Fill light is one of the photography industry’s unsung heroes, but fill light in basic three-point lighting can be just as important as the key. Getting it right can make your images that much better.
A fill light is a secondary light source located opposite the main light that fills in the shadows created by the main light to reduce contrast and increase detail.
When photographers are just starting out, most may not know how to create good fill light while making sure none of the other areas are overexposed. Trying to balance multiple lights can seem complicated and many will want to resort to a particular rule regarding accent lighting.
While there are great guidelines on how to use fill light, it will depend on your lighting taste when setting your lights.
Fill light in the studio
Let me describe how I personally tend to work with fill lights in a studio environment. This method is by no means rocket science and I certainly didn’t come up with it, but I highly recommend setting things up this way as it is simple and intuitive.
There’s a slightly different way to do it on location, which we’ll cover later.
1. Make a black frame First, you want to turn off all strobes and make sure you get a completely black frame, eliminating any ambient light. This way you only work with what is necessary: the stroboscope.
2. Turn on the fill light The second step is to turn on the light you consider filling and adjust so that it is only partially visible in the image.
3. Turn on the Key Light Finally, turn on your main light and adjust the power settings to your desired fill/bite balance. Keep in mind that when you increase your fill light, you need to dial down your key to avoid overexposure.
Fill light on location
When working in place, you need to pay more attention to the filling. Depending on the scenario, you can use a strobe for fill or just use available ambient light/daylight.
1. Expose the background. Dial in your camera settings to the levels you want and see if you’re happy with the results of the light you can’t control.
2. Turn on the main light. Unlike studio shooting, you’ll need to dial the key first.
3. Balance key and environment and fill. If you choose to use the environment as a fill light, change your camera exposure and increase or decrease your key light. If you use an additional strobe for fill light, be sure to balance it with the color of the surrounding lights.
Ways to Create Fill Lighting
Here are some basic ways to create fill lighting in a photo.
large light box
This is perhaps the easiest way to create accent lighting if you’re renting a studio. Many, if not all, are bound to have a large softbox. Basically, you want to use a softbox large enough to create shadowless light and cover the whole thing.
Typically, this way of creating fill light involves placing a softbox just behind your subject. The shape of the modifier isn’t that important if you want to use it as a fill light, either a 5ft octa or a 4×6 softbox will work just fine for this method.
One downside with this one is that you won’t be able to work on large sets because the softbox is way too small to effectively cover a large set. Another downside is portability, you’ll have to build your own softbox, which if you ask me can be a pain, especially something as massive as a 4×6.
Similar to the large softbox, a large umbrella is a very common way to create fill light and is the method I use most often with my own work. It’s rare for me not to have a white umbrella with a 1.5 stop diffuser installed behind me. Even if I don’t use it, it’s always there if I need it.
Although this method also has size limitations, I can combine multiple umbrellas into a huge light source that can fill any ensemble for a relatively low price. Another benefit of using umbrellas for accent lights is that umbrellas are very compact compared to softboxes. Even the massive 165cm umbrella I own collapses to the same length as my light stand, making it a dream on the spot.
Scrim with a bare light bulb behind
If you need extra large light sources, you can get a scrim and turn a light on it. This is commonly used in the studio as this method is far too complex for most on-location work.
The great thing about using a large canvas is the ability to have a very soft fill light that is unnoticeable no matter how large the set. You can always go for a larger canvas and, if needed, add more lights. Some photographers end up firing multiple strobes across a canvas in order to increase the power of the fill light.
By far the cheapest way to produce fill light is to bounce it off a white ceiling. While accessible to everyone, this method has some drawbacks. First, you can’t control where your fill goes. For example, if you want to fill only a particular part of the image, you can position an umbrella or a softbox to cover only that area.
Another problem you may run into is that every time you bounce your light off a colored surface, it can cause a color cast, acting like a subtle gel. Bounce off a yellow wall and you get a yellow light, bounce off a blue wall and you get a blue light.
The “fake“fill the light. The reason I call it fake is that it contradicts everything I’ve said before about accent lights. Still, a ring flash is commonly used in small spaces where you can’t always get a large softbox or canvas. The ring flash has a magical quality to mask shadows behind the subject, making it a soft fake light. To make the light a little softer, I suggest getting a softlight reflector for the ring flash.
Accent lights are often designed in such a way that you cannot tell if they have been used or not. But rest assured, most professional images have fill light in one form or another. Images with deep shadows without detail rarely make the cut in the industry, at least with current aesthetics.