The indispensable Reflector! Oh how I love this little used tool for equestrian portraiture! Prior to my career switch from portrait & wedding photography to equestrian, I used reflectors for outdoor portraits all the time. I took many workshops from some of the very best portrait photographers in the world, I’m talking about the old guys that had 65+ years of photography careers back when it was just film and when photography was a lot harder! They were the masters of light. Marty Zucker, Ken Whitmire the best of the best…guys you wouldn’t have heard of unless you were entrenched in learning all there is to know about portraits and the subtleties of light. I learned how to use and bought my first reflector at one of these lighting seminars years ago and was hooked! I bought a Westcott reflector set in the Medium/Large 40” size and have used them ever since!! That was 20 years ago and hundreds of thousands of images later!
I have met and watched other equine photographers shoot dark bay or black horses with no reflector and no fill flash (we will talk about flash further down). This will result in pretty mediocre images of dark horses with no detail in the fur and no muscle definition, nothing to get excited about. In the images below, look at how the horse shines! Look at the definition, the color, the pizzaz of the image. This is what the horse owner will gladly pay for, his or her horse looking as amazing as they are!
I know what you are thinking, place the sun on the side of the horse you are photographing and let it light up his body and make him shine! That can work, placing the sun behind you so the horse is lit. We have used this technique for breed shots, full length, nice even lighting. Yep, that would get some nice results. But what if you are adding a horse owner to the image. Say you are doing a high end equine portrait with horse and owner. You want both to look great right? Are you still going to put the sun behind you to light the side of the horse? What about the person in the shot, where will they be looking??? Right into the sun! This is rule number one in portraits, never face your subject into the sun! They squint, and crinkle their noses… you can’t get a good expression to save your life if you do this! Even on an overcast day, don’t face your subject into the sun!
So what’s the answer? Like any traditional outdoor portrait, place the sun behind your subject. What you get now is beautiful rim lighting on the horse, and hair highlights on your human subject. But wait…the sun is behind and the side of the horse and it’s owner will be dark, shaded even! Ah! That’s where your indispensable reflector set comes in! With your reflector, you face it directly at the sun behind your horse and human, you “REFLECT” the sunlight back onto your subjects, creating a golden or silvery light (depending on which reflector you use). The results are often stunning as there is no imitation for real sunlight!
Once you find the sun (it may take a bit to find the sun when it’s overcast, but it still works great). You may adjust your angle a little so you are not shining it right into your human or horses eyes. You will need to train your assistant how to use this awesome tool that will set your images apart from all the others!
What side of the reflector to use? If you get the set; Westcott 5 in 1 Reflector Set! you will have several different colors to use. I would say the silver is the most common and reflects the most light. If you are using a portrait lens say 80-150mm you will be standing quite a ways back for a full length shot of your horse and owner. The silver will give you the most distance and throw that sunlight far and bright! I will warn you on a sunny Arizona or Montana morning, the silver can actually be too bright! Take care not to shine it directly in your subjects eyes! You may as well face them into the sun if you are going to do that! Angle the reflection to just graze your subjects if its too bright. Or switch to the gold reflector in your set. The gold reflects lovely, warm “golden” light back onto your subjects. And it is softer than the silver so if the light is too bright or too intense, try the gold.
My secret reflector of choice… I have a pink and silver checkered reflector that I bought at a class years ago and it has been my favorite ever since! It gives a soft warmth to my subjects, especially on an overcast day which often gives a blue cast to your images. This is the one addition to the Westcott set that is worth the doe. The gold reflector is pretty close… but see images below for examples of my secret reflector… you will want one of these immediately! They are worth every cent! It’s called….drum roll please…
Photogenics 42″ pink & silver, my secret weapon for portraits! Pink & Silver 42″ Reflector!
The white side of the reflector is perfect for close up portraits of the horse & owner. This is great when the light is pretty bright and you just want a little fill and catch light in the eyes.. That’s just another benefit to using the reflector, you get that “catchlight” in the eyes without facing your subjects in the sun! I would consider the white side for a white or very light colored horse, so you don’t over expose his details.
If you buy the wescot pack of reflectors, you will also get a sheer reflector. This is not a reflector but a Diffuser. You must have an assistant to utilize this tool. You basically hold it up and block the sun, letting it diffuse the light on your subject. Honestly, I wouldn’t recommend this for horse portraits because horses can be easily frightened by a large disc being held up a few feet away from their head! I used to use this alot for wedding portraits and its awesome for the beach with all the reflections from the water and sand, you really need a light diffuser when doing portraits in the morning in those conditions.
The black side…Again here, this is a handy tool for creating mood and taking light out of your portrait. In studio work, you often use a black reflector (absorber really) on one side of the man’s face to pull some shadows, to make him look more masculine. Of course trends change and it seems men are lit almost the same way women are these days and so maybe you won’t use that black side much. IT is really handy for detailed work such as an intricately decorated white wedding cake. You would but that black reflector on the side that the sun is hitting and it will show the detail in the cake like crazy! I’ve never used it for horse photography, but it may come in handy in your photography travels down the road.
So by now you are getting it, I am a huge reflector fan and I keep mine in my car at all times and have used them even for close ups of wildflowers!
Above I have raved on about this awesome tool for outdoor portraiture.. But there is one and only one negative! Ok, there is one and a half if I’m really being honest! Wind. Wind can really jam up your shoot in a couple different ways, but the worst is it wreaks havoc on your reflector, especially the bigger ones 40” inches and larger that I want you to have for your horse portraits! The reflector set becomes a SAIL in the wind and can be impossible to hold still. This becomes a much bigger deal for our equine freinds, a large shiny wobbling thing may be a threat!!! You don’t want to spook your subject!
If you run into a high wind day that you cannot reschedule (it’s hard when your client spent three hours bathing and grooming their horse to prepare for the shoot!). Here’s a couple of suggestions. One, is find a windbreak to work behind. If you can keep your background, but block the wind with a barn, shed, fence or tree. This would be optimal. But if you can’t and you don’t want to lose the beautiful spot you spent days scouting for, the ole Speedlight with freshly charged batteries (this should always be ready in your camera bag!) is your backup “bestie”. It will not give you the stunning results your reflector set will, but it will do the trick. Remember to still place the sun behind your subject to get that nice rim lighting if possible. Adjust your flash to the right power output, don’t try and light your whole scene! Your goal is to light the horse a bit giving detail to his dark body. Even if the horse is white, a little fill light will separate him from the background. Set the flash with just enough output to make him Pop!
Downside number 0.5 is you really need two people to do horse portraits with a reflector. This means making sure you have an assistant and checking his or her schedule so they will be at the shoot! My husband Flash and I are lucky as we are two. When doing an equine portrait, we trade off assisting for one another. When I did weddings, I had a dedicated assistant that was like another arm! We learned to work so well together, and off course she learned how to handle that reflector like nobody’s business!
If there is NO wind, you can use some light stands and clamps to set up your reflector without an assistant, but it’s pretty challenging to get the angles right and you won’t’ have as much control. To do it right, there is a special bracket/clamp that you can adjust the reflector up and down. It’s actually called “Assistant”. It comes with a 42″ set of reflectors, the stand & bracket: Assistant, stand & 42″ reflector set. It works pretty good as long as there is no wind. You will still want to use sandbags to keep it from falling over with just a slight breeze. You can also get the Westcott set with stand, depending on which reflectors you want to use more: Westcott 5/1 Reflector Set with Stand. The stand is never as good as another person watching the light and moving the reflector to bounce just the right amount of light with finesse, but it does work and is a good back up if your assistant can’t be there.
You can make sand bags with a large heavy duty freezer bag & fill it with sand or water. Or you can buy these handy photographic sand bags with handles. They really do come in handy for lots of things: Photo Sand Bags with Handles, HANDY!
So that about wraps it up on why I think a set of reflectors is just about as important as the lens on your camera for outdoor portraits! Hope this was helpful! Go out and get your reflector set and just practice reflecting light onto shady subjects. Get comfortable with your new tool before taking it out on a job. Oh yeah… one last thing. The reflectors are made with the retractable technology that lets you whip them back into a small portable bag…but this takes a little practice! Make sure you can expand and retract your reflectors quickly and without effort. You will impress your clients with practice, or cast doubt into your photography abilities as you fight with your reflector in the wind, trying to fold it back into the small bag! Practice is always a good idea!