Every other week I see a new photographer pop up in my area. Don’t get me wrong, I love it that people are into photography, but having a ton of photographers means a lot of competition. To survive, you’ll need something to separate you from all the others. The good news is that most of these new photographers only know the basics, so if you’re already using flash, you’re ahead of them. Today, we’re going to show you a way to take you flash photography to a new level and blow your competition away. Join us as we dive into the world of Creative Off Camera Lighting Using Radiopoppers and Gels.
Flashes and Triggers
Let’s talk about our setup before we get into the lighting setups. We will be using a maximum of two flashes, and it really doesn’t matter that much which you choose to use. I am using two Nikon SB-910’s with the Radiopopper JR2 system. I started using Radiopopper several years ago with the JR system, and I’m excited to be able to use their new system.
The JR2 system is really easy to use. To set up the receiver, you simply slide the flash onto the hot shoe on the receiver. Then, turn on the flash, and then turn on the receiver by holding down the power button. If it’s working correctly, your flash should fire a small burst. The transmitter is about as simple. Slide it onto your camera and turn it on by holding down the power button. Radiopopper has gone for simplicity in the setup. There aren’t a ton of buttons and menus to run through. On the transmitter, there are numbered buttons, and those are referring to the different channels. You can click those buttons to turn off and on each channel. The thing I loved initially about the JR system and what I still love is you can quickly change the power directly from the transmitter. Before the JR system I’d have to walk over and manually change the power on the flash, which can be extremely annoying and a waste of time. With the JR2 system, you select the channel and spin the dial, and it’s that simple.
One other quick thing to mention is that the system works with the older Radiopopper JR system. I only have one JR2 receiver, so I just hooked up one of the older receivers to my second flash. The only issue is that I couldn’t change the power from the transmitter. I didn’t have the proper cord to make it work, but that really wasn’t that big of a deal.
What is a Gel?
I hate it when people assume I know what something is, so I always try to explain everything. If this is too basic, I apologize. So, what is a gel? A gel is a material that is put in front of the flash and changes the color of the flash.
There are a ton of options out there for gels. Some flashes come with a few gels like my Nikon SB-910, but these are pretty limiting. You’ll most likely need something more. For studio strobes, you can buy large sheets that you attach to the reflector or put in a gel holder. For speedlights, they have little packages of gels and the gel just slips into the flash head. These are a cheap option, but I’ve found them hard to work with because they are flimsy and don’t stay in place. My favorite is the MagGel from MagMod. The gels are hard pieces of plastic that aren’t going to fall apart, and the system is awesome. You simply put the gel into the gel holder and then it magnetically attaches the MagGrip that is on the flash. It won’t fall off, and changing it takes only a few seconds.
Setup 1: Changing the background color
Backgrounds are expensive. Some backdrops cost $300 or more, so having a lot of options can cost a lot of money. With a gel, though, you can have dozens of backdrop colors for around $30. All you have to do is gel your flash and aim it at the background. You now have a new colored background.
This can work in a several different situations, but the easiest is to use a white backdrop. You can use other colors of paper or even a wall, but then you will have to deal with the original color of the wall.
This setup is pretty easy. Have your model get a good distance from the background, 5-10 feet. If you’re model is too close to the background, the light might reflect and leave a color cast on them. This can look cool, but most likely you don’t want your model to have blue hair. You can either position the flash to the side and behind the model or directly behind the model. The position will affect the look on the backdrop. If you have it directly behind the model, there is usually a brighter spot where the flash is hitting. Either is fine, it just depends on what you want to achieve.
We kind of cheated in our setup. We used one of our video lights to light our subject on the front. In most situations, you will need some kind of main light on the subject. I didn’t mention it in the video because it didn’t involve a gel.
Setup 2: Low Key Portrait with One Gelled Flash
For our second setup, we wanted to create something moody and dramatic. We wanted our subject to pop out, so we removed all distractions. To do this, we switched out the white paper for black paper. This would keep our background from showing up and make everything black. We also put a MagGrid on our flash to keep the light from spreading and lighting up the room. We also kept the flash close to our model to really concentrate the light on her face.
We positioned the light at a 45 degree angle to the model to light her but also create shadows. This limits the models movement a little bit because if she turns too much, we’d have too much shadow. In general, we kept her turned toward the light.
We then decided to change things up. We moved the flash to the side of the model and slightly behind her. When you do this, especially when using a grid, only part of the model will be hit with the light, so you really sculpt the outline of the model and have a lot of shadows.
Setup 3: Two Flashes with Two Different Gels
When you start adding more flashes and gels, things start to get interesting. If you watch TV shows and movies carefully, you will notice that a lot of scenes will be lit with two colors. There’s usually one color on the front of the subject, and then a different color lighting their hair and back. Using two different colors creates a more interesting look and adds dimension.
I am not an expert on picking color combinations. The most common is to use an orange and blue together. I see that all the time. If you want to try something different, I’d suggest taking a look at a color wheel. You can find complimentary colors that look good together by simply looking at the color that is opposite it on the wheel. In general they are red-green, blue-orange, and yellow-purple, but you can use different shades.
The first positioning was to create split lighting. This means the model was divided in two with a color on each side. Both flashes had grids to keep the light from going everywhere, and the flashes were positioned to the side of the model and slightly in front of her aiming at each other. You can move the flashes further back, but then you’ll have more shadow on the front of the model.
The second positioning was more traditional. We used a main light and a kicker/hair light. The main light was at a 45 degree to the subject and illuminated the majority of her. The other light was opposite and behind the model.
It was lighting her hair, shoulder and part of her face. You can control how much light spills to the front of the subject by where you put that second light. The further forward the more light will be on the front. Some people like to use the light to just give the smallest highlight on the hair.
Setup 4: Creating a Silhouette with a Gel
Setup 4 is actually pretty similar to setup 1, but it’s something that is used very rarely, so I thought I’d put it toward the end so it’s more of a specialized shot. We are creating a silhouette by putting a strong light behind the subject and no light on the subject.
For this setup, we went back to our white paper because it reflects the strongest and is the easiest to affect the color. The model was a bit closer to the backdrop than setup one, and we positioned the light more behind her and aimed the flash directly at the backdrop.
The other important thing about creating a silhouette is the shape of the subject. You need a strong, defined shape or the subject will just be a blob. I usually have my subject do something so separate the arms and legs from the body. Dancers are great and doing moves, or you can simply have the subject jump.
That’s it for our 4 Creative Lighting Setups using Gels. I hope this has been beneficial and given you some great ideas to expand your creativity. I’d suggest starting with one of them, and then build from there. We will be back soon with another video and blog post with even more ideas on how to use gels with flash photography. We’d also love to hear your thoughts and see your photos of you trying these ideas out!
Bryan Striegler is a wedding and high school senior photographer from Fayetteville, AR. He loves meeting new people and figuring out who they are, capturing raw emotion, and creating epic portraits. See more of his work at www.strieglerphoto.com.