Saved by the Gel: Make Ordinary Backgrounds Pop
One of my favorite on-location strategies is using a gelled strobe to illuminate a texture that creates a background totally different from what a person would see in that same spot under normal conditions. It’s one surefire way to help yourself out of a tough jam when inspiration and ideas seem just out of reach. Here are a few examples of what gelling a background can do for your images.
MIDDAY SUN SOLUTION (below) : I pulled into a university parking lot that had a nice little row of trees. This was a midday session, so finding favorable existing light was dominating my location decisions. I shot the images I had planned and decided to get one more outfit in before moving on, but I was struggling to find a place to make it work. That’s when I noticed some discarded laundry carts at the other side of the lot. While my subject was changing in the portable dressing booth, I ran over to the carts and peeked in. Beautiful! There was no water inside. Some leaves and spider webs were stuck to the bottom—texture! As a bonus, the bins were gray, which takes gelled light extremely well. I grabbed a MoLight AD200 and put a yellow gel on it via the MagMod kit I always keep on the flash. I placed it in the bottom of the bin and brought my model over. I used an 84-inch shoot-through umbrella to scrim the direct overhead sun from my model. With a Godox AD400 modified with a 42-inch round foldable soft box as the main light I could choose the exposure I wanted for my subject.
PORT-A-POTTY RESCUE: For this image I was shooting some traditional senior photographs at a gorgeous wildlife refuge at the edge of my property. While we were taking a break and chatting, I noticed the texture behind my senior and wondered how that color would take additional light from a strobe. It did feel a little wrong that the texture was on the side of a port-a-potty. On the other hand, if I could pull that off, I could pull off anything, right? This was a simple two-light setup with a Profoto B1 main in a small round soft box and another Profoto B1 with a purple gel.
OUT-OF-FOCUS TEXTURE: As soon as we pulled up to this senior’s home, I knew the gate on that trailer would look great out of focus. It was in a dark spot on the property, and I would need to add light. I placed a blue light that would complement the client’s shirt. I opted for a broad lighting pattern, using a Profoto B1 with a small round soft box for the main light. I hit the gate from the front right side with a blue gel on a B1.
LOCKER ROOM DRAMA: With senior sessions I often find myself being asked to photograph in a high school locker room. Unlike big programs such as college and pro teams, the typical high school locker room leaves quite a lot to be desired in terms of design. This is another setting where I love to use colored light to add power and mood to an image. This image below is the typical approach I think most photographers would have taken in this situation. In the larger image, using the colored separation light in the back as the only source of light bouncing around and filling the room, I was able to get a completely different and much more dramatic image.
FORTUITOUS FABRIC: This last one was a case of timing and chance. I was photographing a model at an After Dark Education event in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She was wearing a typical senior outfit. Someone walked by carrying a piece of blue fabric. I borrowed it and draped my model’s head with it as if it were a hooded cape. There was a concession stand counter top nearby with its security door closed. I grabbed a blue gel and put it behind the model to illuminate the texture of that rolling door then lit her using my flash with a 64-inch Buff Soft Silver PLM umbrella. All of this happened very quickly as I created my vision and then moved on to the next opportunity.
Dan Rowe is the owner of Rowe Portrait Studios in Oakland City, Indiana.