Often photographers are challenged to bring out the detail in the clothing or hair of their subjects, especially of light or dark fabrics, or blonde or black hair. The solution is simple, but first you must understand the physics 90-percent rule of light and reflection when it comes to light and dark tones in digital and conventional photography.

The 90-percent rule simply states, whatever is pure white will reflect 90-percent of the light that strikes it and whatever is pure black will absorb 90-percent of the light that hits it — the key word, “pure,” as blacks and whites come in many shades. When you keep this concept in mind, you can judge how fabrics, hair, and even skin tones reflect light. Since photographers normally expose for their subject’s skin tone, the camera exposure settings directly impacts our subject’s garments and hair if they lean toward black, the underexposed tones, or white, the overexposed tones.

Bring Out the Detail

We used black reflectors to ensure the white of the car would not “wash out” as we exposed for the model’s skin tone in this photo.

Basically, average human skin-tones rest closer to an 18-percent gray tone of reflectance and most camera meters and flash meters are based on this 18-percent gray standard. So, as photographers, directly or indirectly, our standard is to expose for that skin tone and when we do, dark clothing and hair will photograph darker and light-colored clothing and hair will photograph lighter unless the photographer takes corrective action.

Some photographers use “V-flats” to bring out the detail in a subject’s clothing. These gaffer-taped foam core boards are called V-flats because when put in place they form a “V” that allows them to stand up. For example, if a photographer had to photograph a bride in her white-gown, the V-flats, with the black surface toward the subject, are placed on each side of the bride.

When the V-flats are placed on each side of the bride, the black side will add black tone into the wedding dress and the opposite occurs when the white side is used to bring out the detail in a groom’s black tuxedo. Professional photographers call the use of V-flats as subtractive or additive lighting, but these V-flats are not of much use outside the studio as when folded, they still are 4- by 8-foot wide — you can’t really strap them to the roof of your car.

A More Portable Solution

A more portable solution is the SUNBOUNCE PRO, a 4- by 6-foot photography reflector frame, or the SUNBOUNCE MINI, a 3- by 4-foot photography frame, plus the SUNBOUNCE black on one side and white on the other side fabric screen. Unlike the bulky V-flats, the SUNBOUNCE photography reflectors are collapsible and portable plus can be mounted on C-stands easily. These sturdy reflectors are a great solution for the studio and on-location photography, especially when working outdoors where foam core boards can collapse in the wind.

You use these SUNBOUNCE reflectors the same as V-flats, but they give you more when it comes to a subject’s hair as the smaller versions allow you to get close and still remain out of camera frame. The white fabric surface will reflect light back into dark hair and the black fabric side for blonde hair. You can also use this technique when you photograph dark or light-colored animals too. The easy way to remember this technique, think black cats and white rabbits.

And when it comes to light hair, you can pinpoint this tonal effect with the SUNBOUNCE SUN-MOVER BLACK HOLE to bring out the detail in blonde hair. When you expose for the dark skin tones, blonde hair naturally will become overexposed and lose detail. Through the use of black reflectors, you eliminate this problem easily.

This concept also brings out the detail in diamonds when it comes to jewelry photography. While most photographers use a “white tent” to illuminate their diamonds, when you add small black cards close to the jewelry it helps bring out the diamond facets. This technique is tricky as the photographer must still bring light to the diamond and keep the miniature black cards out of camera frame — but it makes a difference as it brings out the sides of the diamonds with distinction.

The key to bring out the detail in all these types of photography, bridals, glamour, pet or jewelry, is to place your black or white reflectors as close to your subject as possible, but out of camera frame. Another key is to always take the 90-percent rule of reflectance into account and to understand that the human brain along with psychological perception helps us see differently than a digital camera.

Digital cameras bring out the detail based on physic rules that pertain to light and reflectance, but our minds compensate and naturally add the detail back in, in what we see, whereas the camera does not. What you see, isn’t always black and white, but black and white reflectors can help you bring out the detail in your photos when done correctly.


Rolando Gomez is a professional photographer and author of five photography books that has traveled to 45 countries for assignments. The former soldier and U.S. Army combat photographer has taught hundreds of photography workshops for almost two decades. A 2016, 2017 and 2018 Top Writer for Quora, his partial credits include Newsweek, Parade, Playboy, Rangefinder, Maxim, Rangefinder, New York Times, Stars & Stripes, and various other publications.
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