Tips for Filling in Shadows: Using Reflectors and External Flash

Tips for Filling in Shadows Using Reflectors and External Flash

The process of photographing portraits can be achieved by implementing either studio or natural light. Although natural light offers a soft, glowing appearance, often we find that such lightning conditions are not always adept at preventing shadows. Luckily, with the use of two effective methods – shadows can be lessened, diminished and softened to highlight and capture your subject’s main features. Here are two tools that aid in filling in shadows to create crisp and clean outdoor portraits.

Why Use a Reflector?

The main purpose of a reflector is to bounce light as well as the option to diffuse it. More times than none, this act of bouncing allows the light to reach areas that would otherwise appear shadowed and dark. The most popular reflector is called a 5-in-1, which has has five different options based on the lighting you hope to achieve. The reflector is adjustable based on varying colors that make up the surface.

Tips for Filling in Shadows - Reflectors

Types of Reflectors

Gold Reflector

The gold reflector is great for filling in shadows by adding a tint of gold warmth to your images. Mostly used in sunrise or sunset situations to pull that extra golden light, this reflector creates a tone that is used with intention. Although the added warmth can be visually appealing, it is best to use this sparingly as to avoid a harsh, unrealistic depiction of color and unbalancing of natural skin tone.

Silver Reflector

The silver reflector is one of the most popular options of bouncing light and filling in shadows. The main appeal is that it has the ability to bounce a large amount of light while the color is not altered, but rather remains fairly neutral and balanced. This reflector works well at varying distances from your subject and is what you will see most used when photographing portraits.

White Reflector

The white reflector is comparable to the silver as the color created is neutral. The sole difference is the amount of light being bounced is lesser while using the white reflector. This effect also produces what would be considered a more soft, less intense look than the gold and silver options.

Tips for Filling in Shadows white reflector

Black Reflector

Using a black reflector has the opposite effect as the three mentioned above. This option is used to lessen the amount of light that appears on the subject. Such types of reflectors are often used in studio situations to create a blockage of light that frames the subject more proportionally.


The last type of reflector is the method of diffusion. Usually referred to as a “scrim” this process involves holding the reflector, so that the light shines through the panel and onto your subject. To achieve this, you would need to hold the panel directly over your subject as to avoid the direct glare and intensity of the sun. When using a scrim diffuser, the sun is lessened which effectively creates a softer image.

Integrate an External Flash

Another method for filling in shadows is to integrate an external flash with the use of ambient (natural) light. Properly named as “fill light” an external flash can help pull out the dark sections and shadows created from shooting in harsh daylight. Here are some ways that an external, fill flash will help you create a better image without shadows.

Add Light to Pockets of Darkness

In a portrait used without flash, the lighting would need to be ideal to illuminate the entirety of your subject. Most often, light will wrap around your subject – allowing the figure and outline to appear bright. Although this is helpful, we still find that the more gentle, delicate features such as the face, will still have shadows and patches of darkness. Using an external flash allows you to brighten the foreground of your subject and lift those shadows, all while keeping the background properly exposed and intact.

Tips for Filling in Shadows Add Light to Pockets of Darkness

Using the Sun to Backlight

It is typical to place your subject in a position that allows the sun to act as a perfect light source. When using external flash, you now have two possible light methods to help brighten and expose your subject. It is best to place the subject with their back to the sun, while photographing with the fill light from the front. This way, you are allowing the sun to add light and frame the subject while you aid in focusing on their facial features.

Tips for Filling in Shadows sun backlight

Keep the Portrait Subtle

For artistic purposes, a flash may used with intention to create and convey a specific mood and feeling for the viewer. Yet, in most situations a flash should be used with subtlety, aiming to avoid over exposing the foreground and darkening the background. Remembering that flash is a great tool to avoid shadows and create depth, you want to ensure that the use of your fill light is to highlight features in a soft, appealing manner. Have a look at our flash photography basics page for an introduction on how to use your flash effectively.

Tips for Filling in Shadows Subtle Portrait lighting

As you can see, the use of reflectors and fill light is a seamless and effective method to lift shadows and create beautiful, light infused portraiture. Have you ever used either methods when capturing your subject? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.


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