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

Adam Blasberg Craft & Technique

← Older Post Newer Post →


Comment


  • Hi Adam

    Thanks a lot for this article. It has been an informative and inspiring read which has expanded my tool box in a great way. A couple of days after reading this article, I made some of my first photos with manipulated light, and I was quite happy with the results having always been an available light shooter.

    So thanks for making that step much more fun and informed :-)

    Immanuel

    Immanuel on

Leave a comment

  1. Understanding The Stages
  2. Conceptually Speaking: A Word With Claire Rosen
  3. Best Places
  4. Thinking Less Literally
  5. Vision Is Better, Ep. 63
  6. An Iconic Photograph, or a Photographed Icon?
  7. Thinking in Monochrome
  8. Vision Is Better, Ep.62
  9. Vision Is Better, Ep.61
  10. Making the Image: Kathleen Clemons
  11. Night Ranger: A Word With David Kingham
  12. Understanding the Night Sky
  13. Vision Is Better, Ep.60
  14. The Value of Critique
  15. Capturing the Moment
  16. Vision Is Better, Ep.59
  17. Five Key Elements of Food Photography
  18. Using Flash That Doesn't Look Lit
  19. Vision Is Better, Ep.58
  20. Using Flash To Improve Your Photographs
  21. Five Tips for Using Off-Camera Flash
  22. Vision Is Better, Ep.57
  23. Finding Critics
  24. Street Life: A Word With Libby Holmsen
  25. Using the Frame
  26. The Photographer's Tools
  27. Backlight: The Art of Silhouettes
  28. Vision Is Better, Ep.56
  29. Understanding Perspective
  30. Vision Is Better, Ep.55
  31. In Conversation: Sharon Covert
  32. Create Projects + Collaborate
  33. Mirrors or Windows?
  34. 2018 Mentor Series Workshop: Varanasi, India
  35. F/ The Rules
  36. Drawing the Eye With Selective Focus
  37. In Conversation: Willem Wernsen
  38. Exposing for Highlights
  39. Using Fill Light to Create Dramatic Portraits
  40. Cameras Don't Make Photographs
  41. Shooting with Your Final Image in Mind
  42. 10 Ways to Make Better Black and White Photographs
  43. 2018 Maasai Mara Photographic Safari
  44. 2018 Mentor Series Workshop: Lalibela, Ethiopia
  45. Start With the Corners
  46. Creating Painterly Images with Movement and Multiple Exposures
  47. Using the Guided Upright Tool in Lightroom
  48. The Power of Photographing Icons
  49. In Conversation: Susan Burnstine (Part II)
  50. In Conversation: Susan Burnstine (Part I)
  51. Controlling Your Edit with Lightroom's Tone Curve
  52. Making the Image: David duChemin
  53. 3 Ways to Make More Honest Portraits
  54. The Adjective-Driven Approach to Photography
  55. In Conversation: Oded Wagenstein
  56. Making the Zone System Work for You
  57. Ten (More) Ways to Improve Your Craft
  58. Reference View: A New Way to See in the Lightroom Develop Module
  59. In Conversation: Laurent Breillat
  60. The Best 3 Filters for Landscape Photography
  61. Creating Classical Portraits with Simple Lighting
  62. Photographic Processing and Believability
  63. Visual Storytelling: An Introduction
  64. Making the Image: Piet Van den Eynde
  65. In Conversation: Satoki Nagata
  66. Use Repeating Elements for Stronger Images
  67. In Conversation: Kate Densmore
  68. One (More) Reason To Use Adobe's Creative Cloud
  69. Three Ways to Use Backlight
  70. 2017 Rome Mentor Series Workshop
  71. 2017 Venice Mentor Series Workshops
  72. Controlling Foreground to Background Presence
  73. Making the Image: David Adam Edelstein
  74. In Conversation: David Adam Edelstein
  75. Using Contrast for Stronger Images
  76. Three Ways to Make Better Portraits
  77. How to Direct the Eye in Your Photographs
  78. How to Improve Your Street Photography
  79. In Conversation: Piet Van den Eynde
  80. Starting Your Next Personal Project
  81. Five (More) Creative Exercises to Improve Your Photography
  82. Five Creative Exercises to Improve Your Photography
  83. Three (More) Ways To Discover Your Vision
  84. Four Ways to Discover Your Vision (Part I)
  85. Three Ways to Make Stronger Black & White Images in Lightroom
  86. In Conversation: Cristina Mittermeier
  87. How to Add Mood to Infrared (and other) Photographs
  88. In Conversation: Paul Nicklen
  89. Four Ways to Tell Stronger Stories
  90. In Conversation: John Paul Caponigro
  91. Master the Art of Seeing and Improve Your Photography
  92. Adding Light with the Radial Filter in Lightroom
  93. The Power of Abstraction
  94. In Conversation: Anja Büehrer
  95. Five Ways to Add More Depth to Your Portraits
  96. Four Ways to Make Stronger Travel Photographs
  97. In Conversation: Martin Bailey
  98. Learn to Isolate
  99. Gear Is Good
  100. In Conversation: Dave Brosha
  101. For the Love of Your Photographs
  102. Working with Target Collections in Lightroom
  103. Review: Epson P800
  104. Seeing: Receptive & Observant
  105. Better Questions
  106. Siri? Ask Lightroom!
  107. Wake Up.
  108. In Conversation: David Jackson
  109. Photographic Skills: Patience
  110. In Conversation: David duChemin
  111. 2017 Jodhpur Mentoring Workshop
  112. 2017 Maasai Mara Safari
  113. Rome 2016 Mentoring Workshop
  114. Florence 2016 Mentoring Workshop
  115. Venice 2016 Mentoring Workshop
  116. Vision Is Better, Ep.54
  117. Vision Is Better, Ep.53
  118. Vision Is Better, Ep.52
  119. Vision Is Better, Ep.51
  120. Vision Is Better, Ep.50
  121. Vision Is Better, Ep.49
  122. Vision Is Better, Ep.48
  123. Vision Is Better, Ep.47
  124. Vision Is Better, Ep.46
  125. Vision Is Better, Ep.45
  126. Vision Is Better, Ep.44
  127. Vision Is Better, Ep.43
  128. Vision Is Better, Ep.42
  129. Vision Is Better, Ep.41
  130. Vision Is Better, Ep.40
  131. Vision Is Better, Ep.39
  132. Vision Is Better, Ep.38
  133. Vision Is Better, Ep.37
  134. Vision Is Better, Ep.36
  135. Vision Is Better, Ep.35
  136. Vision Is Better, Ep.34
  137. Vision Is Better, Ep.33
  138. Vision Is Better, Ep.32
  139. Vision Is Better, Ep.31
  140. Vision Is Better, Ep.30
  141. Vision Is Better, Ep.29
  142. Vision Is Better, Ep.28
  143. Vision Is Better, Ep.27
  144. Vision Is Better, Ep.26
  145. Vision Is Better, Ep.25
  146. Vision Is Better, Ep.24
  147. Vision Is Better, Ep.23
  148. Vision is Better, Ep.22
  149. Vision is Better, Ep.21
  150. Vision is Better, Ep.20
  151. Vision is Better, Ep.19
  152. Vision is Better, Ep.18
  153. Vision is Better, Ep.17
  154. Vision is Better, Ep.16
  155. Vision is Better, Ep.15
  156. Vision Is Better, Ep.11
  157. Vision Is Better, Ep.10
  158. Vision Is Better, Ep.09
  159. Vision Is Better, Ep.08
  160. Vision Is Better, Ep.07
  161. Vision Is Better, Ep.06
  162. Vision Is Better, Ep.05
  163. Vision Is Better, Ep.04
  164. Vision Is Better, Ep.03
  165. Vision Is Better, Ep.02
  166. Vision Is Better, Ep.01

Related Articles

Related Resources


Categories
Adam Blasberg Adobe Alexandre Buisse Andrew S. Gibson Andy Biggs Anja Büehrer Bret Edge Bruce Percy Claire Rosen Craft & Technique Creative Cloud Creativity Cristina Mittermeier Dave Brosha David Adam Edelstein David duChemin David Kingham Duncan Fawkes Guy Tal Henry Fernando Interview Jason Bradley John Paul Caponigro Kate Densmore Kathleen Clemons Laurent Breillat Libby Holmsen Lightroom & Photoshop Making the Image Martin Bailey Michael Frye Nathan Wirth Natural Light Oded Wagenstein Paul Nicklen Piet Van den Eynde Podcast Project Nimbus Rafael Rojas Satoki Nagata Sean McCormack Sharon Covert Sherri Koop Simi Jois Street Photography Susan Burnstine Vision is Better Show visual storytelling Willem Wernsen Workshop Younes Bounhar Zone System