Photo Tip – Why You Need A Fill Light In Portrait Photography!

In the last few photo tips articles, we have been discussing portrait photography lighting patterns… Short, broad, split, the loop pattern, Rembrandt and finally the butterfly lighting pattern. Today’s photo tip is about controlling the pattern’s shadows with a fill light.

Each of our patterns has their good and bad points and will be perfect for some faces and terrible for others. If you haven’t done any experimenting to master them, I suggest you make that your weekend project!

These patterns are essential building blocks to mastering portrait photography.

As photographers, we tend to concern ourselves with light, almost to the exclusion of everything else – but shadows are just as important! In fact, each of the lighting patterns we’ve been discussing is named for the type of shadow the light source casts!

This lighting pattern series has been all about building them with one light – the main (or key) light – and how to position it to get the lighting pattern most pleasing for any specific facial type.

While it doesn’t matter what sort of light it is, it could be a studio flash, the sun, a window, a reflector even nothing more than a flashlight – it is important to have the shadows to add depth and life to our portrait photography.

But, when we look at portraits done by professional photographers, we note that they almost always have more than one light source. Typically they have three and as many as five or six!

Why? And how do we know when more lights are needed and where to put them?

Again, it all goes back to the shadows!

Suppose you are using a short lighting pattern to help visually narrow the subject’s face. This works because – visually – shadows tend to recede and lit areas come forward. Since the shadow is closest to the camera, it makes the face look thinner.

But, the color and depth of a shadow can impart emotions and feelings into a portrait that we don’t want! If we are using one light, we will have a sharp line dividing the highlight and shadow areas and we lose all the detail in the shadow area.

The shadowed area can be very dark – which if we want a lot of drama and emotion in our portrait, that’s a good thing… but what if we don’t want all the drama? Obviously, we need to lighten the shadow, while still maintaining our slimming light pattern.

To do this we add a second light. This is called the “fill light”. It’s named for the fact that this light fills in the shadows!

With a fill light, we can now have total control over the shadows! We can turn it off and have totally black shadows or we can turn it up and have the shadows virtually disappear – and anything in between!

Note: if we have the same amount of light intensity on the fill light as the main light the shadows are gone. If we have MORE light on the fill light, it will cast a shadow on the (previously) lit side. If it does this, it becomes the main light and the other one is the fill light. In other words the fill light is always of equal or lesser intensity than the main light.

To get an understanding of the fill light and what it does, look through your favorite magazines and first try to determine the lighting pattern, then where the main light was positioned and whether or not they used a fill light. If they did use one, why? If not – why not?

In portrait photography, the depth of the shadow is as important as the quality of the light and will make a huge impact on your viewer’s perceptions. We control the depth with a fill light.

Use today’s photo tip to start thinking about how you can use lighting patterns and a fill light in your portrait photography to start controlling your viewer’s emotions – and you will be on the way to consistently winning photo contests.