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On-Axis Fill: Introduction

A few months ago I was talking about lighting stuff on the phone with Peter Yang and the subject got around to small flashes.

We were talking about old Nikon speedlights (SB-24's, 26's, etc.) when he mentioned that he liked to work with an on-camera speedlight even while he was shooting with the big Profoto 7B lights off-camera.

"You know," he said, "just to kick in a little fill in there."

I didn't quite get it, because we were talking about his very cool photo of Admiral William Fallon at the time. But it stuck in the back of my mind and has been rattling around ever since.

Fast forward a few months, and I am watching one of Joe McNally's videos on Kelby Training. He's shooting some multi-speedlight CLS setup. He is using an on-camera master flash to control several off-camera flashes, and is making really cool photos, as usual.

Then he pops off with something to the effect of always turning the on-camera master to "no flash" because, "why would you want any light coming from on camera?"

Wait a minute... on-camera... on-camera... Oh yeah, Peter Yang!

So, there was one photographer I really admire, asking me why I would ever want to do some particular thing, and another photog I really admire telling me that was one of his go-to techniques.

That's one of the things I love about photography, that there are no real rules. You learn the rules so you can break them on purpose. The main thing is to know why the rules are there, so you know when and why to break them.

Don't get me wrong. I am a huge fan of McNally. God knows I have certainly ripped off learned much from many of his techniques. And for an old guy he still is mentally very spry. He does an admirable job of keeping up with us younger folks. I understand he is even starting to blog now!

My friends, I think that's just great.

So, back at the other end of the chronological scale, here's Peter Yang, knocking the cover off of the ball before the ink was even dry on his driver's license. His pictures all seem to have this "polished snapshot" kind of thing going that just really does it for me for some reason. They are meticulously lit, with a very controlled visibility into the shadows -- no matter which way the key light is coming from.

That's the day I started thinking about on-axis fill almost nonstop. It has totally changed the way I light. Not saying I would use it every time, because I wouldn't. But it is a very powerful tool, and it merits consideration in the context of just about any lighting scheme I might be designing.

Like a 3-D Detail Volume Knob

In years past, I would think of my key light first, then decide how much ambient to dial in for fill. Or if there was no good ambient, I might fill from the shadow side with another light source.

Problem was, that would significantly alter the 3-D quality of my subject and create new shadows and texture on the highlight side. But lately, I have been thinking about my fill -- both in terms of quality and quantity -- before I even start thinking about my key light.

Filling from on (or very near to) the lens axis allows you to sort of "dial in" the detail in a way that can also leave the subject very 3-D in a natural way, or compress it to look like a multi-layered paper cutout.

All of the photos in this post were filled with on-axis light., in different forms and ratios. And they all have a very different look because the on-axis light source can be anything: Umbrella, ring, small softbox right over the lens -- even an on-camera flash.

There. I said it.

(I know -- it was weird to me at first, too.)

And the on-axis fill can not only come from many different types of light modifiers, but can also work against just about any type of key light. And it can come in at just about any intensity, too. Thus, the ability to dial 3-D detail into the shadows.

I have been working with this just about every chance I could get over the last few months. And I will be working through lots of On-Assignment that involve on-axis fill, not to mention some straight "how-to" posts that detail different fill / key light source combos and lighting ratios.

But I wanted to get a sort of "intro" post out there, where I could whet your appetite with the concept. Just as mine was whetted by studying other peoples' work over the last few months.

So stay tuned for a lot more on this -- with lots of specifics -- in upcoming weeks. I am having a lot of fun with it, and I think you will, too.


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