Using Fill Light to Create Dramatic Portraits

Adam Blasberg

It’s become clear to me that every veteran photographer has his or her own approach; some are characterized by instinct and intuition, while others are more scientific, measurable, and based on concrete knowledge, but both can yield outstanding photography. Like other craftsmen, I work hard to avoid stagnation and resorting to formulas when creating my work. My portfolio has become my treasure chest—my most valuable possession. The book itself is replaceable and duplicable, but the images within represent uncompromised years of study and personal development, each image a collaboration between me and my subject that requires time and commitment. Each portrait I take becomes an exploration of my subject and me. My approach is characterized by a combination of instinct and intuition, science, and experience.

My scientific decisions include power distribution and power settings amongst multiple lights, which modifiers to use and when, how I compose my frame, where I place my lights within my scene, how I control colour and how I set my camera. Conversely, how I engage my subject and how I position a model using body language are examples of intuitive decisions I’m constantly making on a subconscious level. Often on a shoot, if you were to ask me why I’ve made certain instinctive decisions, I’d have to analyze them as if they weren’t mine to provide an answer. This is one my favourite aspects of photography: the scientific process that includes emotional, intuitive, and subconscious elements. In each portrait that I shoot, I strive to tell a story about a character through the use of lighting, composition, body language and settings on my camera and software. 

On a scientific level, one of my favourite lights that you will almost always find on my studio sets is a fill light. I use a 6-foot Elinchrome, Rotalux octobank. The octagonal modifier provides a very even fill light. This particular fill light contributes in a very different way from any other light on my set. The fill light doesn’t provide any shape to my subject and it doesn’t suggest any direction of the light. It doesn’t create any new shadows; it just illuminates the shadows created by my key light.

Using fill light on location, I chose a loop lighting pattern on this character and provided a fill light at 1.5 stops below the key light. The shadows created by the key light to the side of her nose and below are not too dark because of the fill light, and it also kept some of the darkest creases in her costume from being void of detail. Without the fill, the right side of her face would have gone darker, and her clothing would lack the detail that provides the texture.

Although I use a large light source as my fill light, it doesn’t have to be. Whether you’re shooting on location or in studio, the fill light should provide an even amount of light throughout the subject to control the density of the shadows. On location, I frequently use ambient light to fill the shadows of my subject. In the studio I dedicate half of my 1200Ws Profoto Acute power pack to my fill light. My key light gets the other half of the pack.

Figure 1

My fill light is generally metered at least two or three stops below my key light, depending on the mood I’m trying to create. If my key light reads f/8, I’ll set my fill light somewhere between f/2.8 to f/4. It might seem odd that my main light and my fill light are receiving the same amount of power from the pack, yet my fill light is metered far below my main because my fill light is placed much farther away. I always have my fill light directly behind the camera, which is one great reason to use such a large light source. The light wraps around my camera and me and digs deep into the darkest trenches of any subject’s face. My main light is typically boomed out in front of my camera and is the creator of the shadows handled by my fill light—my fill light doesn’t contribute to the lighting pattern.

I often start with one of the four standard lighting patterns. Whether it’s beauty lighting (with the light overhead about 45 degrees above the subject), Rembrandt lighting (with the light approximately 45 degrees above and approximately 45 degrees to the side), loop lighting or split lighting, the fill light only contributes to the shadows and does not conflict or change the lighting pattern created by the key light. Figure 1 shows one of the common lighting patterns I use. The key light is placed above and in front of my camera by about four feet with the fill light right at my back. Although the fill light is often an afterthought, its use becomes as important to the shot as my key light. It’s important to note that I will modify the position of my lights to best suit the subject I’m photographing; each face is different and the lights need to be adjusted for each every individual.

Depending on the type of portrait I’m creating, I first decide what sort of pattern I want to create on my subject’s face—where I want my highlights and shadows to fall. Secondly, I’ll decide how quickly I want my highlights transitioning to shadows (hard vs. soft). Lastly, I will add the appropriate amount of fill. In Figure 1, the key light is placed very close to my subject, making the transitions from highlights to shadows very soft and gradual. And the fill light provides light to the shadows without really contributing to the highlights.

This image was made without any fill light at all. Again, I’ve gone with a loop lighting pattern. The shadows under the fireman’s helmet, nose and chin are very dark. Since the environment suggests a dark and gritty feeling, I was happy to lose all detail in the dark shadows on his face to increase the grittiness and darkness.

It’s also important to consider whether to use fill at all: fill is certainly not mandatory in every portrait. If I wanted to increase the contrast ratio between my highlights and shadows, I can provide less fill. If I’m looking to create a very statuesque look for my model, showcasing facial structure and corporal lines, I will use less or no fill (Figure 2.3). This will overemphasize the difference between highlights and shadows and make lines more dramatic and obvious. Conversely, the use of fill will decrease the difference between highlights and shadows and make the lines less obvious (Figure 2.1). Fill is a great tool for use in beauty shots and can contribute to creating a surreal environmental portrait.

Figure 2

Figure 2 shows varying amounts of fill light. In 2.1, the fill light is metered only one stop below the main light. Although you can see the difference in the highlights to the midtones on the cheekbone of the model, it’s subtler than in the other images. In 2.2, the fill light is metered three stops below the key light, and 2.3 has no fill light at all. Not that any one image is better than the next, but they communicate differently. 2.1 lacks a certain mood that the other two images have, and 2.3 lacks the detail in the shadows shown in 2.2. So depending on the type of image you’re trying to create, fill light might be able to help (or you may be better off without it). Figure 3 shows the model in place, with an umbrella on the other side of the subject from camera, a flag to eliminate flare, and a fill light behind camera.

Figure 3

With a fill light as a tool in your back pocket, you can craft the images you’ve imagined. Fill light is my unsung hero, because without saying anything, the right amount of fill light provides mood to my portrait unlike any of my other lights. I use it to create dramatic, cinematic portraits.

This article was originally published in Issue 5 of PHOTOGRAPH magazine, where Adam is a regular contributor. 

Adam Blasberg is a commercial and editorial photographer in Vancouver, Canada. By approaching his photography with care and thoughtfulness, Adam battles against an age of hyper mass production, where images are manufactured like a commodity. His cinematic, dramatic, and thoughtful style requires commitment to a process and a standard not upheld by most. His desire to tell a memorable story—a story that engages the viewer and pulls them into the story—is the driving force behind his pursuit of excellent craftsmanship. Adam is a regular contributor to PHOTOGRAPH magazine. See more on his website

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