Colour has to be real


Um, no, of course not: colour is a tool for you to use in your artistic endeavors.

And colour can be anything you like.

A few nights ago, I though I would see how long it would take me to recreate a lighting setup that my friend Dave Honl (yes, he of the excellent Honl Photo modifiers) did recently. So I looked at his shot and put it together the same way he shot it, in exactly 20 minutes:

Fun with gels, Photo Michael Willems

Fun with gels

That is including:

  • Setting up four light stands.
  • Connecting four flashes (3x 430EX, 1x 580EX) to Pocketwizards using Flashzebra cables.
  • Mounting these on the light stands using ball heads etc.
  • Equipping the key light with a 1/4″ grid and an Egg Yolk Yellow gel.
  • Equipping the fill light with a 1/4″ grid and a Follies Pink gel.
  • Equipping the hair light with a small snoot and a Steel Green gel.
  • Equipping the background light with a long snoot and a Rose Purple gel.
  • Setting the power levels correctly (by trial and error, combined with histogram: key light = 1/4 power, fill=1/8, hair=1/8, background=1/16).
  • Setting the camera up correctly (I used the 7D and set it to manual, 100ISO, 1/125th, f/6.3).

Huh? Egg Yolk Yellow, a crazy bright colour, to light the face? Are we crazy?

No, just having fun. Yes, of course Dave could have made his shot using no colour. Here’s what the same shot looks like without the gels. (Of course I switched the camera to an aperture one stop tighter, namely f/9, to compensate for the extra light once I removed the gels):

Grids and snoots, photo Michael Willems

Grids and snoots

Yeah, nice, and appropriate for a corporate head shot. But compared to the previous, it is kinda boring, no? So next time you shoot someone, unless they are a law firm executive, you might have fun and try some colour. You don’t need to go crazy and use four colours, but a splash here and there can really help your picture come alive.

By the way, what was the colour of the backdrop?


Remember the following equation:

White – light = black

Similarly, in practice, black + enough light = white.

And finally, a real person: my son Daniel (“sigh, not again, Dad”):

Daniel, photo Michael Willems

Daniel in colour

But here’s the thing. After seeing it, he grinned and said “Rad.”. That‘s a first!

Size matters.

…the size of your umbrella, anyway.

I am using a big Photoflex umbrella today. How big? Here’s how big:

Big Photoflex Umbrella

Big Photoflex Umbrella

This umbrella, which can be used to shoot into, as I am doing here, or to shoot through, is huge. Which makes the light softer.

It is also very reflective, more than most. And that helps: I was able to overpower daylight on an overcast day with the single Bowens 400 Ws light set to 3 (out of 5), somewhat close to the subject. With my regular, smaller and less reflective umbrellas, I would have used a setting of 4 to 5 for that shot.

So, all this amounts to:

  • Softer light (since the source is larger),
  • Greater distance I can bridge,
  • Less spillover behind the umbrella (which in a studio is important)
  • A lot more shots out of my battery pack,
  • Faster recharge time between shots.

Here is that battery pack:

Bowens battery pack

Bowens battery pack

At full power, I get 150 shots out of a small battery (attached at the bottom); at power level 3, it is closer to 300 shots.

So by using a nice umbrella, metering to minus two stops ambient (minus three if metering off the dark garden), then setting the flash to the aperture thus achieved, which was f/5.6), I get this shot:

Nancy, photo by Michael Willems

In the back yard, lit by flash

As you can probably see, I am also using a speedlite on the camera left, to separate the hair from the background and to give some edge lighting interest. That speedlite is fitted with a Honl Photo 1/4″ grid to avoid the lens flare I would otherwise get.

Time for this snap: couple of minutes.

If all that is confusing, as it will be to beginners, then just take one of the flash courses and learn how to do this. It is fun, and well within reach of amateurs – not just for pros!

Michael’s Quick Judgment:

  • Photoflex large reflective umbrella: recommended.
  • Bowens Travelpak power pack: recommended.

Why use a hair light?

One of my favourite ways to use a light is a hair light. Add it to almost any picture to add some interest, contract, and separation from the background.

So you go from this picture of a very nice student in one of my classes recently:

A picture showing good lack of a hair light

Lacking a hair light

…to this subsequent picture of the same young lady:

A picture showing good use of a hair light

Using a hair light

Much nicer, no? And look, even the smile improves!

OK, I am kidding about t he smile. But the picture is better. A dark-haired person against a dark background particularly needs a hair light.

It is aimed directly at the subject from the back, usually diagonally. Use a grid (like the Honl Speed Grid) or a snoot for even more controlled light (like the Honl Speed Snoot).

A quick product shot

Today, I am sharing a quick product shot.

Here’s the shot, of my “nifty fifty”, a 50mm f/1.4 lens:

And here’s how I shot it:

  • I used a Canon 5D camera on manual at 100 ISO, f/4 and 1/125th second.
  • The lens was on a table with a white sheet of Bristol Board underneath.
  • The background was an improvised white background (I used a reflector).
  • I used a 430EX flash with a Honl grid, diagonally above the lens, as the main light. The grid causes the dropoff from the centre.
  • I used a 430EX flash with a Honl blue gel and a Speed Gobo to illuminate the background.
  • I used e-TTL to fire the flashes, from my 7D’s pop-up flash (the 7D will support this, like Nikon cameras. On other Canon cameras I need to use a 580 EX flash on the camera to drive the remote flashes).
  • I set a flash ratio of 8:1 a:b, where A was the main flash and B was the product flash.

All of which looked like this:

Simple. It only took a few minutes to set up, which is good since I was tired.

One tip: when shooting this type of product clean it well using a soft brush, or else you will spend hours in Photoshop or Lightroom aftereard, cleaning dust.

Grids and why you might like them.

Grids,  like the Honl grid attached to my flash here, are very important modifiers. A grid ensures that the light from a flash does not go “everywhere”. Instead, it goes to one cone of light, that drops off softly at the edges. This was taken by a student a few hours ago:

Oddly, that cone is a bit softer than the straight flash.

TIP: Use a gel if you want to see where a light is going, That way you can identify easily which light is shining where:

And have fun.