What is fill light in photography – and how to use it

Once new photographers wrap their heads around how light direction impacts an image, the next logical step is controlling light. And that’s where fill light comes in. Fill light in photography isn’t just for flash photography. Far from it! Natural light photographers use fill light just as much as strobe photographers. It’s just different lighting techniques.

What is fill light in photography?

Fill light photography can be as complicated or as simple as you like. In fact, you probably already know about it, even if you think you don’t. Fill light is used to control the shadow areas of an image, particularly to brighten dark shadows created by the main light source.

How to use fill lighting to fill in shadows

What is a key light – key light vs fill light?

Before we can get into the details of fill lighting, we need to first look at what is a key light, which is actually quite simple. A key light is just another way of saying main light. 

So, for natural light photographers the main light is the sun. For flash photographers the key light could be the sun or their flash (either on or off camera), depending on how they use it. It could also be continuous light (such as a ring light or LED light).

Further reading: What is a key light in photography and how do you use it?

Every photo needs a key light, but not every photo needs a fill light. But don’t let that fool you into thinking fill light isn’t that important – here’s why… 

Fill light created by reflected light of the sand

What is fill lighting in photography?

Fill light is any type of light that is less bright than the key light and is used to fill in the shadow details caused by the key light. Using a main light as well as a fill light is what’s called a two light set up. Fill lighting doesn’t even have to be an actual light, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Fill light controls the depth of shadows in an image and therefore impacts whether an image is high contrast or low contrast, depending on how much fill is used.

In the studio you have complete control over all light, so you set your main light at whatever brightness you want and then the fill light less bright. This is the essence of using lighting ratio to control shadows and I strongly advise using a light meter for this. How bright or dim the fill flash is depends on the image you want to create and the light ratio you use by adjusting the power settings of your strobes. 

When using off camera flash for outdoor portraits you can use the sun as either the main light source or the fill light, and flash as fill or as your main, depending on:

  • Time of day
  • the power of your flash lighting
  • and the amount of fill light required

In natural light photography, the main light is always the sun, but that’s not the only light available to natural light photographers. Fill light can be reflected light or even ambient light (such as a room light indoors).


What is reflected fill light?

Again, the clue’s in the name. Reflected light is any light that is reflected back onto the subject.

You can create reflected light with:

  • A reflector – either one you bought or something you made (anything that reflects light back onto the subject is a reflector)
  • A white wall
  • The ground, such as beach sand (like in the image above), gravel, even grass
  • Any shiny surface, including water
  • Light coloured clothing

Further reading: How to use a reflector properly and why you really need one

Just be careful about the color of the object that’s reflecting light. If it’s green, for example, the light bouncing off it will be green, which then casts a green light over your subject. This is why when you photograph on grass in midday sun your subjects end up looking a bit green.

Fill lighting created with white side of reflector

For these photos I hung my reflector from a tree slightly to camera left. In the image above I used the white side of the reflector, which has a matte finish. However, in the image below I used the gold side, which is much brighter and more reflective than the white reflector. The color temperature is too yellow, the light is too harsh for the photo and the shadows on the subject’s face are all wrong – her neck is brighter than her forehead.

Fill lighting from reflected light of gold reflector

What is fill light used for?

Sometimes it’s as simple as it sounds – fill light is for filling in the shadows:

  • If you don’t want deep shadow in your image
  • To soften hard shadows and increase shadow detail
  • When your subject is lit from behind (backlit)

Fill light, despite playing second fiddle to the key light, is actually just as important for creating atmosphere. How much you fill light you use can completely change the mood of a photo by changing the shadows. Consider:

Further reading: How to use shadows in photos to add atmosphere

What kind of light is good for fill light?

Any secondary light source can be used for fill light. What matters is that the light must be diffused. Fill light needs to be soft light, because its job is to fill in shadows. If it were a hard light, it could end up creating shadows instead.

Natural light is diffused when it’s:

  • Not shining directly on the subject, for example when the subject is in the shade
  • Reflected off a non-shiny surface, such as a white wall
  • Partially blocked by thin material, such as net curtains

Flash can be diffused by:

  • Using light modifiers such as softboxes or umbrellas
  • Bouncing the flash light off a non-shiny surface, such as a wall, onto the subject

Further reading: Photography umbrella lighting intro – how to choose and use umbrellas

What’s the difference between hard light and soft light?

Think of your shadow on a very bright sunny day versus your shadow on an overcast day.

  • On a sunny day the light is hard, so the transition between light and shadow is sudden. This is hard light.
  • On an overcast day your shadow isn’t clearly defined and the transition from light to shadow is much more gradual. This is soft light.

Further reading: Why you need to know about light quality

Natural light photography with no reflector

Here no reflector was used, so there is shadow on her face. As it was an overcast day the light was very diffused so the shadows were soft.

Where should you place a fill light?

To answer this, we go back to direction of light, because it’s not just about the direction of the main light. Fill lighting direction is also very important.

Further reading: Understand light characteristics for consistently great photos

Fill lighting from behind camera

In portrait photography using studio strobes, the fill light position is very often behind the camera to flood an even flow of light into the scene’s shadows from the front of the subject, especially when the subject is backlit.

Portrait photography lighting with no fill light

In the above photo no fill lighting was used, but in the image below I placed fill lighting behind me. I wanted shadows, but not as deep as in the image above with no fill.

Portrait photography Lighting with fill light

Fill lighting from the side of the camera

When placing a fill light to the side of a camera, it should ideally be on the same side of the subject as the main light for a more natural look – on axis with the lens when using side lighting.

This avoids conflicting shadows falling on the subject’s face.

Fill lighting from below the camera

Although we’re used to light coming from above, so your main light should never be positioned below your subject shining up, a fill light can.

In fact fill lighting is very often placed below the subject in portrait photography so that the light fills in the shadows beneath the chin. Clamshell lighting is exactly this – the main light is placed in front of and above the subject with the fill light in front of and below the subject. It’s a classic portrait lighting technique for beauty photography.

When the fill light is below the subject make sure that the intensity of the fill light is less than the main light. In other words it’s not as bright as the main light.

This lighting cheat sheet will help you with thinking through lighting direction.


Flat lighting and fill light

The two times that fill light is as bright as the main light is when you:

The aim in both instances is to have as little shadow as possible on the subject.

Fill light in high key lighting

A high key lighting set up in the studio with the fill light set equal to the key light.

Further reading: What is high key photography, and how to master it

The first portrait photographer that springs to mind when I think of flat lighting is Sue Bryce. She’s predominantly a natural light photographer who has perfected the art of flat lighting her subjects using diffused light as a main light and reflected light for fill.

Further reading: Flat light photography – how, when and why use it

What you wear affects fill light

Photographers don’t wear black just as a fashion statement. Black absorbs light, so if you wear black while photographing, you won’t run the risk of light bouncing off your clothing back into the subject. 

That said, when photographing newborns using natural light in my clients homes I’ve often worn white to maximise available light in the room by reflecting it back to the subject to lighten shadows. So my clothing becomes the reflector.

See, anything can be used as reflected light for fill!

What is negative fill?

Just when you thought we were done with fill lighting, here’s a twist – negative fill. It’s the opposite of adding in light. With negative fill you place something black near your subject to absorb the light for dramatic effect and therefore increase the depth of the shadows. The black material is referred to as a flag (aka black flags) in photography.

It could be any non-reflective black material, such as black cardboard. Even the black shirt you’re wearing if you’re photographing up close to your subject can be used as negative fill to deepen the shadows of the key light.

Further reading: Using light in photography – 4 ways to control natural light

Wrapping up fill lighting

Every photo needs a key light, but not every photo needs a fill light. However, when it is used, it has a huge impact on a photo – both good and bad.

The more you develop your photography skills, especially lighting techniques, the more you’ll find yourself focusing on fill light and all the creativity that two light setups give. 

What I love about light is that you don’t need to know everything all at once. You can build up your knowledge in blocks starting with a single light source until, eventually, you’ve got a thorough understanding of the fundamentals of light.

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2 thoughts on “What is fill light in photography – and how to use it”

  1. I don’t do very much portrait photography, I just put the family in front of the camera and snap away. Your tutorial has given me food for thought on where I position the family and how to use the light more effectively. If you use an off camera flash do you need an accessory to act as a hot shoe for the flash?

    • Yes – you either need a radio transmitter fitted to the hot shoe and a receiver fitted to the off camera flash. Alternatively, you can use another flash on camera. To use a flash on camera to trigger an off camera flash, set your on camera flash to “commander mode”. This way it won’t flash enough to be visible in the image, but it sends a signal to the off camera flash to trigger.


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