Photography is about capturing a brief moment of light. A large part of the art of photography is how we control light to create an image. Not just of a moment, but for how we want that moment to appear in the photograph. We alter the appearance of light with tools and techniques to add, remove or change the light and shadows in a scene to make our creative ideas into a photograph. By controlling the look of the light and shadows in our images we set mood and create emotion, from feelings of calm serenity to tense drama.
How large a difference in range is there between the highlights and shadows in an image? High contrast is a wide range of tones from the darkest shadows (black) to the brightest highlights (whites). Low contrast images are a more limited range. In other words, the brightest parts of the image are closer to the darker parts. The dynamic range describes how wide a difference from dark to light we see, and a given camera can record.
A photograph with very bright highlight and super dark shadows is high contrast. There is a large difference of exposure between the lightest highlight and the darkest shadow. These are often described as dramatic.
A picture where there is a small or very small difference from highlight to shadow is said to be low contrast. Low contrast images are often described as serene or soft.
Contrast, simply put, is the difference in brightness between highlight and shadow.
Low contrast examples
High contrast examples
A certain amount of light is going to hit your subject that is not directly from your main source, but rather from light scattering or reflecting onto your subject from say, a white wall. This is most noticeable in areas of shadow, as it is coming from the opposite direction of your primary light source falling. Light falling into shadowed areas makes them lighter. Contrast can only be lowered by adding light to the shadows. Think of fill light as a drama control. Low fill, dark shadows equals dramatic lighting. Lots of fill, light or even not shadows is thought to be romantic or soft. (Soft vs. hard light is a whole other topic that’s coming soon.)
We tend to use the term “fill” to describe adding light to the shadows. It is useful to think of it as “positive fill.” Positive fill can be accomplished many ways, either through the use of additional light source or sources aimed at the shadow side of a composition. It can also be done through by reflecting or bouncing light from the main light back onto your subject.
“Negative fill” is the opposite. If adding light to the shadows lowers the contrast, taking it away increases the contrast. Negative fill means reducing the amount of light reflecting or scattering into the shadow areas. In any situation where there is a primary light source, some of the light is going to pass by the subject, and when it encounters another surface, reflect back into the subject. When this happens the contrast lowers and the drama lessens. Negative fill techniques either block or absorb the fill light coming from the main light. When positive fill doesn’t appear in the shadowed areas of your subject the contrast increase. So does the drama.
Using fill light
The concepts of creating or adding light to a scene are pretty intuitive. Positive fill is done through the use of flashes, reflectors or other light sources getting extra light into the shadows.
When the light is harsh and contrasty it creates extremely deep shadows. Positioning a subject near a white or light colored surface will reflect light into the shadows. This positive fill will brighten the shadows creating a softer look.
Working with negative fill
How to subtract light from the shadows is not quite as obvious. Frankly, to a lot of photographers, negative fill is an unknown.
In fact, you may already be using negative fill light and not realize it. For example, let’s say you are photographing portraits outside, and the light is “flat,” low contrast and soft, so the person in your portrait looks more like a cardboard cutout than a real life 3-dimensional person. Having them stand near a dark surface, like dark rocks, tree trunks, walls, etc. is a way to create negative fill. The side next to the dark object receives less light. the contrast increases as does the depth of the photo. These dark surfaces absorb light instead of reflecting it, giving it higher contrast due to darker shadows.
Not every location has a tree or black wall in just the right place for a composition, v-flats are a great tool for both positive or negative fill. The ones I use are portable 40 by 40-inch pieces of foam board that unfold into self-standing vs. 80-inches tall and, unfolded, 80-inches wide. I received the ones in this article from V-Flat World for the purpose of writing articles for Photofocus.
How they work
White reflects light, bouncing or scattering all colors off it equally. Black absorbs light, taking in all colors equally. The v-flats from V-Flat World have a white side and a black side. Placing the v-flat near your subject and opposite your light source will either reflect (white side) or absorb (black side) the light, lightening or darkening the shadows in your image respectively. These v-flats are lightweight and work on location or in the studio. Note that outside in a breeze, have an assistant hold onto the v-flat so it doesn’t blow over.
You can vary this placement quite a bit, in both distance from your subject, and angle to your light source and subject. Subtle changes in these can make a big difference in your results. Experiment with the many varying degrees of drama you can create with these simple principles.
Dramatic light comes from darker shadows created with negative fill.
Romance or lifestyle light is with light, open shadows with loads of detail thanks to positive fill.
- Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II Mirrorless Micro Four-Thirds Camera
- Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 7-14mm f/2.8 PRO Lens
- Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO Lens
- Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO Lens
- Godox AD200 TTL Pocket Flash
- Godox Softbox with Bowens Speed Ring and Grid (13.8 x 63″)
Lead photo: Model Nova Amour
When not writing about himself in the third person, he enjoys sunsets and long walks on the beach while carrying 40 pounds of camera gear. He can most often be found wading through a swamp, hunting down a good burger joint, or enjoying time with in the great outdoors.
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