March 24, 2015

Negative Fill Can Add Dimension & Contrast to Your Shots, & It's Easy on Your Wallet

Negative Fill Lighting Tutorial Indie Cinema Academy
When contrast is the objective, reflected ambient light is your arch enemy. But worry not, because negative fill is here to save the day.

When talking about lighting, the conversation more often than not revolves around additive lighting. It's a simple concept: add a soft fill, a bright kicker, and a few splashes of light across the background, and your scene will automatically look better and more professional. However, it's important to remember that contrast is an essential element of good lighting, because it's one of a few visual mechanisms which allow us to perceive three dimensional depth in a two dimensional medium. Not to mention that high contrast visuals are generally viewed as more aesthetically pleasing than their low contrast counterparts.

So, if contrast is so important, why do we focus so much on adding light to our scenes to make them look better? That's where subtractive lighting comes into play. By taking light away instead of adding it, we can create more meaningful and purposeful contrast in our scenes, thus adding depth and creating a sense of visual dynamism. One of the most popular methods of subtractive lighting is negative fill. Here's cinematographer Ryan E. Walters of Indie Cinema Academy to explain how it works.

While negative fill can be helpful in interior situations, especially with locations with bright walls and lots of reflective surfaces, it's most useful when shooting exteriors. Natural light is immeasurably complex, because every surface in the natural and manmade world reflects, refracts, or absorbs light to some degree. Essentially, when you're outside during the day, most of the light you're seeing is sunlight being reflected in a bajillion zillion ways. Hence the reason that using negative fill is crucial for adding contrast to your exterior lighting. Blocking out some of those natural ambient reflections is far easier than trying to overpower them with additional additive light.

The best part of utilizing negative fill techniques is that it's incredibly inexpensive to do so, especially compared to how absurdly expensive every other aspect of cinematography seems to be these days. While a 4x4 floppy on a C-Stand is the ideal way to achieve and manipulate negative fill, you can achieve the exact same thing with a sheet of duvetyne (or a black bedsheet) held up by a pair of light stands or a begrudging PA. Really, anything with a black matted surface will work like a charm.      

Your Comment


This was really interesting! Great bit of info, and quite helpful. It's neat that sometimes the difference is real subtle with the negative fill, but it can make quite a difference in a shot.

March 24, 2015 at 9:07PM


Definitely the cheapest way to make an image better!

March 24, 2015 at 9:10PM

Max Ciesynski

Hi ..This is really useful.., my doubt is not regarding this topic.., In a short film I am shooting the scenes with tungsten lights.... The final color of the film should be yellow as naturally lit by tungsten lights.. so now in which white balance i should shoot..,either 1. Shoot in tungsten mode (white balance) and grade it in post.. or 2. shoot it in daylight mode so that the footage itself will be in yellow color.,.. Thanks

March 25, 2015 at 12:18AM


Shoot with the whites correctly balanced and adjust the image in post if you feel that is a look you want for the film. There's no reason to commit so hard to something like color tone of the image in production when you can just as simply adjust your balance after.

March 25, 2015 at 10:49AM

matthew david wilder

First thing I would say is to balance for the tungsten lights. You want to give yourself enough room to fiddle in post which you aren't going to get if "everything is yellow". Secondly. Gel Gel Gel. Do not rely on post to produce the color that you need. Build the look you want in front of the camera. At that point you have 100% control of the image so why give that up? Your end result if you rely heavily on post is reliant on the talent of your colorist and how much time (and money) you have to do spend.

March 26, 2015 at 7:06PM

Kaiel Eytle
Director of Photography/Executive Producer

Look at at this way: if you shoot it so the footage itself is yellow, then it will be next to impossible to get that colour out, but if you're 125% sure that's what you want, go for it, just be aware. If you balance to it while shooting, you have more latitude to move around the colour and do some correcting when you need to this way, if you change your mind you can colour it completely different.

April 4, 2015 at 5:56AM, Edited April 4, 5:56AM

Facundo Rodrigo Campos
Wearer of Multiple Hats

Very interesting. Ive learned a lot from this...thanks

March 25, 2015 at 1:51AM, Edited March 25, 1:51AM

Musyani Sichalwe

Great/important video. I don't know if this was common......but most of the photo studios (weddings, portraits, etc.) that I freelanced for in Northern NJ, back in the 60's-80's had their walls covered with black light absorbing material or were painted black. I was taught the reason for this was exactly to your point in your video. Back then we were using Kodak CPS and strobes......very tricky when you only have maybe 2-1/2 stops latitude.

March 25, 2015 at 6:15AM

Jerry Roe
Indie filmmaker

Just a note regarding what he says at 1:25...the negative fill doesn't 'reflect' black...that's not possible. You can only reflect light...not the absence of it. Negative fill decreases the amount of light being reflected back onto the subject by blocking and absorbing light. That's why it a creates higher contrast. Cool video though!

March 25, 2015 at 6:56AM

James Oldham

yeah but it's pretty cool to imagine rays of black flying all over a set, isn't it?

March 25, 2015 at 10:50AM

matthew david wilder

Nice catch, James. We debated this piece of explanation, but ended up saying it this way because conceptually it makes it easier to grasp negative fill this way. Blue wall reflects blue. Dark brown wall reflects dark brown. Black wall "reflects" black.

My analogy with people is that if you look into a mirror and see a black object, you say the black object is being reflected in the mirror. However, technically speaking (as you point out) it isn't. In fact, a person could argue that everything in the mirror is reflecting EXCEPT FOR the black object. ;)

A physicist would parse it out and want to get into interference patterns as the lightwaves move by a barrier (the flag), reflectance values of surfaces, spectral analysis of the reflecting light, blah, blah, blah. ;) That wasn't our goal. We hope this generalization in our approach and teaching added understanding and didn't confuse people more.

March 31, 2015 at 3:42PM

Tim Park

Apparently Terrence Malick and Emmanuel Lubezki had a shared dislike of "light sandwiches". You can see the deep shadows in the indoor scenes in Tree of Life. Their behind-the-scenes must have looked like this.
A great tutorial from the always excellent Ryan Walters. And yes, I learned something.

March 25, 2015 at 5:15PM, Edited March 25, 5:15PM

Glenn Taylor
for pure fun

Most apparent on the exterior shoot.

March 25, 2015 at 6:08PM, Edited March 25, 6:08PM

Terma Louis
Photographer / Cinematographer / Editor

Or... you could add an ND filter and throw stronger light.

Here is a pic I took in a brightly lit snow white hallway of my apartment building:

March 25, 2015 at 7:40PM

Alex Zakrividoroga

nice effect and good idea for controlling / overpowering natural light, but not the same technique :^)

the vid is about reducing unwanted light-reflection from nearby walls etc..

March 26, 2015 at 6:47PM


I wish all tutorials were like this one - simple, concrete, well articulated, to the point, comprehensive.

March 28, 2015 at 6:50AM, Edited March 28, 6:50AM

Raph Dae
Screenwriter & attempted director

This works in 3D animation programs like Max and Maya as well, especially since you can leave your virtual flat or floppy right in the shot, disable the render property so that the flat/floppy doesn't appear in the image sequence, still get the the negative fill, and make it any colour you want. Subtle and very effective!

March 28, 2015 at 12:02PM

Trevor Baudach
Technological Fetishist

I have a feeling that David Fincher uses this a lot.

March 29, 2015 at 12:09AM


I was recently very impressed with Film Riot's short film UF Oh Yeah which used a lot of negative fill. Ryan Booth the DP has a good video on the film that goes over negative fill. Your video certainly added to what I have already learned. It's a great cinematic "looks" tool. Thanks!

May 3, 2015 at 10:36PM

Seti Gershberg
Creative Director, FAA 107 Drone Cinematgrapher