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In this installment of HOW IT WAS LIT, I will walk you through a fairly complicated lighting setup which I used to shoot Lucie Doughty’s entry to the North American Hairstyling Awards in 2008.

Working with different colored lighting gels can be quite daunting and is definitely something you want to practice doing. Before we dive into it, there are some safety precautions you should be aware of to prevent any mishaps. You have to remember that even though photographic or theatrical lighting gels are meant to be heat resistant, they are still made of plastic and will melt with direct contact to any tungsten bulb, including modeling lights from flash heads. You want to make sure that you have enough space between the gel and the lamp for the heat to properly dissipate, otherwise you will melt a hole through the gel or worse, set something on fire. Whenever I light with gels, I constantly check their condition to make sure that nothing is amiss. Take the usual preventive measures and use simple common sense. For example, if you don’t need the modeling lights on, by all means, turn them off. You can read other common safety measures on my article for Sekonic HERE.

For these images, we used 3 different colors on the model plus another color to light the background, equaling out to 4 heads total. I used one Speedotron 2400 w/s pack and three 1200 w/s packs powering a zoom spot and 3 202VF heads. As much as possible I like to assign one head to one power pack to get the most control.

I start off with a basic three point lighting scenario to light the subject and fine tune it from there. My main concern is lighting position and where my shadows will fall. Knowing where your shadows lie is of great importance when lighting with gels because your shadows are where the color from the opposing light will show up. I like to mix and match modifiers depending on the quality of light I am after. You will see in the video I actually  gelled an umbrella while the other heads are fitted with regular 7″ silver reflectors. The key and backlight were from 7″ reflectors while my fill was from the umbrella. This is something you should experiment with to get the look you want. I’ve done shoots with gels using all umbrellas as well as with all 7″ reflectors. You can gel pretty much any modifier out there if you are creative and resourceful enough.

Your choice of colors will also affect output. Gels of varying colors will also have varying densities, meaning some colors will block out more light than others. Digital sensors will also pick up the warmer colors first, such as reds and yellows. This means you don’t have to pump out as much light to get the proper color exposure as you would with say, a violet or green. For this shoot we used pink, yellow, teal, and red.

I also decided to gel the background using a zoom spot shooting light through a standard breakup gobo. You can see how the setup looks in the video as well and the soft mottled effect in the image above. In the video it is positioned behind the umbrella. Note that in the diagram below, positions and gel colors are simply an approximation and not meant to be an exact replica of the actual setup. It should give you, however, a good starting point to lighting with gels.

Metering for colored gels isn’t any different than metering for “neutral” light. So long as you understand how to properly use your light meter in that it is always metering for an 18% gray, you will be able to assign the correct exposure for the desired color intensity and saturation. As you go towards overexposure, your colors will wash out towards white. If you underexpose, your colors become much richer and deeper as they block up towards black.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this installment of HOW IT WAS LIT. Learn my approach to lighting first hand at the upcoming Lighting Workshop in DC. 



  • Niko Vallet

    So much thanks for this well done article ;) I was wondering some stuff in this kind of pictures and you answered it ;)

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