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Portrait photography lighting: when ONE color is not enough

I do not understand modern black and white photography, did you know this? It is like cutting off one dimension from the photography world, and I always wanted to have more… more dynamic range, more sensitivity, more colors! That day we tried to expand our usual color palette 5 times more: 5 different colored lights were used in one portrait photo-session.

Yes, I am talking about color gels. In most cases I use them to change a background color or add color accents to a scene, but this time we went wild: about 6 sharp, directional light sources was used to paint a model’s portrait. No softboxes, umbrellas or other softeners were used, pure light from 7” reflectors covered by honeycomb grids.

The idea was hanging in the air for a quite some time, and now Kevi Redding, beautiful young singer I was working before, asked me to do portrait for her using colored lighting.


Kevi Redding portrait
Kevi Redding portrait by Atlanta photographer Alex koloskov

I’ve enjoyed working with her (I find much easier to work with artistic person) and after we were done and she left, I continued to play with setup and made several shots of my lovely wife:

portrait photography lighting color gels example
portrait photography lighting color gels example

Here is the setup. Several spot lights on a model’s face, one on a background. As usual, I did not care about light ratios and did not metered the light. Shooting tethered and using remote control for all flash units makes process much easier and faster without any metering.

Portrait photography lighting setup with color gels
Portrait photography lighting setup with color gels

Later we add one more light on the left-front and moved left hair light to be more on a side:

portrait lighting setup with honeycombs grids and color gels
portrait lighting setup with honeycombs grids and color gels

I couldn’t use a beauty dish, do not have gels for it (not sure if Paul. C Buff has them either), so I’ve used 40° honeycomb grid on a standard white-lightning reflector and put a gel on it. Ring flash was set on a low power (my guess is about 2 stops lower), so it worked as very gentle fill light. Some of the results:

portrait photography lighting color gels example
portrait photography lighting color gels example
portrait lighting color gel photography
Portrait lighting color gel photography

Now I want to share my experience with Abode Lightroom 3 beta 2 I was using for a tethered capture.

I was quite happy with it when I was doing product photography, but now I found it to be extremely slow transmitting the images from a camera to a computer. When I shoot products a shooting rate is.. 1 shot per minute, or less. Shooting a model is a completely different story, shooting rate is about a second. Less or more, depending form flash recycle time.
However, it looks like Lightroom 3 was not able to keep up at such pace. After 4 shoots I would have to wait 10-20 seconds till it gets all images downloaded, sometime it was refusing to do it at all, experiencing some sort of buffer overflow:  I’d have to reset connection to  make it work again.

First I was thinking it was USB was a bottle neck, but not! After switching to a CaptureOne Pro 5, I was getting images on my PC in less then a second, as it should be (theoretical 60 Megabytes/sec of USB, about 22Mb per RAW file from the camera.) Hope this will be fixed in release, as I really like Lightroom 3 as a tethered solution after 3 week of use.

I also got a video right after the shoot, hope it will help you to get more details:

Equipment and shooting spec:

Camera gear:

Lighting, light modifiers and accessories:

All shots were done with: shutter speed 1/250 sec, F16, ISO 100, Custom WB 5600K

Your comments appreciated, as usual!


21 responses on "Portrait photography lighting: when ONE color is not enough"

  1. Alex, very interesting effect. I know you shot mainly product, so is it normal to use six lights in portrait work? I have looked at the work of many fashion shooters and they never seem to use more than three or four lights — often only two or three.

  2. This is really different, it gives the pictures more depth, it something different then the black and white depth, and regular enhanced images. I looooove this technique and want to try it.

    Becky Ryan
    Lightbulb Photographer http://www.bulbamerica.com
    GE Bulbs

  3. Wow, this is so different, I’m not sure I like it on the face, but I love it on the hair!
    Good job

  4. god all mighty. so glad I found your site. you have no idea.

    nice work!

  5. also, what kind of gels are you using or did you make them? I’m so used to shooting outdoors, studio shooting is all new to me, still learning how to control the lighting to what i have envisioned thank you!

  6. your blog is so helpful! i loved how you should the behind the scenes set up of the lights, really helped out alot. photos are beautiful! one question, how do you create sharp, clear photos in the low light? what settings do you think are best?

    thankyou! looking forward to reading more of your stuff!

  7. This blog and your flickr post is sooooo helpful I am currently studying A level photography and I am doing my exam in a few months and chose to study coloured light and this has been a huge help and your work is amazing.
    Just wondered if there is any other tips etc anyone could give me?
    I am doing fashion photography but using coloured light and also want to experiment outside as well as in the studio ?
    thanks x

  8. Alex, first off you rock brother! I have a question for you if you dont mind?

    I want to do a photoshoot using the tank like you do for a product water shot. Could you PLease tell me either where to purchase a tank that will work or specific instructions how to have one made? I’m not very good at cutting glass so I wont be able to do it.. I would end up having to pay someone..


    • Eric,
      I’ve made it myself, from a glass bought in HomeDepot. Assembled fish tanks (like from petsmart) has a plastic reinforcement on top of the frame, which makes them useless for me.
      You can ask guys at home depot to cut you the glass of size you need, and just make a tank yourself, they even will suggest you a glue to be used. Make sure to polish edges of the glass (with sand paper or stone) before you start working, or you’ll cut yourself.

      Hope this will help:-)
      Good luck!

  9. Great work ALEX. I work with 10 different lights on my studio to get what I want. I love colors!

  10. Thank you, Boon.
    BTW, renew your domain, it is expired. Would like to see your photos:-)

  11. Thanks, this is very helpful and I love seeing the studio light setup as to get the end result. Great work

  12. Hey Alex,
    Good work and thanks for the setup diagram.
    I like the first picture the best.
    Good work!

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