Good news! This is actually a relatively easy JHP lighting setup to play with and it produces some pretty great looking results too. It’s easy to set up as you only need a couple of softboxes and this can be put together and shot in a very small space indeed; no studio required. Plus it produces some great looking results because it uses coloured light. Now I know I may sound biased on that but hear me out as we go through the setup and it should start to make more sense as to why this looks extra cool with coloured gels compared to without.
What you will need
Like I said this is super simple so the list is very short:
- 2 Strobes or Speedlights
- 2 large softboxes – By large I mean larger than shoulder width of your subject so 60cmx90cm should be fine. I don’t have two softboxes the exact same size but a similarly sized second one would be ideal.
- Coloured Gels – If you don’t have any then I’ve been told these ones are pretty good ;)
This look can be achieved in virtually any space so there’s no need to worry about background or anything like that as we’ll be using our softbox as a background.
The Backlight Softbox
Firstly setup one large softbox so that the centre of it is at shoulder blade height to your subject. This should leave a decent gap of light above the subjects head.
The Front Light Softbox
Secondly, we need to set up our other softbox and that should be placed about 2-3 metres/5-10 feet away facing towards the other softbox. This will create a sandwich of light with the model between them.
Choosing the Colours
Next, we need to choose the colour to add to our lights. We’ll do this via coloured gels and although you can choose whichever colours you like, I’d recommend starting with something simple like orange or pink behind the subject and something cool in colour like blue in front of the subject. For my setup, I used the ‘Teal’ and ‘Pink’ from my Definitive Coloured Gel Pack. If you’re after an even softer look, try the Mint and Rose Pink from my Pastels Colour pack as that will create more of a subtle look.
Attaching the Gels
Once you’ve chosen your colours it’s time to get our softboxes gelled. Thankfully we don’t need humungous sheets of gels to do this. Simply open the back (or front) of your softbox and tape the gel sheet you have over the flash tube. If you have a tungsten modelling bulb, either turn it off or better still remove it. Failure to do so will result in melted gels for sure. If your lights have LED modelling bulbs you don’t need to worry about the gel melting on those. Do this to both softboxes and you’re done.
Don’t Block the Light
Lastly, we need to get in a position ourselves whilst being mindful to not block the light that is directly behind us. I’m a relatively small guy so it’s not too much of a worry for me but if you feel you’re blocking too much light, it’s fine to bring the softbox out to one side a little whilst being sure to always keep it angled towards the subject.
Ready to Shoot
Once everything is finally in place it’s time to start shooting.
There are a few considerations to look out for when adjusting this setup and shooting with it:
1. Camera set up
Choose your aperture, ISO and shutter speed as you would do normally for a studio shot. It’ll likely be 1/125th second at ISO 100 and if you’re after a nice drop off in focus choose an aperture like f2.8. Once we’ve done that we can now adjust the lighting around our camera, not the camera around the lighting.
2. Light power behind the model
With only the light behind the model turned on, take a shot. We’re looking for just enough power in the light so that the background behind the model goes white. Keep raising the power of that light bit by bit until it goes to white with no softbox detail present in the shot.
3. Light Power in front of the model
Once we’re happy with that background light, do not touch it again. Now we can adjust the other light safe in the knowledge that whatever happens now it’s because of the front light not the background light. Again start off at a low power and keep taking images whilst increasing the power incrementally of that light behind you. What we’re looking for is the highlight on the front of the face but also the drop off to shadow towards the back of the face. Too much power and the shot will just look completely flat and boring so experiment with different amounts of light from that light behind you until you’re happy.
4. Gels for the win
Once you have your lights set correctly, it should become apparent why there’s a benefit to using gels here and that’s the separation between the overexposed ‘white’ behind our model that falls off to shadow ‘colour’ on the face. With only white light it would still be the same white light behind the model but there would also only be white light on the models face too. This is a clever trick that with a little care can be utilised in a lot of ways when using gels.
It’s not you, it’s me.
Be very mindful of your movement whilst shooting this setup. It’s rare that the photographer moving 6 inches from one side to another in a shot will affect the lighting but it will here. That key-light is directly behind you so moving even slightly too much in front of it will block the light and reduce the light power output considerably. If you’re not keen on this and you have the extra space then, by all means, switch it up and try the softbox off to one side or raise it up out of the way of you getting in front of it so much.
Bigger is better though right?
The softbox size behind the subject in this setup is this size for a reason. If you start using a huge softbox behind the subject the light will start to completely envelop the subject. Eventually, the light will even start to creep around the subject and begin to light the front of our model’s face which we definitely don’t want as we’re adding another colour to the front of the face and that white light would ruin it.
Shooting directly into any light source can cause flare into the lens which results in a hazy, milky looking image. You may like this look but if you’re after a way to limit this effect then here’s a few points to consider.
- Shooting on prime lenses (a prime lens is any lens that has a fixed focal length like 50mm for example). These lenses tend to have less glass in them that will result in less light bouncing around in the elements which means less flare.
- Shoot on a longer lens. Flare is notoriously bad on wider lenses like 50mm or more. Even bringing the lens up to 58-60mm can make a big difference.
- Shoot with good glass. One of the reasons modern lenses are so expensive is because they are so sharp and visually clear. Pricey lenses tend to produce far less flare than inferior, cheaper models.
- Stop down. Sometimes shooting at wide open apertures like f2.8 will allow your lenses to gobble up masses of light but that also means its more likely that your lens will create flare. Stop down to f5.6, f8 or even f11 to minimise the flare effect.
- This is last time I’m going to tell you this but please, please, pleeeeassse remove those UV filters on your nice lenses. If you’re a natural light shooter then I get it but in the studio please take those lens filters off. The skylight is the worst, so if you’re using them, please consider removing them as these are often the biggest culprits of flare due them being the only flat piece of glass in the lens system.
I don’t have to use gels though right?
Sure you can play with this setup with no gels attached but the beauty of this setup is that you’re using the ‘over-exposed’ background to create separation between the model. For example, if we just shot with white behind the subject the model can get lost in the brightness, whereas with colour we’re using white that falls off into colour. It’s one of the beauties of using gels with human skin as we can create specularity on the oils of skin that drop off into colour like we’re doing in this setup.
“Uhhh Jake I have a question, what should the lighting ratio be between the two lights and where should I place my light meter to get a correct reading?”
You may have noticed that I told you what to look for when I was advising on light power earlier in the article. You having the ability to read the light is fundamental to you improving as a photographer and I’m very sceptical of shooters that mindlessly believe what a light meter tells them over what looks good or not to their own eye. It is honestly like a chef using a ‘taste-meter’ in the kitchen to see if the food tastes good or not. That chef is always going to trust what tastes good based on preference and experience over what the little machine says (although I won’t lie, I would now love a taste-meter please :D ).
Light meters were from a time when we couldn’t see the result immediately but now with digital cameras we can. Don’t get me wrong, light meters have their place and I always have one in my bag for emergencies but this situation is not the place for them.
Also in this particular situation you can’t use a light meter when shooting with gels. The reason for this is that the light meter only sees in grey. It’s going to tell you what power the light should be to get a good grey! We don’t want good grey, we want a good COLOUR.
The ratios is another can of worms because it’s based on the power of grey light once again. Colours have certain visual dominance over other colours, meaning that some colours will visually appear brighter in relation to others based on their tone even though the light meter may tell us it’s actually darker. The dominant and recessive colour relationship is a story for another day but suffice to say that ratios in colour lighting are ambiguous if not redundant at best so thankfully that’s one less thing to worry about.
The details of dominant and recessive colours is a story for another day but I think this diagram above explains how hard it is to light meter grey appropriately when dealing with coloured light. The black and white image on the right is simply a desaturated version of the image on the left. Colour exposure looks very, very different indeed in black and white making it nearly impossible to light meter correctly with a machine that only sees grey.
So I know I mentioned at the start of this article it was a simple setup ….but you didn’t expect me to write a short article, did you?! I know it might seem like a lot to consider but this really is a simple setup that will likely take you less time to setup than it did to read this article. It went a little long as I was just trying to troubleshoot as many of the conceivable problems you might encounter along the way. Hopefully, I thought of them all and you get some killer shots first try :D
I hope you give it a go and let me know if you do. If you do have any questions then, of course, feel free to fire away in the comments below. I very much look forward to seeing what you come up with, good luck :)
About the Author
Jake Hicks is an editorial and fashion photographer who specializes in keeping the skill in the camera, not just on the screen. For more of his work and tutorials, check out his website. Don’t forget to like his Facebook page, follow him on Flickr, Instagram and Twitter, and subscribe to his YouTube channel. This article was also published here and shared with permission.
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