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SLC 2L-03: Use Your Second Light to Hide Your First Light

As promised in the last sunset lighting tip, a second quick hack for dusk/lit portraiture. This one involves helping your camera's chip see a contrasty scene more like the way our eye sees it.

Compressing the Contrast Range

The photo at top of actor Raksa Lim feels like it was lit with a single light. Or, more accurately, it looks like a person lit in front of a sunset might look to our eyes. That's because our brain always has the HDR filter turned on, and compresses the high contrast scene by lifting the black shadows for our brain to decipher.

But our cameras don't work that way. So a single-light shot at sunset is (absent reflectors) always going to have shadows that are very dark, if not black. That's because we are typically exposing the the ambient light very deeply for texture and drama. So God help the shadows from our key light, which are getting basically no illumination.


The deep shadows created by the main light are really jumping out here—under his nose, his eyes, his chin, in his ears, on his hands, etc. Which is fine if that's what you really want. But they are also a very strong subconscious tell that a photo is artificially lit.

And we don't want to nuke those shadows, really. Just create some legibility to help our camera see into some of the black areas and render them with some detail.

How much fill do you want? Honestly, not much.

In finished form this shot will be lit with two small soft boxes, each with a with LumoPro LP180 speedlight. One is obviously high at camera right. That's the key light.

But let's place a second light on the ground right in front of the camera, and point it up towards his face. Not much from this light; just pop a little fill in some of the areas missed by the key:

See? Not very much happening there. But it is all additive—especially in the shadows. So when we combine it with our key, we get a smoother photo with more overall legibility:

It's not really pronounced. And you really would not notice it, except in its absence. But that's kinda what we want, right? A light that is not calling attention to itself, but rather just compressing our contrast range and making Rex look more organically three dimensional.

The second bonus of the fill light is that it allows you more flexibility on where you place your key. That is because you are not trying to balance the shape of the face against large areas of illegibility. Which is always a compromise for one-light photographers.

The second light here is basic Lighting 102 stuff. Set your ambient level where you want it, then make your shadows legible, then add in your key.

You can take it a step further, (i.e., L103) as we did in the top frame, and cool those shadows with a 1/2 CTB to better align them with the ambient. This helps them feel more as if they are ambient-based fill.

In retrospect, I should have not been such a weenie, and gone with a full CTB in the shadows. But I'm still learning this stuff, as are we all.

FROM: Strobist Lighting Cookbook, Two Lights


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