Aug 25 2009

Who Needs a Flash?
Lighting the Small World with Reflectors

 
I’ve been shooting macro photographs for nearly 40 years, and I’m often asked if I use a flash to light the dark corners. My reply? Who needs a flash? Don’t get me wrong. Flashes have their place, and many talented photographers use either camera-mounted flashes or auxiliary strobes to achieve fine results. But there’s rarely been any room for them in the kind of nature photography which has always appealed to me. It’s simply been too much trouble to carry one, or to put one into play. And more often than not, when I have used a flash, the resulting photo is washed out and worse than if I’d not used one in the first place. Having said all of this, there are times when I have needed some extra light to illuminate tiny subjects. The answer to putting some light on the situation is to use a reflector. While purpose-built photographic reflectors can certainly be used, I tend to press into duty the kinds of things I’d have along on in my rucksack. Here are a few items I’ve used as reflectors:

 

Reflectors

 
There’s my ancient pale gray Stetson field hat, a dud DVD, a sheet of white paper, and an steel camping cup. I’ve also used a white umbrella, a white t-shirt, and a wooden paddle blade. The goal is to reflect brighter light onto a dimly lit object. To show how the items in the photo above compare as reflectors, I set up a simple experiment on my work table next to a window on a thinly overcast afternoon. Here’s a small white feather on a dark blue sweatshirt, in the shadow of a length of limb which has been debarked by a beaver:

 

White Feather

 
The feather is visible, but details are hidden in shadow. But if I hold up my hat so that it bounces the light streaming in through the window, I can brighten the feather, as shown below:

 

White Feather

 
In the pair of pictures above, the bottom one shows how the feather is illuminated by simply holding the hat in such a way that its light-colored surface reflects a gentle glow onto it. The top picture in the pair above shows the hat held at an angle to reflect the window light. Now let’s see how the white paper compares with the hat as a reflector:

 

White Feather

 
Not as well. Though the paper is brighter than the hat, it doesn’t reflect as well as the hat. If the sun had been stronger, the paper would have been a better reflector. Now let’s see how the camping cup does:

 

White Feather

 
The cup reflects as well as the hat, perhaps because of the multiple surfaces which can bounce the light. The DVD is the last reflector:

 

White Feather

 
The DVD throws noticeable light, but it’s a blue hue, with a little red here and there. Furthermore, it’s not as diffuse as the other reflectors I tested. Here’s the white side of the DVD:

 

White Feather

 
The white side of this DVD throws a colorless reflection that vies with the hat and cup for its brightness. Under some conditions, the DVD might be the best choice as a reflector, but to my mind, the hat is what I’d reach for first if I wanted to illuminate something like these Indian pipes (Monotropa uniflora) in a dark woodland.

 

Indian Pipes

 
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