On-Axis Fill: Experimenting with Ring as Fill

Having talked about the inspiration to learn more about on-axis fill, I'd like to work through the process of studying a lighting idea to the point where you become totally comfortable with it.

For better or worse, my goal is for this experience to serve as a sort of template for how I approach a new lighting technique.

This week deals with first attempts to reverse engineer how people were getting that cool, controllable 3-D tonality in their shadows, specifically by using ring flash.

When struck by the idea of on-axis fill, ring light is a no-brainer. It doesn't get any more "on-axis" than that, so it was my obvious starting point. What I would go on to find out was not only were there many options for creating on-axis fill, but also a seemingly endless number of combinations between the quality and quantity of the fill and the key light.

Whenever I am struck by a new technique, my programmed response is usually to shoehorn it into the very next opportunity I have to shoot. I'm impatient that way. But the point is to learn it ASAP, and hopefully in a way that does not screw up a paying gig.

Professional shooters as notorious cowards thorough testers -- much more so than most amateurs I know. We want to do our screw-ups in relative privacy, and not on someone else's dime.

That's the way I normally work, but this time I was too impatient. I felt like a kid in a candy store, and wanted to start playing with on-axis fill immediately, if not sooner.

My first attempt at ring fill was against an umbrella key light, while shooting the lovely and enthusiastic Minty (that's her name) seen at the top of this post. It was at the Gulf Photo Plus event in Dubai. We were working very quickly, trying to get a selection of different looks from three different setups and outfit changes in the span of about 45 minutes.

To my credit I at least saved my on-the-job experimentation until the last of the three setups, which was outside of our conference room in the hall. The walls in the hall basically looked like seamless background paper, which was enough to qualify as a good setting in our academic conference environment.

The idea -- making this up as we went along -- was to position the key (umbrella, camera right) as I would if just shooting normally. Then I would dial in the ring fill and see what happened.

What ratio to use? Heck, I wasn't thinking that far ahead. In retrospect, it ended up being about one and a half stops -- too much fill, IMO.

Much like the first time I had shot someone with an umbrella against a sunset, I was happy enough with the first result that I did not press it by trying variations to see what would look better. That's a big mistake when trying new techniques, and one I will readily own up to. Because I do it over and over again.

In a turn on the old phrase "the perfect becomes the enemy of the good," it's more like "the good becomes the enemy of the way better."

Getting a cool result can keep you from pressing the idea further to see what else might happen. That's something you should always be on guard against.

When I edited my photos that night in my hotel room, I could see my problem much more clearly. The light directions were okay, but the ring fill had too much intensity. The result was that dimensionality had been stripped from the photo, and Minty had been reduced to almost a 2-D cutout.

It was like a layered paper sculpture, lit on different planes.

In general this is not a ring fill ratio I would use on people -- I'd want less of the fill. But, as with any screw up, you learn. And what I learned here was that on-axis fill is basically a control slider to enhance or compress the 3-D quality of your subject.

Much like a field goal kicker who misses a big kick by aiming too far to the right, I would overcorrect on my next attempt.

At left is Asif, a marketing exec in Dubai, whom I shot in the very next workshop. After Minty, you can be pretty sure I wasn't gonna over fill Asif. So naturally, rather than filling him a stop and a half down, I filled him at, like, four stops down.

Had I shot this for The Sun, our presses would have happily filled in all of those subtle, dark tones with nice, black ink. You cannot do this on newsprint and expect to get away with it.

The photo was obviously inspired by Peter Yang's eerie shot of Admiral Fox Fallon. I previously had worked through this poor-man's version of Yang's big, gridded reflector by substituting a small LumiQuest soft box instead. I used a Soft Box II at the time, but my preference now would be the new Soft Box III, as it is a little bigger. (Both will work, though.)

But what about the grid? Isn't that critical?

Well, no. Not really. It is what the grid does that is critical, which is to create a shaft of light that keeps the top of the person's head from being illuminated. You can also go that with a simple gobo.

As you can see from the diagram, the gobo allows the light to reach the subject's face, but not the top of the head. If you place the gobo closer to the subject, the line is harder. Place it closer to the light source and the line into darkness gets softer.

I like to place it pretty close to the (small) source, and at a height to where the subject's eyes can see about 3/4 of the light source. This tells me that the eyes will be positioned about 1/4 of the way into the transition from lit area to shadow area.

This is offset by the fact that the eyes are closer to the light source on a relative basis than are the lips, chin, etc. These two factors tend to cancel each other out in a cool way.

But this post is about ring fill, right? And besides, I am not put on this earth just to ape someone else's light. I want to shape it in new ways and do my own thing.

So I wanted to keep the dark look of the photo, yet still be able to see up into the shadows a little bit in a controlled way. That's where the ring fill does the job perfectly.

I am filling at almost four stops down, which is a tremendous chasm of a lighting ratio by most measures. Example: That's a white piece of paper a few feet behind Asif, going almost black. (That is straight from Lighting 102 - Position | Distance.)

Again, from a newspaper standpoint, it's a big 'ol fail. But, there may be times when I want this tiny peek into the shadows. On an RGB display, it is legible -- just at the edge, really -- but I can dial this in any way I want now, because I have seen the upper and lower limits.

But, the "screw ups" are defining my boundaries. And I could very well decide to go there again, too. It is my choice, depending on the look I want and the medium in which the photo is gonna run.

A stopped watch is right twice a day, and even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while. So given that I had missed on both high and low on my ratio, I hopefully would be ready the next time.

Having seen what both "too light" and "too dark" looked like, I felt comfortable that I could dial in the ring fill against an umbrella with a little nuance. Which is what happened the next time I tried the technique.

You can see a full write-up on the contortionist photo, which was a direct offshoot of the test shots above, in this post from earlier this year.

If there is anything that should be stressed, it is (a) that zeroing in on the look you want is a logical process, and (b) you should not expect to happen upon an ideal look right out of the starting gate. It takes testing and experimentation -- and learning from the "close-but-no-cigar" photos is a valuable part of the process.

NEXT: Ring Fill Against Hard Key


UPDATE: For those who asked, the ring flash I was using is a Ray Flash ring flash adapter.


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

it's been monday now for 16hrs in Australia and i've been waiting... and what a great read! alas, i can't simultaneously use my on-camera (built in) and off-camera flash as the built in won't pop up with my poverty wizard attached. and no pc socket on an e-520. soon...

October 20, 2008 1:03 AM  
Blogger David Griffin said...

Big Dave its me David Griffin a.k.a. The Prince of Cheap of Studiolighting.net... what your doing is the same as Dave Hill. Its just a matter of filling in the shadows subtly with the ringflash then working the rest in post. :) I had to chime in on this.

October 20, 2008 1:10 AM  
Blogger GeoDesigner said...

Hey Dave, excellent stuff as usual, will try immediately (I'm having a studio shoot in a few hours and will use a ring as a fill. Just out of curiostiy, what ring light were you using The David Hobby HD Ring Flash, the Ray Flash or some other unit?

October 20, 2008 1:13 AM  
Blogger Mariano said...

I am following your blog for two years now and think that this is one of your best posts so far.
It is very interesting to get a peek into your thought process.

October 20, 2008 4:22 AM  
Anonymous Richard Cave said...

Cool post, I want to experiment with a technique that I have developed it s finding the opportunity to try it.

It involves two sb 800s back to back facing outwards placed in front of subject but below or above the camera lens. GOBO in front to prevent spillage going forward. Stofen must be fitted on each.

Out of view of the camera is a reflector on each side angled slightly back to the subject. Its like a clamshell but hopefully it has a more feathered look.

You can use silver or gold relectors or even gel individual flash. To get a one sided effect.

Alas I have not found the time to experiment with this one. I am after a ringlash/clamshell look with less defined highlights and more feathered look.

I want to use this to drag texture out of the face,

I dont know if it is going to work but hey that what experimenting is all about. That is half the fun

Good post nice to see another phot bare his soul.

October 20, 2008 4:36 AM  
Blogger Pat Morrissey said...

Hi David,
I love the approach you're taking in this experimental scenario. We're all told that it's ok to make mistakes, but too often we get hammered for them and that puts a lot of people off from seeing them for what they are - learning opportunities. One of the best teachers I ever had used to say that "The man who never made a mistake, never made anything" Really looking forward to the next post.

October 20, 2008 5:22 AM  
Blogger mtreinik said...

Since your usual workflow doesn't include using an incident light meter, how did you determine the key-fill ratios in these examples?

October 20, 2008 7:00 AM  
Anonymous Kev said...

Good stuff as usual! I'll definitely be trying this out later.

The gobo used to keep light off of the head is something I hadn't thought about - The answers are easy once you know the questions.

Looking forward to the next one.

October 20, 2008 7:52 AM  
Anonymous hivewasp said...

All three pictures look good to me; the first one shows the use of a flash ring quite obviously; the other two I wouldn't have guessed :)

There's a point where I'm a bit confused though. You say your ring fill acts as a slider to compress the feeling of depth in the photo; that's by filling the highlight/shadow contrast ratio; so your key light type and size has a huge influence on your fill power no? I mean you'd need more fill power on a gridded spotlight than you would on a big softbox. Am I missing something somewhere?

October 20, 2008 7:53 AM  
Anonymous Josh said...

what were you using as a ring flash?

October 20, 2008 7:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Mistakes are the portals of discovery."
James Joyce

October 20, 2008 9:18 AM  
Blogger MASilva said...

Hi David -

Really fun post. It's great to see people experimenting and challenging their own conventions. It's fun to see this in process discussion.

I've been experimenting with "on axis" in my own way. I've been doing a lot of on location photography these last few weeks and having to deal with the bright fall sky. To help me out I've been using lots of fill flash, and because the subjects I'm shooting have been mostly kids I've needed to be mobile.

Here's a few shots from last Saturday when I shot a youth soccer event.


Thanks again,

October 20, 2008 9:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would like to see each light by themselves at the exact level of contribution for each and then show the final with both .

October 20, 2008 9:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great Post
I was thinking the same when I shot this.

Dave S

October 20, 2008 9:46 AM  
Anonymous Chad said...

Great post... the best in quite a while. David, you seem pretty genuinely excited about this. I have a question: I am assuming you are using a speedlight style ringlight contraption (Ray Flash ect). Have you tested these guys with the Nikon CLS? Does it still work properly with the ring attachment on the camera? I remember reading a review on this site, but I don't think it mentioned it. If anybody knows I would be very interested.

October 20, 2008 9:53 AM  
Anonymous JF Charlot said...

regarding the on axis ring flash, I played this week-end with a cheap way to simulate it : an umbrella (with a round table set put in the center) just behind the camera.
It gave me the famous ring flash catch light. I used it as a main light here :
but it can easily be used as a fill, as you suggest.
a pic of the umbrella : http://www.flickr.com/photos/31452327@N02/2957954769/

October 20, 2008 11:52 AM  
Anonymous Janne Ainesmaa said...

Great tip here! It took it to use right away on my recent shoot! Didn't really work as well cause I didn't have a ringflash and had to resort to on camera flash, but it really did make an impact to the image. Thank you once again for sharing the knowledge...

Here's one from that recent shoot:

/Janne from Finland

October 20, 2008 12:21 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Great Post David.

Im wondering when some rayflash knockoffs will be on the market!? patiently waiting...


October 20, 2008 1:39 PM  
Blogger Don Sweener said...

Try taking it a step further and setting up a light bank with a "cut out for your lens" and some rim lights off to the side. Think of the person as "glassware" You can also use some gobos to subtract strips of light in the light bank.

Questions or comments

October 20, 2008 4:23 PM  
Anonymous Caleb said...

I was trying this technique with my 40D/430ex/cactus triggers, using the built-in flash as fill. However, when the built-in flash is open, the 430ex on the cactus trigger does not sync right. It triggers, but won't sync, even as low as 1/30. Anybody get their built in flash to work with cactus triggers(V2s). Thanks.

October 20, 2008 11:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey David, Kevin Clark here. Great work. I saw this on PDN and wanted to know if you could do a review. It looks promising. http://www.pdngearguide.com/gearguide/content_display/reviews/e3id5cad753451dc1bf5b2ca095c3cccb92

October 21, 2008 12:45 AM  
Blogger Paul said...


Great content as usual. It did bring up the question that I also had with your earlier post, "Strobe/Ambient Balance: A Shorthand Way of Thinking."

I get the what, a way to describe relative light levels, but am still lacking on the how to make it happen. In particular how to know what the relative light levels are while lighting a shot. If I know what they are I can adjust them, but knowing is the first step.

For instance how did you know, in stops, what the difference between the various light sources was in this post. How did you know the fill is -1.5 or -4? Are you using a light meter? Do you just know based on your experience? Are you able to do this chimping?

In particular, how do you recommend your padawan learners start to develop this skill?

October 21, 2008 12:01 PM  
Anonymous Mark C said...

"the good becomes the enemy of the way better."

This parallels something I learned from reading Dan Heisman's "Novice Nook" articles on playing chess. To paraphrase, "Once you've found a good move, stop and look for a better one".

Probably hard to do under the pressures of a commercial assignment, but something us amateurs need to remember.

October 23, 2008 6:21 AM  
Anonymous Brad said...

Interesting post! Me and my photog friend Tim have been working on a setup involving 2 580EX's into umbrellas on each side of subject, slightly behind, around 1/8th power. Then we use a Canon Ring flash off camera and high to fill in and a kicker either behind subject or off left or right. We'll post our results soon...but this is kind of what we had in mind. Great post Hobby!!

October 23, 2008 3:30 PM  

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