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How to Bounce Light into the Shadows in a Portrait Photo Using a Reflector

Welcome back to 'Intermediate Flash Photography'. In this lesson you're going to learn all about fill light, how it works, and the easiest ways to create and use it: by reflecting it from your main light.

How to Use Fill Lights and Ratios in Portrait Photography

Key Light

In order to understand fill light, we first have to back up a little bit and define 'key light'. A very simple definition is: key light is the main light in a scene.

In portraiture the key light is generally the brightest light that is illuminating the subject. Almost every image has a key light with a few exceptions, like silhouette photography. When it comes to flash photography, the key light is usually the most important light, and usually the first to be set up and dialled in.

If this definition sounds a little bit cloudy, don't worry, because as we move through the course and you learn about the other kinds of light, the definition of a key light will become more clear.

Fill Light

The first of these other kinds of light is called fill light. Most of the time when you take a photo, your key light will produce shadows on your subject. Many times the contrast between the highs of the key light and the shadows created is just too much and you start to lose detail in the shadows as they become pure black. This is where fill light comes in.

Fill light is a second light that we use to fill in the shadows created by the key light. Many times the fill light comes from a direction about 90 degrees away from the key light in a setup like this:

In this example, the only difference between the key light and the fill light is that the key light is brighter than the fill light. The difference between the intensity of the light on the two sides of the subject is known as the lighting ratio.

If both of your key light and fill light are set to the same power and are the same distance away from your subject, you would have a lighting ratio of 1:1. If you turned your fill light way down, you could get a lighting ratio of around 8:1, which is very contrasty and moody.

The beauty of using lighting ratios in this way is that it gives us photographers a common language that we can use. It also makes it really easy to communicate with lighting assistants, for setting light levels.

Here's a series of images to show you how different lighting ratios affect your final image. As you can see, it's a great way to get variety from a simple setup.

So you may be thinking then in order to use these techniques, you would need two flashes, but you don't because you can actually create fill light by bouncing your key light back into the shadows of your subject. If you don't have a second flash yet, this is a great way to get your toes wet with multiple light setups.


The easiest and most versatile way to bounce your key light is to purchase a collapsible 5-in-1 reflector like this one:

You can get one for around $20. This one has a silver reflector, a gold reflector, and a white reflector. It also acts as a scrim to soften light and a flag to block light. They make these in all shapes and sizes, and they really are one of the most 'bang for your buck' photography products out there. So if you don't have one, I really recommend getting one.

Of course, if you want to go the DIY route, you can go to your local home improvement store and pick up a piece of rigid foam insulation. They come in different thicknesses and sheets that are four feet by eight feet. So you can make some pretty big reflectors out of them.

They also have a white side and a silver side, and you should be able to find them for around $20. I love mine and I use it a ton, but it's pretty difficult to transport, so it pretty much stays in the studio.

If you want to go really cheap, the easiest way to be able to bounce light is to buy a piece of white foam core or a large piece of white poster board and use that to bounce your flash.

Whichever route you choose they're used in pretty much the same way you place the reflector at about 90 degrees away from your key light and adjust its angle and position until the shadows are filled into your liking.

If you're using a 5-in-1 reflector, you will have to decide which of the three reflective services you want to use. For a studio I always use either the silver or white reflector.

The difference between the two is that the silver reflector creates a harder fill light, and it will give your portraits a little bit more pop. The silver reflector also reflects more light, so you can get closer to a 1:1 lighting ratio with the silver side.

On the other hand, the white side will give you a softer light, which is sometimes more flattering. I like to use that a lot, but you will definitely lose some intensity of the reflected light.

The only time that I used the gold reflector is when I'm shooting with the setting sun as a backlight, and I want to reflect some more light back into my subject - so it won't really apply to our flash photography course.

Positioning the Reflector

Once you have the reflector in the right position, you can vary the intensity of fill light by moving the reflector either closer or further away from your subject. Remember the inverse square law of light and how moving your light further away will lower the intensity very quickly.

One of the things that you may hear me say quite a bit during these lessons is how important it is to get your light into your subjects eyes. I really believe that the difference between an 'okay' portrait and a 'great' portrait is in the eyes. To be more specific, I believe a great portrait is in the catch lights in the eyes.

Catch Lights

Catch lights are the bright spots of light that reflect off the shiny surface of your subject's eyes. The technical name is specular highlight, but we're just going to use catch lights when we're talking about portraits.

The biggest reason that catch lights are important is that they make your subject's eyes look alive. They also draw the attention of your viewer to your subject's eyes. Since the viewer's eye is usually attracted to bright spots in the image.

Take a look at what a difference this makes. These two images are exactly the same photo. Only the one on the right has been Photoshopped to remove the catch lights.

Notice how lifeless it looks compared to the photo on the left with the catch lights. That's a pretty big difference, I think, so you definitely want to pay attention to your catch lights.

So that's pretty much it for fill light and how to bounce your key light to get fill light. In the next few lessons you're going to learn about several classic lighting setups and how to accomplish them using just a key light and some fill light.

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