We photographers obsess about finding the right light. We understand how to use hard light, when to use soft light, and get excited by directional light. Portrait photographers learn how to control light using flashes and modifiers, and become experts in getting the most from natural light.
Light is an electromagnetic wave, and the frequency of that wave determines whether the light is visible or invisible to humans, and what color it is. Once you’ve mastered working with the quality and direction of light, maybe you should try experimenting with this other dimension and play with the color of light. It could really take your portraits in a new direction, and you might start to see things very differently.
Here are three very different ways you could try to make an impact on portrait photos using the color of light:
1. Use UV Light
The color of the things we see is due to light waves of different frequencies in the visible spectrum hitting our retina. Electromagnetic waves outside of the visible spectrum are also present, it’s just that we can’t see them, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use them.
UV light is just outside the visible spectrum. Usually it’s invisible, but it can be seen when there is little visible light and the UV light hits certain compounds, such as those found in neon makeup or body paint. When it does, it creates a glowing, colorful light that can look spectacular.
Try shooting a model wearing neon make up under UV light, it will give totally different results to those achieved using visible light.
Technique: LED UV lights are fairly cheap and similar in size and weight to LED constant lights. Start out with just one. They emit most of their light in the UV spectrum, and very little in the visible spectrum. You’ll need to use the UV light in a totally dark room to see its effect. Next, get some neon body paint or makeup and a willing model. Apply makeup to your model, turn the ‘normal’ lights off, turn the UV lights on, and shoot!
Gels are colored sheets of flexible plastic that can be attached to lights in order to give a color tone. Gels can be used to subtly tone a portrait or to add a kick of creative colorful impact.
An effective way to improve the colors in a portrait is to make your flash match the color temperature of the ambient light, here’s an example: When shooting in warm light (such as at sunset), light from a flash can look white and cold in comparison to the golden sunlight. At times like this, you could use a warming (slightly orange) gel to match the color temperature of your flash to the ambient light.
A creative way to use gels is to employ them to add color to portraits for creative effect. You need to do some planning and it’s probably better to start out with complementary colors. Interesting effects can be achieved by adding color to different lights. A simple option is to add color to the background by adding a gel to a light pointed at the background. This will tone the background with the color of your gel. A step up from this is to add color to your fill light which changes the color of the shadows. Experiment with the power of the gelled fill light to get the right look. You can also gel your main light and hair light.
This technique works with both flash and constant lights. There is so much room for experimentation once you start using gels. It can be quite challenging to get right, but once you master it, you will never look back.
3. Shoot Under Neon
Why limit yourself to shooting portraits under lights that are the same color as daylight? In most towns, you will find shops, signs and all manner of things that are lit with colorful neon lights. These all make fantastic light sources for portrait photography.
The light from the neon sign can be used as the main light on your subject, or you can use it as an accent or fill light. You could just have the neon behind your subject to give you a dreamy, colorful, out of focus background.
You’ll need to shoot when there is not much daylight to make the neon lights show up, and pick a person who fits in with this type of light. Try asking them to wear glasses because they will show the lights as reflections. Neon lights are also usually close to windows, so you could try getting window reflections in your shot too.
Seek out some neon to give your portraits a colorful boost.
About the author: Andrew Mason is a portrait photographer based in London, UK. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Mason’s work on his website.