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How to Improve Fill Light

How to Create Cinematic Fill Light

In this video tutorial, we’ll take a look at a simple way to make fill light (and lack of) blend easily into your shot.

When we first learn about fill light in cinematography or photography, we’ll generally pick up the standard three-point lighting setup—a key light, a fill light (opposite the key), and a backlight.

As you progress and improve on your lighting, you might find this template for fill light to be a little unnatural looking for many situations. You may be tempted to ditch the fill light in favor of a darker, more sculpted lighting setup.

But, what if you want a more well-lit image while keeping your lighting three-dimensional? If we build on and tweak this classic concept, it becomes flexible, allowing us to create both a natural and controlled-looking image for a multitude of scenarios.

In the following video tutorial, I’ll walk you through the steps in how to create better-looking fill light.

Building Your Fill Light

Today, we’ll build up a lighting scenario and take a look at a way to improve our fill light, making for a more cinematic three-dimensional image.

In this shot, we’ve got our subject in a room with a household bulb switched on in the background inside a lampshade.

Closeup of a man's concerned face in the foreground and lighted lamp in the background
We begin with a simple lamp in the background.

We’ve added a key light 45 degrees to the subject and matched the color temperature of an LED panel to our household lamp.

To soften the key, we’ve bounced it from a large piece of bleached muslin material to our subject’s right. This gives the key a good amount of light wrap and shape on our subject’s face.

We then added a small, subtle splash of light onto the back curtain with a pocket LED panel to add a little more detail, and balance out our image.

A key diagram on the left with the concerned man on the right - lighted lamp in the background
Adding a splash of light adds to the detail.

This setup looks better already—it’s moody, contrasty, and a good representation of the lamp illuminating the scene; however, not every shot should look this way.

It’s all dependent on the atmosphere you’re trying to create within the image. What if we want to keep this cinematic feeling, but present a cozier, less dramatic look? To do this, we could add some fill light into the scene.

When we first learn about the basics of fill light, we might pick up on the classic three-light setup: key light, fill light, and backlight.

Diagram of three-point lighting including fill light, key light, and back light
Three-point lighting.

We’ll be ignoring the backlight part of this setup as we don’t feel it’s needed in the scene, but in the classic three-light setup scenario, the fill is generally opposite the key.

So, let’s try this out in our setting.

A key diagram on the left with the concerned man on the right - lighted lamp in the background
Bouncing the key light spill.

We placed another sheet of bleached muslin material opposite our key light to bounce the key light spill, and it’s done an excellent job of filling in the shadows on the side of the face. However, the effect is subtle and we wanted a bit more light in the image as, overall, this still looks pretty dark.

Therefore, to give us more control over the exposure of our fill, we bounced a second light into the fabric. But, now that we have more light on the shadow side of the face, we’ve created a bit of an issue.

A key diagram on the left with the concerned man on the right - lighted lamp in the background
A bit too much light here.

Compared to before, you can see just how much we flattened out our image by brightening up our fill light. This is taking away from the cinematic controlled feeling we were looking to keep intact, and making our image look less natural.

The same image of a man's face side-by-side showing the fill light comparision
The different shadows on the man’s face are evident.

So, if a dimmer fill light is too little and brighter fill light is too much, how do we achieve a less dramatic, yet cinematic, look using fill light?

The answer can lie between your key light and fill light.

Let’s take our second light away from the fill, leaving it once again to reflect our key light at a lower level. Then, let’s add some more bleached muslin material over by our key to wrap around our subject and scene.

Finally, we’ll add our second light back in, but this time bouncing from our added material at lower power than our key.

A key diagram on the left with the concerned man on the right - lighted lamp in the background
The light wraps around the actor’s face.

Set to a lower power than our key, our second light bouncing from the muslin material extends our key, wrapping it around the face in natural graduation.

Our fill light brings up the exposure on the shadow side of the face as before but, compared to before, this setup forms a much more natural graduation of light. This has created the lighter, cozier mood that we wanted, yet retains a controlled, cinematic, three-dimensional feel.

It’s not necessarily that the positioning of the fill light in a basic three-light setup is wrong, but more about what’s happening in-between our key and fill that can make for a more natural-looking image.

We can even take this one step toward a slightly moodier look and replace our bleached muslin fill-like material with a black fabric creating a negative fill, which means we’re taking light away rather than filling it in. With our graduated key light, we still have some of the wrapping light on our face, but we now fall off into deep shadow on the shadow side of the face.

Side-by-side comparision of the man's face with different fill lights
The difference is subtle.

A happy medium between our dark original one-light setup and our final cozier-feeling two-light setup plus fill. So, we can use fill light to fill in shadows or negative fill to darken those shadows.

Each provides a way to tweak the feeling of the light to how we want it to look on our subject and scene.

Key Takeaways From The Video

  • Placing your fill light opposite your key for a lighter scene can flatten out your image, losing dimensionality in the shot and making it appear unnatural.
  • Extending your key light further around your subject or scene, with a graduated fall off of light creates a smoother, lighter feeling to the image, allowing your fill light to subtly complete this graduation, making for a more well-lit, yet naturalistic and controlled shot.
  • Replacing your fill light with negative fill can add more mood, drama, and dimensionality to the shot, regardless of how your key light is set up.
  • You can light your scene in many ways, it all depends on how you want the final image to look!

Cover image via Dean Drobot.

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