The Cheapest Lighting Technique...

The most UNDERRATED tool for LIGHTING faces.


Joe Gainsborough here, I use this technique all the time. I use it in the studio for beauty and product shoots, I use it for fashion campaigns and it is one of the most useful techniques to use outside. It is one of the most cost effective tools I have in my lighting arsenal, it gives me control over contrast, spill, bounced light and ambient light.


Today, our spotlight is on a technique that adds depth, drama, and a touch of mystery to your visuals. It’s called ‘Negative Fill’.


Negative fill, is not as ominous as it sounds. In fact, it’s a clever technique used by cinematographers to manipulate light and shadow in a scene. Negative fill involves strategically placing dark surfaces or objects to subtract light, creating shadows and enhancing contrast. It is an incredibly useful tool, especially when shooting outside in overcast light, or in a small studio space with white walls which bounce the light from everywhere.


Darius Khondji the Cinematographer, Known for Se7en and The City of Lost Children said


“Shadows are as important as the light. If there were no shadows, then the light would not be as important.”


Khondji emphasises the symbiotic relationship between light and shadows, highlighting the significance of shadows in shaping the visual narrative.


Negative fill is like a silent artist, shaping the mood and atmosphere of a scene by sculpting the shadows. It’s all about balancing light and darkness to tell a more compelling visual story.


Wally Pfister the Cinematographer, Known for Inception and The Dark Knight trilogy said…


“Shadows are so important. Without them, you can’t see the depth or the form.”

Pfister recognises the essential role of shadows in revealing depth and form, underscoring their importance in the visual composition and creating three dimensional images.


When light hits a subject, it bounces off and creates an ambient light that can flood the models face with light. If the intention is to create a mood and feeling that has depth to it then we can use Negative fill, which works by strategically placing dark objects or surfaces on the opposite side of the light source, absorbing or blocking the bouncing light. This reduces the amount of fill light reaching the subject, intensifying the shadows.


So, by manipulating light this way, cinematographers and photographers can enhance the contours of a subject, create a sense of depth, and even add an air of mystery to the scene.


Gordon Willis (Cinematographer, Known for The Godfather trilogy) said:


“Light is easy to love, show me your darkness.”


Willis, often referred to as the “Prince of Darkness,” emphasises the beauty and impact of darkness or the intentional absence of light in visual storytelling.


Negative fill can be used to sculpt a models face, by revealing their features, the cheekbones in particular. If we are working with a soft light from behind the camera lighting the model from the front, then we can bring in negative fill from both sides of the face which creates a more contrast and shape. It makes a massive difference in defining bone structure.


Now, let’s see how negative fill works in the real world. Imagine we’re on the set of an editorial fashion film and the look you are going for is a high contrast look with lots of dark shadow. If the shadow side of the model is brighter than you want it to be then you can employ negative fill to create a higher contrast ratio and deeper shadows.


Or perhaps you are shooting outside and it is a cloudy overcast day, the light is very very flat and everything it evenly lit. Sometimes this is exactly the look you want, and other times you want to create more depth using contrast. By bringing in negative fill and creating shadow on the camera side of the character you can create more depth. In a way by bringing in the negative fill from the front you have in essence created an upside key. This is a technique very often used in cinema and drama as it creates a moody look.


Cinematographers might strategically place black drapes or use flags to block out light, creating deep shadows and emphasising the enigmatic nature of the characters.


First, understand your light sources and their direction. Place your negative fill on the opposite side to enhance shadows naturally. Experiment with different sizes of flags or blackout frames to control the intensity of the shadow. Try different angles too to see how different positions change the contouring of the models face. It is totally possible to do this technique with anything black or dark, if you have some dark material, you can use that.


Remember, negative fill is about creating contrast and depth, so don’t be afraid to play with shadows and experiment until you find the perfect balance for your scene.


Cinematographers strategically place black flags on one side of the subject, opposite to the key light source. The result? Well-defined shadows that enhance contours and add a touch of mystery to the scene.


Now, let’s talk about the big brother of black flags – the Floppy Flag. These 4×4 black flags provide more coverage and flexibility. Cinematographers use them when dealing with broader light sources or when they need a more significant negative fill. The floppy flags allow for precise adjustments, letting cinematographers sculpt the perfect lighting conditions for their shot. They are called floppies, at least they are in the UK, because there is a floppy pull down attached by velcro which turns the flag into a 4×8 foot size flag. The floppy flag is one of the everlasting staples of lighting in cinematography, I doubt it will ever become redundant.


And then, we have Butterfly Frames. These 8×8 or 12×12 frames covered with black material act like a canopy, creating a wide negative fill. Butterfly frames are particularly useful for large outdoor setups, giving cinematographers the ability to shape and control ambient light for that perfect cinematic look. This would often be used for wider shots where you can’t put the flag right next to the model.


We all know the challenges of shooting in natural light – it can sometimes lead to flat and less dramatic visuals due to its uniformity.


By strategically using black flags, floppy flags, or butterfly frames, cinematographers transform the mundane into the extraordinary. These tools allow them to introduce shadows, add depth to the scene, and create a visually captivating composition.


Think of it as sculpting with light. And when it comes to close-up shots, negative fill becomes the cinematographer’s magic trick. It defines facial features, introduces shadows, and contributes to a more cinematic and aesthetically pleasing look.


So, there you have it – the art of negative fill. Cinematographers, armed with tools like black flags, floppy flags, and butterfly frames, master the dance of light and shadows to create visuals that go beyond the ordinary. Until next time, keep experimenting and shining a light on your creativity!


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