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Black Reflectors (Flags) Subtractive Lighting

When photographers discuss reflectors, most folks think of silver, white, gold and zebra colored reflectors, rarely do you hear of black reflectors, though you might hear of gobo’s, cutters, and black cards, which are usually black in color, and named more from the concept that they block light, rarely that they subtract and reflect light. While most photographers will call these black panels flags I still like to think of the them as reflectors too.

These black flags normally reflect about 10-percent of the light that hits them, thus absorbing 90-percent of the light that falls on it. This imbalance in percentages is why it’s often referred to as a flag, more than a reflector. It’s the absorption quality we often call, the subtraction of light. While this is true, the black material is also reflecting black-toned-light back onto the subject, which is a technique I like to use in my photography, especially when working with blonde hair, in addition to the natural subtraction of light that occurs with these flags.

Referencing the 90-percent rule, which I often discuss in my books and internet articles, pure black will absorb 90-percent of the light that hits it while pure white will reflect 90-percent of the light that falls on it. Keeping this concept in mind, anything toward the white-side of the scale is reflecting more light than anything toward the middle or black tones. Thus blonde hair, especially platinum blonde hair, will always reflect more light than normal skin tones–the human eyes and brain corrects this imbalance and causes a perception of equal tones as we see the human form, but digital cameras do not, they reproduce the hair brighter, or slightly overexposed than the skin. And if you’re a photographer that shoots for the skin tone as most pros do, then the hair will always be washed out unless you place some type of black panels around the subject’s hair. I personally use the California Sunbounce black fabric on my Sunbounce Pro and Mini reflector frames.

These frames are not only portable and lightweight, but they have strong aluminum cross bars were I can attach a grip-head that secures the frame to a sandbagged light stand. If I attach the grip head to an arm mounted on a C-stand, then there is even more flexibility to maneuver the black reflectors around the top of the model, closer to her hair. The concept here is to place the panels just slightly above the camera frame, thus adding 10-percent black, this technique was similar to what I used to photograph Playboy Playmate Holley Dorrough for the cover of my first book, Garage Glamour, Digital Nude and Beauty Photography Made Simple (Amherst, 2006)

In addition, the panels are subtracting light from the area around the models hair, through the absorption of light, or what we call in photography, subtractive lighting. Photographers often use this technique in the studio too, as an example, when shooting a model in a white dress or outfit in high-key lighting were the background is white, if you place a California Sunbounce Pro, Black flag on each side of your subject, the black from the flags will be reflected on the outside edges of the subject, thus separating your subject from the background.

The exact opposite would also happen if you had a subject in black against a black background, simply reverse the crossbars on the California Sunbounce and utilize the highly-reflective white surface toward your subject, thus providing light around the subject’s sides and creating a separation of the subject from the background.

While many professional photographers will call black panels of various materials flags, cutters and gobos, I like to think of my California Sunbounce Pro and Mini frames, outfitted with the black fabric on one-side and white on the other side as reflectors, after all, even though black absorbs more light than it reflects, it does reflect light so it’s not usual for me to say, “Hand me the black reflector” to one of my assistants when I’m utilizing my subtractive lighting techniques. Try this technique, I think you’ll like what you see, thanks, rg sends!

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