When to Use Negative Fill

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Whether shooting in the studio or on-location, one very simple but often overlooked tool to get better separation between your subject and the background is the use of negative fill. Many photographers know that using reflectors can open up shadows or create a nice highlight with white, silver, gold, etc. However, another similar technique that is not as widely talked about is the use of black as a reflector or negative fill devise.

When I am shooting in a studio, usually there are some 4’x8’ black and white foam core v-flats available that can be used for reflection and negative fill. Nowadays, studios charge for everything and when I am on location, transporting large pieces of foam core is just not a realistic solution on the shoots where we don’t have a cube truck full of grip with us. Enter a great portable solution thanks to Photoflex; the LitePanel series, available in 39×39”, 39×72” and 77×77”. My two favorite attrributes to these panels are that they not only have a variety of reversable fabrics, giving you more bang for your buck, but the panels also break down to 39” pieces, making them as portable as average stands.

Orginially I picked up a LitePanel to use as a scrim on location for smaller shoots. I chose Photoflex LitePanels because they are portable, lightweight and easy to handle vs the heavy steel frames I rent when running large sets. Adding the reversable black/white fabric as well as the silver/gold to my collection I now have many more options and can skip renting the overpriced foam core sheets.

For this shoot with model Alex Cunningham (@tk) I knew that we would be in a small studio, shooting on a white seamless, and the final images would have an explosion of colored powder behind the model. I would potentially have the need to remove the model from the background so I wanted to make sure I had good clean edges to work with in post production (Adobe Photoshop). To best accomplish this I use the black LitePanel fabrics to reduce reflection and add definition to my subject. The idea of reflecting black throws some photographers off, but it does work. In fact, it works so well that it gives you a much cleaner edge to your subject, particularly when shooting against lighter backgrounds. However, the application can be used in any situation.

With all of my shoots I like to go in with a plan. So to get started I sketch out my set, whichputs me in a better position to make changes if my initial thoughts don’t work out. For example, when shooting in a very small studio, there’s more opportunity for light to bounce around versus a large studio space. This can lead to uneven lighting even with strobes and shutter speed overpowering the ambient light (light does bounce around from the strobe).

To make sure that black fill would give me the best results, I did a quick test:

What you can see above, from left-to-right, is the affect of white, black and silver/gold as a fill source. The difference is subtle, which is the beauty of it. These are not bold moves, but they are important. Lighting to me tells as much of a story as the subject in the photo does. My view is that when you look closely the subtle addition of black, it leads not only to better saturation in the wardrobe and makeup but also adds some dimenstion to the images.

On outdoor shoots I connect these LitePanels onto some sturdy light stands with the accompaning brackets. In the studio I used the LitePanel accessory legs (with a sandbag – safety first). You can see below how the model cleanly separates from the background. For the images where we froze Alex jumping, this is particularly important.

Written and photographed by Ian Spanier.

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