Lighting Makes The Difference: Fill In The Light

Have you ever had one of those days where nothing seems to go right? I’m in the middle of one right now, as I photograph a beautiful model in the midday Colorado sun. I can’t find a decent image in this photo shoot. It’s not my subject’s fault—she looks like an SI swimsuit model. I put full blame on the overhead sun and cloudless sky. Every ounce of light is brutally harsh. Disaster.

“Can you move in the shade under that tree?” I ask her. “Try to get out of the sun.”

Okay, I’m feeling a little better with this scene. She actually can open her eyes now, and she isn’t sweating profusely under the blazing sun. But tiny shafts of sun are penetrating the tree’s shade, creating disco-laser light spots on her face. Every time the tree sways in the breeze, the laser beams dance across her face and eyes. I’m guessing she feels like she’s at an eye exam right now with her pupils dilated. Not good. Embarrassing.

“How about stepping even farther back under the tree?” I ask. “The shade is really good there.”

She happily obliges and moves into deep shade with no hint of direct sun. Eliminating the laser light show causes my blood pressure to slowly drop to normal. This portrait looks really good, just a little flat since no light is hitting the model. I like the mountains behind her; I just need to bring a little color to her skin and clothes. I’m actually starting to have fun. I know exactly what to do to make this shot pop: Add fill-flash.

Fill-flash is a very effective way of bringing an image to life. Fill-flash blends light from your flash with the available light. The ratio of flash to daylight is generally pretty close in exposure. The idea is not to darken the background, but instead eliminate spotty shadows and add a touch of light to your subject. Used subtly, many viewers won’t even know flash is used in the image. The trick is deciding what light source to use for the fill light and how bright this fill light will be. The next time you want to take your image a notch above the rest, try one of these fill-flash techniques.

Simple Reflectors

Tried and true, reflectors are inexpensive and low tech, and do a great job of adding fill light to a scene. While reflectors aren’t a flash, they still produce fill-flash effects in an image. I love reflectors because of their simplicity. They produce a constant light source, so what you see is what you get. Metering is simple; just take a shot with the reflector in position, bouncing light on your subject, and adjust your exposure based on your test shot.

Reflectors come in a variety of materials, including white, gold, soft gold, silver and black. I use soft gold and white the most, and I can rely on these surfaces to fill in shadows on my subject.

To adjust the “power” of a reflector, you can move it closer or farther away from your subject. But don’t position the reflector too close or your model will start squinting and shedding tears. On a sunny day, I use my soft gold reflector 10 feet away from my model to get a nice fill. If I get closer, the reflector adds excessive light and gives my model a sunburned look.

There are many inexpensive collapsible reflectors on the market, and they all do a good job. My favorite are Lastolite TriGrips. These reflectors have a handle that makes it easy to hold them with one hand. The TriGrips also have a variety of fabrics that are interchangeable with one reflector. You can choose what material is best for the image.


For more fill-flash options, try a speedlight. Speedlights are a critical tool for photographers and offer significant advantages over a reflector. Speedlights produce light independent of the sun, so you can place them at any angle to add fill-flash. Speedlights also allow more control over the lighting ratio between the ambient light and the flash. If you want a background that’s very dark, underexpose the ambient daylight and power up your flash.

Another speedlight advantage is that models aren’t constantly hit with reflected light, causing them to squint. Try having someone reflect light on you from a gold reflector on a sunny day; you’ll have instant empathy for your models. Since a speedlight pops a quick burst of light, your model can pose easier and not be blinded by the light.

I set my Nikon SB-900 to fill-flash mode when I want to add fill light. This setting causes the flash to adjust output so the flash and ambient light are blended well together. The daylight exposure usually is a little darker, creating a pleasing shot. I like to reduce the flash power in fill-flash mode to around -11?3 stop. This setting is perfect when I’m walking through markets and want to add a little fill light under a hat brim or just a hint of catchlight in a street vendor’s eyes. I also attach a diffusion dome to the top of my flash to diffuse the light for a softer look.

Bouncing Speedlight Output

It’s important to remember one lighting rule when using fill-flash: the larger the light source relative to your subject, the softer your light will be. By using a diffusion dome on my speedlight, I do spread out the light, but this is still a small light source, so the fill won’t be as soft as if I had used a larger light.

If I want less shadows and a softer fill light, I have to make my source larger. To soften my speedlight, I use bounce flash. Bounce flash is created by bouncing your flash off a surface and back onto your subject. Since the bounce surface generally is a lot bigger than the flash, the light will be softer. White ceilings are great bounce surfaces. Just rotate your flash head at an angle to project up to the ceiling and back down to the subject. Since the flash output is still being measured TTL, you should get good exposures. If you need more or less light, adjust your flash output.

Outside, I bounce flash off a reflector. A three-foot-diameter reflector will soften TTL flash dramatically, providing a nice, silky fill light. A great trick to add warm fill light to a portrait is bouncing your flash off a soft gold reflector back onto your subject. The portrait will look like it’s illuminated by warm evening sunlight.

I use both on-camera and off-camera speedlight shooting for fill-flash. If I’m shooting in a busy area with lots of people, I’ll shoot on-camera fill-flash with my diffusion dome attached. If I have more time and less crowded situations, I prefer to trigger my flash off-camera using a Nikon SU-800 Wireless Speedlight Commander or the RadioPopper system. Off-camera flash allows much more flexibility in aiming the flash to fill in shadows.

High-Speed-Sync Fill-Flash

I photograph a lot of fast-moving sports, and this type of photography requires a special type of fill-flash. Generally, your flash sync speed (the highest shutter speed you can use with flash) is around
1?250 sec. This varies from camera to camera, but the bottom line is that if I want to shoot at 1?2000 sec.—and use flash in the image—I need to use high-speed sync.

High-speed sync allows your camera to sync the shutter and flash at very high speeds, even up to 1?8000 sec. Speedlights accomplish this by sending out a lightning-fast pulsing burst so there’s always light on the subject no matter how fast the shutter is moving. The compromise is that your flash distance is greatly limited using one flash, plus high-speed sync drains batteries fast. To remedy this, I use flash-bracket systems that hold multiple flashes.

I use two types of flash brackets, the Lastolite TriFlash bracket and the Lightware FourSquare. These brackets allow me to mount and shoot three or four flashes in high-speed sync at the same time. This improves the flash range and makes it easier on the flashes to illuminate a distant subject. I normally zoom my SB-900s out to 200mm to focus the light as much as possible. Using these brackets, I can add high-speed fill-flash to a mountain biker jumping 30 feet away.

Small Strobe Pack

The next step up from using a speedlight is using a small portable strobe pack. Why spend the extra money for this option? Strobe packs offer more power, faster recycle time and the ability to use large softboxes for very soft fill light.

I like to use a battery-powered strobe pack like the Elinchrom Quadra. Battery units like this allow me the freedom to shoot anywhere I want. Since I normally add fill light in outdoor settings, freedom from AC power is critical.

Nothing changes in fill-flash principle. I’m still adding some fill light to reduce shadows, adding catchlight to eyes and popping the colors, all while balancing my flash with the daylight exposure. But with the 400-watt Quadra, I now have enough power to use very large, softboxes to add my fill light. A great trick when shooting portraits is adding a large soft fill-flash so subtly that most viewers won’t even know flash is being used. This touch of big, soft light opens up shadows, adds catchlight to the eyes and makes the difference between a nice portrait and a great memorable portrait. Have you ever looked at a portrait and thought, “Wow, that’s a great shot,” but you can’t quite figure out why that portrait looks better than the rest? Chances are, there was some big, soft fill-flash being used.

Another advantage when using a strobe pack is the fast recycling time. When adding fill light on portrait shoots, it’s important that your flash recycles quickly so you don’t miss any special moments with your model. When I shoot with my Quadras, I get very fast recycle times, shot after shot. I never have to wait for my flash to recycle. Since I’m only adding fill-flash, which doesn’t require much power, my recycle times are even faster, about a second. I use the wireless Elinchrom Skyport to trigger the Quadra. The packs have a built-in receiver that also allows me to control flash output at the camera via the Skyport.

Big Fill Options

Want to know the secret weapon many photographers use to add wraparound silky fill light? It’s using the giant octabank as a fill source, which requires using a powerful strobe pack. My Elinchrom Octa Light Bank is more than six feet in diameter, and it produces the softest light I’ve ever seen come out of a softbox. One special aspect of this light is that the flash head is mounted aiming at the back of the softbox, so the light is bounced into the Octa Light Bank before it’s reflected through the diffusion material in the front. This bounced flash produces even, soft light. I use an Elinchrom Ranger, a 1,100-watt, battery-powered pack, shot through a FreeLite A head to produce light from the Octa Light Bank. This system is an investment, but if you want the ultimate soft fill light, this is it.

Using a larger pack like the Ranger also gives me another option. So far we’ve looked at adding a little fill light to the image and keeping the daylight exposure very close to correct exposure. But what if I want to darken the background two stops and create a moody portrait? Using a powerful flash like the Ranger will allow me to darken the background in the middle of a sunny day and still have enough flash power to illuminate the subject.

Video Fill Light

DSLR video is becoming increasingly popular. Now you not only can shoot stills of your child’s birthday, but you also can shoot some very high-quality video as well. The same lighting problems that plague still photographers also cause problems for video photographers. On sunny days, video capture has dynamic range limitations just like still images. The solution is the same: Add some fill light to reduce contrast and create a better shot.

Since video needs continuous-light sources for illumination, we can’t use speedlights or studio strobes that produce bursts of light. Many of these packs have modeling lights that are continuous, but don’t have enough power to light many scenarios. And since many people may need to shoot video footage away from AC power, our light source has to be battery-powered. Enter Litepanels.

Litepanels makes LED light panels that come in a variety of sizes, from simple hot-shoe-mounted panels to larger one-foot-square panels. These panels have adjustable power and even can change the light temperature from daylight to incandescent for working with interior lighting. I use the Litepanels MicroPro, which works great for adding a little fill light to my video.

I like to shoot video behind the scenes at my photo shoots. I attach a Litepanels MicroPro to my camera hot-shoe, adjust the output until I see a nice fill light on my subject, and shoot away. Since the Litepanels is battery-operated, I also can attach it off-camera to a lightstand. These lights are very small and fit right into my photo backpack.

I have another shoot tomorrow with a stunning model. Since she only can shoot at midday, I’m already getting that sour taste in my mouth. High overhead sun, not good. Strong contrasty light, bad idea. But I’m not too worried because I’ll find some shade to shoot in and add some fill-flash. I’m going to make that portrait sing!

Tom Bol is a freelance editorial and commercial photographer based in Colorado. You can see more of his photography at

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