Two Portraits

I don’t do nearly as many portraits with added light as I used to, which means I’m not as fluent as I’d like and it takes me longer to set things up when the mood strikes. Part of that is aesthetic, too; I like to change the color of my lights, and finding the right look may take a bit of thought. Here are two relatively recent portraits with added light.

Deadly Cute

I was flabbergasted when my son not only let his face be painted at a carnival, but enjoyed it. A picture had to be taken. By the time we got home, my back yard was in full twilight shade, and I seized upon a warm/cool color contrast for the image. The key light was diffused with a shoot-through umbrella and had its color shifted with a CTO (Color Temperature Orange) gel. Temperature and mood are inverses of each other, of course: blue is high temperature but “cool” in mood, while orange is low temperature but “warm” in mood. By using the CTO and setting a manual white balance, I could warm the light on my son while shifting the ambient to a pleasing blue, suggestive of the time of day.


For Christmas, my sister-in-law had given my wife a hairstyling device to ease the production of hair buns, and when she tried it out one morning her silhouette screamed “this needs a mantilla.”

Here we see a slight modification of my favorite color portrait look: low-saturation green fill with a hard warm key. As previously discussed, greening up the fill light (1/2 Plusgreen, in this case) prevents the shadowed skin from going magenta, while a warm key (1/4 Color Temperature Straw, a less-red version of CTO) establishes a reference skin tone that is subconsciously applied to the shadow areas as well. In this image, the color combination is also evocative of older color negative film, an appropriate choice for the subject as attired.

I have not yet moved beyond the “bag of tricks” method for controlling color in my portraits. It’s OK for now, but I want to develop more mastery over the medium, so as to let the nature of the subject determine what colors should be used.

Color Commentary

Apologies for the one-month-plus delay since last post; July was incredibly hectic. Rather than an omnibus retrospective with too many images to consider at once, let’s talk about lighting for portraits and the control of color.

David Hobby, through his blog, introduced me to Gregory Heisler, whose work I love particularly for its motivated light. Heisler’s light comes in two flavors:

  1. He has visualized his image, and puts the light where it needs to be to create something from…well, nothing.
  2. He observes a scene and calculates where the light must be added to render a good photograph.

Heisler doesn’t just know where to put his lights; he also knows how to control color. Among other things, he rarely shoots a bare flash, an insight which struck Hobby with particular force:

In the example of green fill, Heisler noted that fill light just tended to look too magenta to him, owing to the way skin reacts to fill light that has been pushed into the shadows.

From a color theory, this makes perfect sense. But I would not have been able to visually articulate the magenta cast in the fill, and thus, neither the green solution.

Can’t see the difference? I have two recent pictures of my boys which illustrate the phenomenon exactly. Let’s start with my son Joseph, caught here between moments of inspiration:

Artist At Work

Key light is morning sun coming through a picture window frame right; fill is an on-camera flash bounced from the white (non-color-modifying) ceiling. Look closely at the right side of Joey’s face, which is lit primarily by the bounce fill; there’s a bit of a purplish/magenta tinge there that is not quite natural.

Now compare with this portrait of my son John:


Key light is an SB-600 with a Rosco #08 Pale Gold gel frame right; fill is an SB-800 with a Rosco Plusgreen (30CC green) gel high on-axis, through an umbrella. Note the lack of a magenta cast on the skin shadows. The full Tough Plusgreen gel was actually too much modification for the rest of the image; the shadowed areas of his shirt and pants are just a hair too green, even after I skewed the white balance a little more towards magenta in post. It would have been better to use a 1/2 Plusgreen (15CC green), but I don’t have those yet.

I like the color palette this combination gives me, and I’ll be using it more frequently in future portraits. More importantly, I’m making choices to control the way color is rendered in my photographs rather than leaving it to chance, or to the vagaries of my equipment.