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Fill Lighting Portrait: Maximizing Details with Fill Sources

4/17/2023 ISO 1200 Magazine 0 Comments

When we talk about lighting in photography, we usually think about adding one or more lights to a scene to enhance it. However, one crucial aspect of lighting that often goes unnoticed is fill lighting. Fill lighting is what elevates an image by providing the missing element that holds many photographers back from doing well in competitions or achieving a level of refinement in their work.

During a recent critique of a photographer's work, John Gress noted that although their subjects were well-illuminated and separated from the background through edge lights, hair lights, and background lights, the shadow details were missing. This is where fill lighting comes in, and it can be achieved through bounce cards, reflectors, or an extra light source. The use of passive fill is probably the easiest way to take charge of your shadows and maximize details in your depictions.


Passive fill refers to using white-ish objects like reflectors, white poster boards, V-flats, or walls as fill sources. The fill source should be placed on the opposite side of the main light source to hold detail and blend the transition areas from light to dark. The closer the fill source is to the subject, the brighter the fill will be. The size of the passive fill source also impacts the shadows. A larger fill source will have a bigger impact on the shadows than a smaller one placed in the same location.

Using a silver or gold reflector adds a different character to your lighting. Silver reflectors give you more punch than a white bounce source, while gold reflectors warm up your image and add a shiny feel. The key is to experiment with different fill sources to see what works best for your subject and the desired look.


Let's say you're outside and don't have any fill light modifiers, what do you do? You can still use the environment to your advantage. If you're shooting on a sunny day, you can use the sun as your fill light. Simply position your subject so that the sun is to their back, and use a reflector to bounce light back onto their face. This will create a nice even exposure and eliminate any harsh shadows.

Another way to use natural light as your fill is by shooting during the "golden hour," which is the hour just before sunset or after sunrise. During this time, the sun is lower in the sky, and the light is softer and warmer, making it perfect for creating a natural fill light effect.


It's also important to remember that the fill light doesn't always have to be the same color temperature as your main light. In fact, mixing different color temperatures can create interesting and dynamic images. Just be aware of the color temperature differences and adjust accordingly.


In conclusion, understanding how to use fill light effectively can greatly improve your photography. Whether you're using an active fill, passive fill, or natural fill, the key is to experiment and find what works best for your specific situation. Remember to consider the size and position of your fill light, the color temperature, and how it interacts with your main light. With practice and experimentation, you'll be able to master the art of fill light and take your photography to the next level.

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: | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram | To learn more about my online learning platform please visit | More info about my photography workshops -

Images and video via John Gress | Lighting Handbook: