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Shooting a Portrait with Four Gelled Lights


After recently sharing a portrait on social media, I was asked by a lot of people to write a breakdown on how I achieved the shot.

Lights and Camera

1. I use a white wall as a background for most of my photos. By controlling the light a white wall can become any color you want, even black.

2. This is key light in this photo. Was gelled red and placed under my models face pointing upwards towards him

3. This is the second light and was fired upwards too and gelled orange but from above my models head and it served 2 purposes. The reflection from the ceiling will give me color on the background and the light spill from it will act as a contour light on his face giving me nice separation from the background

4. This light was placed inside an 80cm octobox (that’s 32″ for my American friends) and was positioned right above my model gelled in with green-cyan. This one acts as a fill light but at the same time, it helps me with some shadows and the pleasant look of the key light coming from above, not from below.

5. And finally the last light acted bot as a master for all of my lights and as a soft fill light that would balance out the greenish overhead one. it was fired against a wall (#6) to make it softer and to reduce its power

6. Just another white wall used as a reflector

7. Lastly, I used an 80-200mm lens on my Nikon D7000 that’s the equivalent of a 120mm lens on a full frame.

My settings are quite basic for studio work: ISO 100 for the best image quality, 1/250 as this is my maximum sync speed, and f/9. The aperture is the only way to control exposure in this kind of environment.

Post Processing

The left photo is the straight-out-of-camera shot. Underexposed so I wouldn’t clip the highlights on the face since that’s the most important part in a portrait.

The middle one is after processing my RAW file in Lightroom. My goal here is to get an image with as many details as possible and a pleasant color toning that is close to what I want as the final result.

And the right one is the final image after reframing it and doing all the skin work in Photoshop (frequency separation and a lot of dodging and burning).

Tips and Tricks

I don’t use photography gels, they are out of my budget and overpriced for colored pieces of plastic. The DIY route for this was to use the A4 plastic covers they use at print shops and Xerox covers. I bought around 10 sheets for $2, so I don’t mind replacing them every now and then.

When shooting with gels you will get more saturated colors with hard lights than diffuse ones, so you can forget about your big soft umbrellas.

Finally, be patient. Gel lighting is not easy but if you master it you will become better at studio lighting in general.

About the author: Vlad Moldovean is a visual artist based in Brasov, Romania, who aims to shoot vivid portraits. You can find more of his work on his website, Instagram, and Facebook. This article was also published here.