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How Photographers Can Use Fill Light To Maximize Shadow Detail In Their Studio

7/16/2020 ISO 1200 Magazine 0 Comments

A photographer recently asked me to critique his work on Instagram and when I looked over his photos his faces were well illuminated by his lights but the shadows were jet black. While this can be a style choice, it’s often not on purpose. So I suggested that he could use bounce cards, reflectors, or an extra light to illuminate his shadows ever so slightly if he wanted more detail.

I used a Matthews 8′ x 8′ Artificial Silk as a giant bounce below.Then the very next day I was out having a few drinks with a friend who trains make-up artists, and she was telling me that many of her students are very linear and only want to learn formulas for a particular face, but it’s harder for them to grasp the under-lying concepts which you adapt for each individual. As she was sharing with me details about eyes and lips it hit me that its not the sexy parts that make or break the look, often times its the foundation and how you blend it all together with the sexy parts.

Wait, what am I talking about… sexy parts, makeup or photography?

As photographers, we might obsess about this modifier or that one, believe me I have, but often times we fall short when it comes to shadow detail. This is something I struggle with from time to time when shooting in a new room, and every shoot poses its own set of problems, so the purpose of this post is to share some basic concepts that I hope will help you maximize dynamic range and develop more details in your depictions. Shadows are our foundation, the transition from dark to light is our blending and our midtones and highlights are the sexy parts.

    I actually find the word ‘fill’ to be somewhat misleading; I don’t think we should think of it as filling in shadows as an after thought, but as more of a forethought.

Passive Fill

Reflectors, white poster boards, v-flats and a huge 8’×8′ silk are your friends! You can use anything that is white-ish to bounce light and it doesn’t matter how professional or DIY it is (as long as it doesn’t have a color tint). Just place your fill source opposite of your main source and you are in business. This will hold detail and blend the transitions from light to dark.

Passive Fill

The diagram above shows the the basic principals of passive fill, but you do not have to be this precise with your placement. Anywhere you place it on the shadow side will make a difference and you’ll find there is an angle where it will have the most impact, but because this is the real world, we might not be able to achieve perfection, so don’t worry about it.

Silver and gold reflectors will add a different character to your lighting. The former will give you more of a boost for darker skin tones and the latter will warm your image.

In general I like to start with a 1:4 ratio between my main light, or key, and my shadows. This means if the key meters at f11 then I want my shadows to meter at f5.6. To accomplish this with passive fill I will move the bounce closer or further away until I get the desired exposure. I remember Joel Grimes saying he never uses a light meter; he just uses the back of his camera. While this is ultimately what I do, I still suggest using a light meter to get the basic ratios in place and then adjust from there based on what you’re seeing on the monitor.

Below I am using a white flag from a Matthews 24″ x 36″ RoadRags II Kit to ensure there is detail on the shadow side of Von’s face.

A simple white or translucent reflector from below will do the trick too.

You can use a 4×8′ piece of foam core (1/2 a v-flat if you will) and a flag to own the shadows too.

I used a Matthews 8′ x 8′ Artificial Silk as a giant bounce below.

Outdoors you can use ambient light as your fill and a single flash as your main. Just underexpose the ambient light by 1/2-1 stop and then meter your key so it’s about 1/3 stop brighter than your exposure. This will give you latitude in post to fine tune the exposure and contrast.

Active Fill

I was reading the Profoto blog back in the day and I noticed that a lot of the photographers were talking about putting a large light source behind them to “own the shadows.”

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You can either use flash in a large Octabox or umbrella to illuminate the parts of the photo the key light isn’t hitting, which I like to call active fill, because you control the power of the fill, just as you control the power of all of the other lights in your set-up. Often times this fill light is till 1/4 as bright as the key light, but once again, you really have to look at the back of the camera to decide if you want more or less power.

If the fill source is large or close relative to your subject you can get huge catch lights. If it’s farther away it can create pinpoint reflections in their eyes you may want to remove in post.
Active fill doesn’t always have to be behind you. On location or in studio you can bounce a light off of a white ceiling too in order to fill your scene. I might also place a large softbox on the shadow side of my subject if I know having one behind me isn’t practical because of people standing around blocking it or space. Using a large source like this up close is also passive fill because it will reflect light from your other modifiers too.

#behindthescenes timelapse from my #photoshoot for @PaniniAmerica at the NFLPA #RookiePremiere at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Unfortunately I moved the octa and forgot about the GoPro and so you can only see one of the 40 or so players I shot yesterday: @chiefs first round draft pick @PatrickMahomes5 #BroncolorUSA #Para88 and two strips and bouncing back and forth between the two of them with a #PocketWizard on speedcycler. #Broncolor #ChimeraLighting #chiefskingdom #Whodoyoucollect #johngressmedia #PaniniAmerica #PatMahomes#portrait #makeportraits #flashphotography #portraitphotography #setlife #portraits_ig #teamcanon #pursuitofportraits #johngressmedia #profotousa #iso1200 #strobist #profoto #studiophotography #famousbtsmag #profotoglobal #laphotographer #photostudio. Assisting by the irreplaceable @zach_barron. Artdirection by the amazing @txholla
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You can boom your active fill over your subjects, which creates shadows and highlights in your shadows which add to the drama of the image. You can see this if you look at the tops sides of the objects in the frame that aren’t being illuminated by the beauty dish’s beam.

On-Axis Fill

I sometimes like to place an active fill source behind my main light that in effect creates a gradient of exposure from top to bottom and it softens the transition areas creating an almost painting-like atmosphere. In this case its a Elinchrom 74-Inches Octa Light Bank in front of a Mola Setti 28″ Softlight.

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You can also place your on axis fill above your main light to create the same effect while preserving some of the directionality of the main light.

1/2 #Behindthescenes and final image from my photoshoot with @raejohnson__ ! ⬅️⬅️⬅️⬅️ Swipe felt to see a lighting diagram. 馃拠馃従 and馃拕by the irreplaceable @nicolerogersbeauty and 馃憲 by the sensational @sastylestudio. Lit with #Profoto lights, a @mola_softlights Setti, backed up by an #Elinchrom Octa providing fill, and a Profoto strip light on the left also providing fill. #iso1200 #makeportraits #portraitmood #portraitphotography #setlife #portrait_vision #johngressmedia #portraitvision #profotoglobal #blackmodels #pursuitofportraits #photostudio #beautydish #studiophotography #strobist #portrait_mf #kdpeoplegallery #johngressmedia #portraitfestival #portraits_vision #chicagophotographer #portraitfeed #chicagomodels #endlessfaces #chicagomodel #blackmodel #profotousa
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Una publicaci贸n compartida de John Gress (@johngressmedia) el

Hopefully reading this article helped you to think more about the un-sexy parts of your image. But more importantly I hope it helps you to recreate an image you’ve found and wondered, “how did they do that.” With the proper foundation, you’ll build images that set you apart from the competition.

You may also like: "The Hard Truth About Softboxes: Which Modifiers To Use In Each Role During Photoshoots And Why"

About John Gress:

For over 20 years Chicago photographer & director John Gress has created stunning photography and videos for some of America’s largest companies and international media outlets.  His work has included national lifestyle advertising, portraits and videos for the beauty industry and action photography of professional athletes. Professional Photographer Magazine called Gress “one of the nation’s foremost experts on lighting.” Let's Get Connected: www.johngress.comTwitter | Facebook | Instagram

Text, image and video via John Gress | This article, links, and images were originally published on

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