Negative Fill - What is it and does it actually do anything? / by Hannah Couzens

One question I am asked regularly on my intro to lighting workshops is regarding the use of reflectors. Many times I see my attendees have their minds blown when we add just a simple reflector into the scene and how this unassuming piece of material or foam board can dramatically change our shots.

Reflectors are easier to understand and the concept of bouncing light back into a scene is much easier to understand. It’s the negative fill which has people asking me, does that actually do anything? We'll hold tight my friends because I am about to show you just how much a big black V Flat will actually change your images!

If you are one of the many people who wonder why on earth with a ‘five in one’ reflector there is a black side (for me it’s gold but let’s not go there!) then I hope I can help you understand the power of negative fill. 

The difference which will enhance your portraits is when you learn about light shaping and how to create dimension using shadow and light. You may wish to flood a high key image with light but what about if you still wanted to keep some structure? 

Negative fill (basically anything black) will act as the reverse of the reflector. It will suck the light out of the scene. At first you might think why would I want to do this but think about where you want your shadows to fall. What if you want soft light on the face so you use a huge light shaper but then you also want deep shadows on the opposite side of the face?  Inverse square law is a lesson for another day but for now, consider using negative fill.

Try placing your black flag on the opposite side to where your large soft light source is and move it closer and closer to your subject. You should start to see the shadows become more intense the closer you move it to your model. You will see the reverse with a reflector.

Below is an example from one of my workshops. The light setup is exactly the same in both shots. A large softbox behind, a beauty dish overhead and a reflector underneath. The only thing which has changed are the large flags on the left and right of my model.

These images are straight out of camera, nothing has been altered or retouched so you can see just how much of a difference those white and black flags make.

Look at the difference around the shoulders, cheeks and across the chest on the shot with the negative fill. Both flags are positioned to the side of my model's face remember so that is where I expect to see the impact.

        Negative fill to the sides creates more definition to the shoulders, chest and cheeks.

        Negative fill to the sides creates more definition to the shoulders, chest and cheeks.

  With the white reflectors in place you can see just how much light is bouncing around instead.

  With the white reflectors in place you can see just how much light is bouncing around instead.

You may prefer the image with the white reflectors, or you may prefer the image with the black flags. It is all a matter of personal taste but this post isn’t about getting you to choose, it’s about trying to show what impact negative fill can have, even with so much light bouncing around from this high key set up.

I hope that helps a little. I would encourage you to experiment with negative fill. It is one of my favourite, low budget methods to shape light.