What is negative filling in photography? How and when to use it

When you’re just starting out as a photographer, your main priority will likely be to focus on improving composition and getting to know the basics of your camera. But as you progress, you’ll start to think more about the impact of light on your images and how you can use various conditions and props to your advantage.

Many people who photograph subjects such as food, people, and animals quickly realize that negative fill can dramatically improve their image results. Best of all, using a negative fill is pretty straightforward and you don’t need a whole lot to get started.

If you want to learn more about negative filling in photography, you’ve come to the right place. We’ll discuss the concept in a bit more detail, while also identifying how and when you should use it.

What is negative filling in photography?

Negative fill allows photographers to add some contrast to their images before the post-production process. In many cases, you’ll use a negative fill when the subject has little contrast to the background, preventing you from making them stand out.

If you’ve been in the photography business for a while, you may have heard of the term “fill”. It’s much easier to understand negative fill if you’re already familiar with the concept; padding simply refers to reducing the contrast between a subject and your background.

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How is negative fill used in photography?

Photographers use several tactics to create negative fill. If you’re in the studio, you can use various objects to add contrast between your subject and the background, some of which will be covered in more detail later.

However, negative fill in photography isn’t just for indoor photographers. If you prefer to shoot outdoors, you can use negative fill by maximizing the use of your surroundings.

Several skills related to photography are interchangeable with filmmaking, and negative filling is one of them. Filmmakers will use negative fill in almost any scenario you would use in photography.

Why is negative fill important?

As your photography progresses, you will begin to look at the work of others with a more critical eye. And when you start looking through the photos, you’ll quickly notice that many of the images are relatively flat in terms of lighting, making them look a little dull.


When you use negative fill in your photography, you create a clear buffer between your subject and the background. By using darker lights and shadows, you can add more definition to their shape. With that in mind, negative fill is also useful if you want to give your images a more three-dimensional look.

When should you use negative fill?

Among several other techniques, negative fill is a great way to enhance your portrait photography. However, the concept is by no means limited to a single genre.

You should use negative fill when your subject and background seem to blend into each other or when your images look flat. Examples of situations where you might want to use negative fill:

  • When you have a brightly colored product, such as a white iPhone, against an equally bright background.
  • When you have a person wearing clothes of a similar color to your background.
  • When you have too much light entering your image from other sources.

Tips for Using Negative Fill

So far, we’ve gone pretty reasonably deep into what negative fill is as a concept. Now we can say more about how you can maximize its use in photography. Below, you’ll find five ways to use negative fill to get the results you want from your images.

1. Film in less aggressive lighting

Shooting in difficult lighting conditions poses several challenges, which is why many photographers shy away from doing it. And while you can use the cast shadows to achieve a negative fill, here we’ll go a bit to the left and suggest shooting in less harsh lighting to maximize your results.

Negative fill relies heavily on blocking out excessive light, and clouds on an overcast day do that job for you naturally. As such, you’ll have an easier time getting the look you want from your photos.

2. Use V-shaped dishes

Indoor photography can be tricky, especially if you’re working in a studio with lots of lights. Luckily, you have several options if you want to get a negative fill — and V-flats are one of the most popular things for doing this.

Photographers use V-flats to suppress or enhance light; the boards look like V’s, hence their name. You can use black or white versions, and the best choice will depend on your subject. If you have a person with a full beard and a black shirt, for example, you can use the white background instead.

You can find V-flats online at different prices.

3. Use another light blocking material

If you don’t have a V-flat, you can use other light-blocking materials instead. For example, you can get a few pieces of cardboard and place them where you need them, but you’ll probably want to paint them a specific color.


Here are some other examples of light blocking materials you can use:

4. Bring your subject closer to something that blocks the light

If you’re shooting outdoors, you can still use v-plates. However, you might not want to carry them around, and not all scenarios require them. If any of these situations apply to you, consider bringing your subject closer to something that blocks the light.

If you’re in a park, you might want to consider moving your subject near a tree. Another alternative could be to move the thing you want to photograph next to a building.

5. Use post-production software

You’d better get a negative fill when you take the photo outdoors. However, you can also change the look of your image and get a negative fill in the post-production phase.

Once you have downloaded your images to your computer, open the editing software of your choice; be it Lightroom or Capture One. Once the program loads, you can adjust the contrast, shadows, and exposure to get the results you want.

Negative fill can advance your photography if used correctly

Negative fill is not as well known in photography as other concepts, such as color theory. But if you learn how to use it correctly, you can dramatically increase the quality of your photos and make your subjects stand out against the background.

If you’re new to negative filling, you’ll probably need to practice for at least a few months before you get the hang of it. Once you do, however, you’ll have a very useful skill that you can add to your photography toolbox.


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About the Author

Stewart C. Hartline