Portrait photography

How to use key lighting and fill lighting in portrait photography

Watch video: Main lighting and fill lighting for the perfect portrait

Key and fill is one of the most basic concepts in lighting. It is a reliable technique not only for portraits, but for many different subjects.

Essentially, a key and a fill are two sources of light – one slightly stronger than the other. Primary light is the primary light used to illuminate our subject, while fill light provides shadows lift. It is such an effective lighting technique because it gives depth and form to our subject; it provides a play of light and shadow through them, and this is what creates a feeling of depth and form on our model’s face.

In addition, by adjusting the ratio of our two light sources, we can control the contrast on our subject. With low intensity fill light the contrast will be strong, and with higher fill light the contrast will be less severe.

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(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

Our two light sources for touch and fill could be whatever we love: studio flash, gear lights, LEDs, sunlight, reflectors… even your phone’s lamp. Initially we used two LEDs in the studio, then we also explored the use of flash both indoors and outdoors.

You can also get technical with it and measure the differences using a light meter. This level of precision is excellent practice, but it is not essential. You can also take a few test shots and look it in the eye, judging the strength of the filling.

Let’s see how this simple setup can lead to great studio portraits and all kinds of other scenarios …

01 Position the lights

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

When setting up the key and filling, it can be helpful to turn on each light in turn and carefully hone them one at a time. This takes some of the guesswork out of lighting when you start using two or more lights. Start by placing the lights in an 8 o’clock and 5 o’clock position.

02 Perfecting the key

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

Turn on the main light and take a test photo, keeping the fill light off. Notice how the directional light gives the face a three-dimensional quality, but at the moment the shadows on the other cheek are way too deep and the contrast is too much.

03 Check the filling

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

Now turn off the key and activate the filling. Make sure the exposure is locked, then take another test shot. The goal is an underexposed portrait, like that. You can see from the shadows cast by the nose that the fill light is straighter than the main light, making the light look flatter.

04 Combine the two

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

Now we turn on the fill and fill lights, then measure the exposure again and take a picture. Fill light lifts deep shadows and gives us balanced lighting. The ratio of key to fill is pretty even, so our contrast is subtle. We could turn off the fill for more contrast.

Key lighting and auxiliary lighting with flash

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

Here we switched to studio flash for our key and infill, using a large softbox to the left of the camera for the key and a second small softbox to the right for infill. We shoot manually at 1/200 sec, f / 8 and ISO100.

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

Measure the flash by holding an incident lux meter up to the face, tilted towards each light (with the other off). With our key at f / 8, we can adjust the fill between f / 8 and f / 2 to control the shadows.

Fill the lighting outside

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

Expose yourself to the sun
When shooting outdoors with speed light, we can use the sun as the main light and the flash as the fill, or vice versa. As before, we start by measuring the main light while leaving the fill light off, resulting in a sunny high contrast portrait.

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

Position the speed indicator
Next, we turn on the fast light and position it in front of the angle of the sunlight to fill in the shadows and reduce the contrast on the subject’s face. The flash is manual at 1/2 power, and triggered through a diffuser panel from a 5 in 1 reflector to soften the light.

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(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

Lift up the shadows
Fast light fills in shadows and reduces contrast. Another benefit of the flash burst is that it provides illumination in the subject’s eyes. Finally, we could increase the power of the speed light so that it dominates the sunlight, causing the sun to be our fill instead.

More videos:

Portrait Studio Lighting: Essential Tips & Setups Explained
Fill-in flash: tips and tricks for using a flash in broad daylight
How to practice portrait lighting without a model
Tips for portrait photography

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