On Assignment: Hiding Your Key with Fill

I made this photo this past summer, and in revisiting it just learned two pretty important lessons: one a dumb luck success, one a total failure.

Maybe take a moment to guess which is which before opening my psychological medicine cabinet to peek inside…

The Clark Farm

Jim Clark (not pictured) was an institution in Howard County. A lifelong farmer, he championed things like good ecology, land management and stream runoff monitoring long before they were cool. He was an early advocate of the preservation of the traditional farm against the constant tide of real estate development. He was a state senator. He was a freakin' glider pilot behind enemy lines on D-Day.

Impressive guy, and I was very proud to have known him.

I photographed his daughter, Martha, and her daughter, Nora, at Clark's Elioak Farm, where they are carrying on Jim Clark's innovative thinking and have created an agri-tourism business to help to preserve their land.

The photo was for the local economic development authority, who was highlighting them as a forward-thinking business in the Howard County.

What I Got Right

Taking full credit for the happy accident part, even though I had no idea at the time. Why? Because I am a photographer, and that's how we roll.

Looking at this image, I feel like the key light (an umbrella upper camera left) is not calling a lot of attention to itself. And the more I think about it, the more I realize it is because the fill ratio is set pretty tight.

This was by accident, as I do not remember consciously adjusting the fill to be brighter than normal. It's about a stop down by all appearances, and I usually fill to a more contrasty ratio (i.e., 2 or 3 stops down from the key light.)

The fill is a big source. Here is the scene:

Martha and Nora are positioned on the red dots. I am next to the fill on the "X," so the fill will not call attention to itself directionally.

But the fill is definitely hot, compared to normal. And this relatively small drop-off to the shadows helps to pass off the illusion that this is natural light. Not so much to us, because we really look closely. But to the typical viewer, yeah, I think so.

Imagine if this fill light was two and a half stops down. The nose shadows would be more prominent, and your subconscious would more likely be recognizing the key and be asking where it came from. At least, mine would.

So that's something I learned from having done something well, if by accident: tighten your fill ratio when shooting into the sun to hide your key. (Also, I like the sun ray funkiness back there. Need to be willing to do more of that.)

What I Screwed Up

When I did this offers a big clue into my ignorance. It was just as I was starting to realize what was making all of my photos look too lit, and not natural.

Both my key and my fill are white, which is not cool. Also, not warm. And definitely not anything real-looking. This photo would have been so much better if I had been thinking about lighting color.

But what colors to make the lights? And Why?

Right off-hand, and being a safe gel weenie even now, I think I'd want to mimic the sun with the key, as if it was being reflected by something. Maybe a ½ CTO or a Rosco 09 warming gel. Logical, right?

And as for the fill, I think I would want it to appear to be picking up a reflection off of the grass. So, green. Maybe a normal fluorescent window green to start.

And here's the thing: I could have gotten some cool color contrast between the highlights and the key-filled shadows because of the color differences. Maybe even tightened up the fill-to-key ratio and make it look even more natural by leveraging both techniques.

But the important lesson for me is the color. Because more and more lately, I am learning that light is almost never white.

Me light pretty one day.

Next: Cheap, Portable Studio Pt. 1


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Blogger jeff gammons said...

I'm glad you brought up the color issue. I have been in the same boat for a bit. I am realizing that when shooting on location bare bulbs just look unnatural, even though they are "daylight balanced".

Here is one i took the other day and tried to match the tone of the day and add a little to compliment the red dirt.


January 23, 2013 1:47 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

living in the tropics, I always find that even noon sun is not color balanced with flash. For this reason, I always have a 1/4th CTO on both key and fill (usually on cam) ... so much for the sb900s being "daylight balanced"

Now on cases that only the key is feasible (on cam flash too far from subject), since it (the key) is color balanced with ambient (with 1/4CTO), it wouldn't hurt playing with the shutter speed to control the ambient and let it just bleed in. It is really hard to correct in post if one side of the face has the correct color, while the shadows have a blue cast.

Sunsets are more complex, as I have to gradually move from 1/4th to 1/2 to full... However as I can't react so quickly, I'd just use the on cam fill more likely so as to balance the temp.

Now if balancing power already give us the chills... we also have to consider color temp!

January 23, 2013 2:40 AM  
Blogger Good old Clive said...

No I did not spot that at all, not even a hint, even after a second look all I could come up with was, ugh, what's he on about. Once I'd read the post, all that you drew attention to made sense and I began to feel quite smart. Lazy way to feel smart that, but none the less once again you give away valuable information for free! How refreshing. Thanks again David for all of your efforts, should we ever meet I owe you a pint, at least.

January 23, 2013 3:05 AM  
Blogger Glimpse said...

Funny how obvious what you are saying about the key to fill ratio is...when you point it out! Totally agree, it's a very valid point that light is almost never that clean and that's what jumps out so often on shots. Have been doing a lot of images backlit by the sun recently and been getting some good results with lights bounced off gold, or white reflectors as fill. They seem to pick up all sorts of colour casts from the surroundings. Not as much absolute control but the imperfections seem to make things more natural.

January 23, 2013 3:40 AM  
Blogger Fonk said...

I think the lighting ratio works pretty well (don't you love happy accidents like that?), even though, yeah, the overall lighting looks a little too white. I can't imagine your subjects/customers noticed that, though, and it's still a great photo. Nice work, and thanks for sharing.

January 23, 2013 4:00 AM  
Blogger Jorge Gomes said...

Did you try a mask on photoshop, that would balance these color temperatures?

January 23, 2013 4:12 AM  
Blogger Felipe Curvello Anciaes said...

Hi, David!
With such a big modifier you have used as the fill, would it make a great difference if, instead of using the umbrella on the left, you had just used the big octa right in the front of them?

January 23, 2013 6:47 AM  
Blogger leex said...

Nice post, very useful; humility in others is often a great teacher!

January 23, 2013 7:49 AM  
Blogger Veli Ojala said...

There seems to be very very little light falling of to the fence. It doesn't seems to be not even a one third of a stop brighter than fence in background. How is that achieved?

Also, I agree with the color temps, all tho this picture seems to be just fine as it is. Why? Because I look it with my finnish eyes. Sunsets in Finland doesn't bring that much "warm" to pictures (atleast in autumn) so once again: your surroundings define you. I personally hate those "too warm" sunset pictures.

January 23, 2013 8:30 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

Why not go with a simple reflector if you wanted a natural look?

Because this photo doesn't really look natural to me (not saying that's a bad thing...). It actually looks like a stylized advertising image.

January 23, 2013 9:32 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


It would be a pretty similar look.


The simple answer is that it is a pitch-black, light-sucking fence.


You don't get nearly as much control with a reflector, IMO. And now that you mention it, these were basically advertising shots. We are advertising the county to prospective businesses.


True. I probably could have drawn the whole thing in Adobe Illustrator, too. ;)

January 23, 2013 11:24 AM  
Blogger AndrewKrajnik said...

Well, I was able to guess the "happy accident" just based on the title of the post, and I actually did guess the color temp as well, as this is something I've noticed in my own sunset shots. With speedlights and the Honl Rosco gels, I've been able to gel easily to correct for this.

My question is this: while it's easy to gel speedlights, how do you gel a studio head? I'm considering getting some PCB Einsteins. I know PCB has gel holders for reflectors, but it's not obvious to me how you gel an Einstein in a softlighter or PLM. Do you still have to use a reflector inside the light modifier?

January 23, 2013 12:10 PM  
Blogger AndrewKrajnik said...

OK, I guess you can disregard my previous question... I tend to read my RSS feed from the top down. Read blog entry, post question, scroll to next entry, and... my question is answered! Thanks!

January 23, 2013 12:14 PM  
Blogger Lachlan said...

Instead of the green on the fill, you could consider a touch of blue. Shadows tend to be a colder colour.

Key light 1/4 to 1/2 CTO as though it's a reflection off of something behind the camera, 1/4 CTB for fill directly opposite the sun and down a little. If you really want the green have a second weaker fill underneath.

January 23, 2013 12:56 PM  
Blogger Barry Frankel Photography said...

Hey David,
Been toying with the idea of gelling for a while now. I shoot on the beach at sunset quite frequently, but just seeing this post inspired me to give it a whirl.
Thanks as always for all the great info.

January 23, 2013 1:16 PM  
Blogger davidenglish said...

Thank you , David, that was helpful. Heh, I noticed you spelled the word sex in there, probably unintentional but I know its used in a lot of advertising photos.

January 23, 2013 1:17 PM  
Blogger Larry Vaughn said...

Try shooting it both ways and show them to your portrait customers and see which one they prefer.

January 23, 2013 1:20 PM  
Blogger Barry Frankel Photography said...

Hey David, Thanks for this great post. I shoot on the beach at sunset regularly, and I've been toying with the idea of gelling for a while now. Although the "white" light is acceptable, the warmer color should be more pleasing...gotta work quick, the suns dropping.

January 23, 2013 1:21 PM  
Blogger Ken Elliott said...

Here's a trick I figured out the other day. I needed to change gels on my fill light to match the falling sun. I put three different gels (14/, 1/2, full CTO) on three Speedlights. I connected each to a PocketWizard, but on separate channels. This allows me to change the channel on the camera-mounted PW, which changes which flash fires, thus changing my color fill. It worked pretty good, but I need to experiment a bit more.

January 23, 2013 1:36 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Why not adjust WB ? For example, set camera white balance to FLASH and choose the color temperature for the amber-blue axis to A3 , this would make a look more warmer in the picture.
I apologize for my "google translated" English.

January 23, 2013 2:14 PM  
Blogger Victor Paereli said...

Hi David, I agree with your point about low contrast ratios help with a more natural look, but this image doesn't help me see it. In fact, I think that a higher contrast ratio would have made this image appear more natural. I'm looking at the difference between the sun-lit and the shadow patches in the grass - is it three stops on average? Put this up against your one stop. The shadows don't help with naturalness either and this would be a bigger one for me than colour temperature difference (which I don't find to be huge and is anyway easily correctable in post). On the other hand the bit of flare looks awesome. Thanks for sharing!

January 23, 2013 2:42 PM  
Blogger Tonia Mc Caskill-Johnson said...

I think it's a lovely image even though the lighting does say hey I wasn't lit naturally. I do enjoy your posts and the mind behind the madness. Please keep the lessons on mixing gels coming. I've only been daring enough to experiment with cto i'm hoping to practice my mixing skills soon -- cheers!

January 23, 2013 2:50 PM  
Blogger Thomas Shue said...

Another way to hide the main is to place it within the boundary of of the fill light itself. See here http://www.flickr.com/photos/tomshue/8408312133/

In my opinion one of the most sought after lighting situations is a cloudy day when the sun almost peeking through the clouds creating a hot spot.

The reason is, the hot spot is creating that gradient fall off (edge transfer). This edge transfer is what actually models whatever it falls on. A face, shiny objects, basically anything that has dimension will not be rendered flat.

I often use Light panels for this very reason, I can move the light close to the diffuser and create that same hot spot (somthing softboxes cant do without great pain). The problem with panels is the same with umbrellas, spill. You loose a lot of light to the sides and backwards.

Stacking a softlighter (see the link above) in front of a huge Octa controls spill and simulates that cloud hot spot and as a side effect the fill hides the main. That is if I keep the ratio tight much in the same way as you describe.

I often use this setup in more of a frontal beauty light, kind of like a massive reverse softlight reflector. Thanks for the post, T

January 23, 2013 3:40 PM  
Blogger Ryan May said...

Hah! Amazing, just this morning while making coffee I was wondering what kind of gels would color balance well with sunlight (in particular sunset/Golden Hour light). I was trying to think where I could turn to find an answer and Shazam! David is Johnny-on-the-spot. Now I just have to wait a week or so for the sun to come back out to try it myself.

January 23, 2013 4:45 PM  
Blogger Thomas Beck said...

Given the time of day, CTO is fine, but experimenting with CTS (Straw) might be better. Depends on how you would want the skin tones to look.

January 23, 2013 4:48 PM  
Blogger Pierre Karampournis said...

Lately you talked quite a lot about flash color, now that you mentioned it, when I go back to some of your pictures/portfolio I noticed a fair amount of picture could have blended a bit better with a geled flash.

Anyways, I rarely used gels in the past and thanks to you I now opened my eyes!

January 23, 2013 11:01 PM  
Blogger Ming Feng Goh, Scott said...

very impressive tips and guide.
also the admitting of wrong.

January 24, 2013 12:29 AM  
Blogger RexGRP said...

Great feature. I know CTO's are popular around here but I was going to suggest the often-neglected straw filter until Thomas beat me to it. The green gel idea really surprised me as I am usually frustrated by light bouncing off grass.
Are you still using Profotos or have you completely switched back to PCB ? ( Einstein ) I bought several and really like 'em. Still have to choose a carrying case.

January 24, 2013 1:25 AM  
Blogger Alex said...

David - The secret of these shots is plainly the big red 'stand here' spots. Where can I get some? I feel that without them I shall never attain the the great images which are otherwise so close, but yet so far.
Had you considered that without their warming fill from below the colour balance would be even further off?

January 24, 2013 7:28 AM  
Blogger Paul S said...

I love the simplicity of the shot and don't have any real issues with the lighting... my only minor issue is the fact I think there is a little too much fill, but that is just my personal choice... I would have dialled the fill down another half stop just too make it a little less obvious... I would also have placed the light stand that the fill light is attached to too my left, not my right as in the diagram...it just puts the fill closer the main and makes it less obvious again(I'm old school and always place my lights on the same side of the camera even with a big fill light)... just two very minor points which don't really mean anything..

January 24, 2013 8:23 AM  
Blogger D.Meds said...

Hello David as always your 3 dimensional kind of images kills me, as kinda step by step follower to Strobist L102 I'm striving for the 3D look , from the courses I found its the Angle who cares about the 3D look simply the difference btw camera & light positions thus the creation of shadow ''if light allow to see the object , the shadow allow to see its depth'' , but with this minimal shadow appearance in this assignment killed every thought I ever had , here my wonder is the quality of diffusion has something with the 3 Dimensionality look or its just the Angle because what I found from L102 study is that the Angle even with the hard light it reveals the shape but not so as the soft light, like that I was spotted to '' soft = big okay! big that comes from reflection or diffusion , here a second wonder -- Do reflection(bounce) and diffusion (shoot thru) rather than broaden the size of small flashes -(to have the big factor which is the main reason of softness)- have an effect on the quality of the soft light? (as single diffusion or 'multi-diffusion ' I mean many layers of diffusion - in terms of increased creaminess and smoothness).
Like a recap

Big = Soft (no matter how we broaden the small flash; bounce, refl-umb; .. etc)


Big + quality mods (soft box + diffusion panel;Octa;..etc) = Soft + Quality (increased creaminess and smoothness)

thank you an so sorry for the wordiness.

January 24, 2013 2:05 PM  
Blogger Randy said...

Myself and other buddy here at Think Tank Photo saw the photo and too wondered why it was shot so hot and not color balanced. After reading the post, it all made sense. We've all done it. For me, I often justify not using gels if it's a "cooler" time of day and I won't mind warming up the scene. If the scene is already warm, then my excuse is pure laziness. OK, my first resolution of 2013. No laziness in terms of color correction. :) Thanks for your open, candid post. - Randy

January 24, 2013 2:48 PM  
Blogger Deb Smith said...

One look and I said to myself, looks good but something is off....not the normal Strobist masters work. I couldn't put my finger on what was bothering me......ah yes, the color does not fit the scene!
How I wish you would have shot it both ways, white light and then remembered to add color!
Excellent post! Thanks!

January 24, 2013 9:04 PM  
Blogger sd_nyc said...

Many times I'll see an image with a blue cast in flesh tones and wonder how it easy it might be to fix it in post. In this case I saved the 800p image to my iPhone, opened it up in Snapseed, tapped "tune image" and adjusted the white balance ( +19 seems to work well here). If you're browsing on a Mac you could open the image in the Preview app and use Tools > Adjust Color then slide the Temperature slider to the right.
In Photoshop you could add a warming filter (85) which looks great at the default 25% density or use the curves adjustment layer and mid-tone eyedropper the fence post beneath the girl's hand, then adjust the opacity of that layer to taste.

January 25, 2013 10:13 AM  
Blogger Paul Nuwer said...

I like the way the photo turned out and prefer to use white light in this way. Anyone with the knowlege to understand lighting, would know you are using LOTS of power to overpower the backlighting. What strobes did you use.

January 25, 2013 11:41 AM  
Blogger RexGRP said...

Regarding the strobe question, looking closely you can see two Paul Buff Einstein moonlights. A Pocket Wizard Plus lll tranceiver hangs from the fill light.
I'm trying to decide between the PW Power MC2 or the PCB Cyber Commander for controlling power settings from the camera position.

January 25, 2013 3:08 PM  
Blogger Andrew Wisler said...

If I may, the only problem with warming the whole scene in post is that the background and accompanying sun flare are already quite warm, and what you want is really to lessen the tonal separation between the background lighting and the subjects. Kudos to David for baring his soul to us, as we have all (if I may speak so boldly for everyone!) shot something and later said "doh!", and I would have just created a color correction layer in PS and brushed in a quick mask of the subjects and kept my mouth shut. The key to this lesson isn't that that is easy to do, 'cause it is, but that it doesn't lead to a better understanding of the light at the moment of capture. I for one have a lot to learn, and I'll remember a bit better next time.

January 25, 2013 11:07 PM  
Blogger RalphG said...

Interesting how differently we see. I don't miss the the gel at all. Regardless of the color temperature of the fill wouldn't any photo with that amount of back-light look "lit"? I mean, the mighty sun is attacking from behind, we all would squint if we stood where you did, so the subject would not show a lot of contrast without strobist intervention. My photographic eye (which is by far not as trained as yours, of course) would recognize that there must be fill. So, now that we are in the realm of the unnatural, I don't "see" a slightly cooler skin as a problem. Maybe I just want to say: I don't think you screw up at all.

January 25, 2013 11:36 PM  
Blogger Severin Sadjina said...

I agree that this is a great way to disguise artificial lighting, have it pass as natural lighting, and improve the overall appeal of a photo.

That being said, I'd have dialed down the flashes in your example shot (or dialed up the ambient). The way it is now, it does in fact look like artificial light - at least to me.

January 26, 2013 7:25 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Just a PocketWizard on one; the other is slaved.

January 26, 2013 11:28 AM  
Blogger Kacper Konstanczak said...

So, is yet another difference between you and McNally going to go away, David?

I was always under impression that you did this on purpose, for defining your own style's sake :)


January 28, 2013 4:50 PM  
Blogger Scott Kantrowitz said...

I'm wondering about you posing them so Martha cast a shadow on Nora? Seems like you would flip them left-right, or use the Key on your right (opposite of Sun) to "square" the plane of their pose to the Key (and avoid nuking Martha's elbow).

January 28, 2013 7:22 PM  
Blogger Wick Beavers Blog said...

this post is right along the lines of Gregory Heisler's recent profoto post on the making of the cover of the Olympic Swimmer, pot smoker and subway sandwich eater, Michael Phelp.
Light color. i.e. color temperature, is critical and can be utilized in portraiture (et al) to set subjects off, to make them pop, to create a sense of presence.
Do it.

January 30, 2013 8:56 PM  
Blogger Gareth O'Neill said...

very useful thoughts thanks David, I find myself guilty of this too and really need to think more about gels.

are those red spots real or photo shop? they're certainly obvious.

February 07, 2013 2:40 PM  
Blogger Myron said...

David, wondering what if they model is wearing a white dress and you add on a color gel. Where's the white in the dress going to go? If you later correct for the white dress making it white in post, where are the skin tones going to go?

I been shooting in the Jungle and use the flash to wash out the green tinge.

February 19, 2013 2:37 PM  
Blogger Myron said...

David I am also looking for a leveling light stand sometimes called a Rocky Mountain Leg. The only one's I've seen are around $200+++
I was thinking of using a small tripod and a extension riser. Anyone have any ideas other than finding a rock or a shoe on location?

February 19, 2013 2:40 PM  
Blogger Melissa Coetzee said...

As a photographer relatively new to off camera flash, this information was very useful ! Thanks for sharing !

March 07, 2013 11:16 PM  

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