Table-top photography is a great way to learn about lighting. You don't need expensive lighting gear since natural lighting from a window or the artificial illumination from a lamp or flashlight works just fine. Working with a single light source lets you experiment with the angle and the quality of the light, but it does leave you with a problem. One side of your subject will be in shadow. You don't need extra lights to fix this. All you need is a reflector on the opposite side to the light source to bounce light back into the shadows.
The advantage of a reflector over a second light is that the 'fill light' from the reflector will never be brighter than the main light, and you can adjust the strength by moving the reflector nearer to the subject or further away. Not only that, the reflector will deliver the same-colored light, though you can change this if you want to by using colored reflectors, as we'll see. That means no weird white balance issues.
You can buy fold-out reflector disks, but the problem with these is that you need some-one else to hold them. This home-made version costs a lot less and is freestanding, so it's ideal when you're working alone. When you're done, it folds flat, and if you have applied a foil or colored finish to one side, this will protect the surface.
In this tutorial, we'll use it to illuminate a small table-top still life, but reflectors can prove just as useful for portraits, both indoors and outdoors. You'll often see assistants holding reflectors just out of shot under a model's chin to lighten up the shadows in the face.
Step 1 - Assemble your materials
You'll need to find a stationery store or art supplier that sells stiff, white board. The best type is a rigid plastic foam sandwich, because this is very light and it won't bend or crumple at the corners. The pack of five A3 boards shown here is ideal. They're designed for mounting and presentations, but the brilliant white finish if perfect for our needs.
You'll also need a pair of scissors and some broad masking tape. If you want to create a gold reflector, which gives an attractive tone to portraits, the easiest way to do it is with spray paint.
Step 2 - Tape the boards together
Now lay one board on top of the other, and use a strip of masking tape to tape them together along one long edge. Keep them together so that the tape has to pass over the thickness of both boards. This is so that you'll be able to hinge the boards both ways (if you lay them flat to tape them, they'll only be able to hinge one way). Now turn the boards so that the opposite faces are together and apply another strip of tape along the edge. You should now find that the boards will hinge both ways. You can now trim off any excess tape.
Step 3 - Optional gold or foil finish
If you want a gold reflector, just spray one side. The reflector will fold both ways, so you'll get one gold one and plain white side. Or, for a bright, 'glittery' light, crumple some kitchen foil, flatten it out again and stick it down with household glue or photo spray mount. You'll need to run some tape around the edges to stop it lifting or tearing.
Step 4 - Using your reflector
Now position your reflector just out of shot, but close enough to provide maximum illumination for the shadowed side of your subject. The hinge in the middle allow it to stand up on its own, and angle each panel to adjust the lighting effect.
Step 5 - Photo examples
And here are three versions of the same still life: The left image has no reflector, the center image was show with the white side of the reflector, and the right image used the gold side.
The effect you prefer will depend on the kind of shot you're taking. The modeling on the shot on the left (with no reflector) is quite attractive, but if you were photographing items for sale or a catalog, the lighting in middle shot (white reflector) is much more even and professional-looking. The shot on the right is subtly different. The gold reflector is slightly less powerful and adds a warm tone to the fill light.
The three pictures below show the effect even more dramatically. The first is a straight shot with no reflector, the second uses a white reflector and the third uses a gold reflector.
A homemade reflector will give you a lot of control over the lighting when using a single light source like a window. You can change the colour of the fill-in light by changing the colour of the reflector, and adjust its strength by changing its angle and distance. It's amazing how one simple accessory can enable you to produce shots that look like they were taken in a professional studio.
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