outstandingly beautiful images.
There are several types of Lamp Reflectors and they are all variants on the same theme – attachments that fit directly on to the lamp head, behind the bulb. The types are: Standard Reflector, Umbrella, Magnum, Beauty Dish, and Telephoto Reflector. Each have their own unique features and deliver specific results (which we’ll get into), however they are all designed to shape and direct the light on the subject. This provides greater control of the light source, and gives you artistic choices that will certainly enhance your photographs.
Standard reflectors are your everyday reflector for the studio flash head. They’re usually made of metal (with a silver matte interior finish, a polished silver finish or a granular metallic finish), and they direct the light output in a 90 to 120-degree beam. A standard reflector is the typical light/reflector set-up for shining the light into bounce cards, through diffusion, and grids or cutters. One thing to know about standard reflectors is that the wider they are, the softer the light you get from the lamp unit. Additionally, the shape and interior finish can affect “softness” of the light. While standard reflectors seem very basic in their usage, they should become a staple in your studio lighting set-ups.
Umbrella reflectors fit directly onto virtually any studio flash head, and are designed to prevent excess light from spilling all over the studio. Part of having control of the light is controlling which direction the light shines. Umbrella reflectors are designed to direct the light so that it projects only in the 180 degrees in front of the flash head.
Beauty Dish Reflectors
As their name implies, beauty dishes are the one type of reflector that is a specialty item. Like all reflectors, the beauty dish fits on the studio flash head, but unlike the other reflector types, the beauty dish has a matte white interior finish. Beauty dishes tone down the harshness of the light to give a nice, soft, diffuse quality... perfect for portraits and nudes. Beauty dishes are kind of large, too - from 16 to 30 inches in diameter. Their size helps to create soft and smooth lighting with clean (but not sharp) shadows that fall off at the edges. Without a trained eye, you might not see the effects of the beauty dish (compared to a properly calibrated umbrella or a soft box with a Lee filter diffusion paper on the front). The beauty dish can be a costly accessory, so you might want to rent one once or twice to get a sense of the photo lighting qualities before purchasing.
When to Use Lamp Reflectors
You want to use a Lamp Reflector when you need better control of the contrast in your photograph and want a soft light source for the fill light. This is most important in portraits, but also with still life and/or product shots (like food or small objects) that need a soft, velvety sheen. Nothing adds to those perfect highlights better than reflected light.
What is a Reflector Factor?
The Reflector Factor is a ratio of the amount of light given off by a lamp unit fitted with a reflector and the amount of light given off with no reflector. A matte reflector might have reflector factor of about 2, because the matte reflector dramatically softens and diffuses the light. In contrast, a shiny metal reflector might have a reflector factor of 6 (or higher), due to the higher reflectance. Reflectors alter the quality of the light, so it's important to understand how the light is changed when it's reflected. With this understanding, you will have better control of the characteristics of the light source.
Lamp Reflectors are wonderful additions to your photographer's palette. They give you greater versatility and control of the light that you put on a subject in a studio situation. They can work outside too, if you happen to be shooting with lamps. Reflectors provide subtle, specific control of the ever-important lighting, and they provide that "beauty glow" you see in most photographic portraits. If using monolights and flash strobe units, they should be coupled with lamp reflectors to maximize control of carving, cutting, reducing, and increasing the light.