On-Axis Fill Lighting Tutorial for Portraits

Mastering light means enabling yourself to get fantastic images by making conscious changes to your lighting setup and camera settings. By understanding light, you can extract amazing results to make yourself stand out from the rest. Photographer David Bergman from Adoroma demonstrates how you can add a punch to your regular portraits by using on-axis fill:

A standard approach to taking portraits is using a one light setup by pointing the flash at a 45 degree angle toward the subject. This kind of setup results in a dramatic looking image with the subject well exposed in the direction of light and with deep shadows on the other side. But what if you want to see some of the details in the shadows without losing the overall drama?

portrait with key light only

Key light only

You can add a fill light on the opposite side of the key light. This will definitely help in filling in the shadows, but it changes the entire mood of the image. The image loses some of the drama and punch with the fill light filling in too much of the shadows.

portrait with key and fill light

Key light and fill light

This is where on-axis fill comes into play. If you want to fill in the shadows while keeping the dramatic mood of the image alive, use an on-axis fill. You will need to use a fill light on the same axis that your lens is pointing toward. Use a big modifier like an umbrella or a softbox behind you (the photographer) or over the camera. Bergman uses a ring light.

ring light

Again, while using an on-axis fill, it is important that you keep an eye on its intensity. If the on-axis fill light is powered anywhere close to or more than the key light, the image will lose its drama. You will end up with a flat image. So, it is important to power it up just so that it fills in the shadows. As Bergman suggests, you can start off by powering it 2 or 3 stops lower than the key light. This will let you still retain some shadows and maintain the depth, shape, and drama in the image.

on axis fill comparison

Key light only (left), Key light and on-axis fill light (right)

So remember, to retain the punch in your portraits, use an on-axis fill light to recover shadow details while still keeping the mood alive.

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