Light and color are the only things your camera records, so those things should be a the top of your mind for every photo you make.

Last week I was making headshots and the background had to be the building we were in, not just a backdrop. The trouble is that the wall behind was a huge window with a cloudy sky outside, making a bland and cool-colored light.

What could I do?

Augment the sun

As I usually do, I added a flash to the background with a white umbrella that both increased the brightness of the background and gave a little hair light on my subjects.

I used a big Godox AD600Pro light because it was far back and filling quite a large space with light. Its cool light is fairly similar to the light from the sky on a cloudy day, so the color of light from the background was fairly uniform, which is great.

The problem is that the color from the window and the flash is quite blue, which doesn’t go with the warm and friendly light I’ve had in the background other days I’ve made headshots there, so they wouldn’t match well with other headshots for the group.

Gels match color

I use gels on my flashes all the time to help the flash match the color of light in the rooms I’m working in. A CTO (color temperature orange) gel can warm a flash to match the lightbulbs in the room. I could have used a gel to warm that backlight and make it nice and welcoming.

But, I don’t have a gel that fits that light in that umbrella, and since it was mixed with the window light it would have been incomplete and unnatural.

Balance for the wrong color

My only option was to gel the main light, the light shining on the subjects’ faces. I used MagMod’s MagBox, so it’s easy to drop gels in. But instead of adding a warming a gel, I added a 1/2 blue gel. Why would I make the light on their faces blue?

Because I then set the camera’s white balance to a custom setting and told the camera that the blue light is normal. You can use a gray card, or even a sheet of white paper, to set a custom white balance. I used the X-Rite ColorChecker.

If you could see the light of the flash long enough with your eyes, this is what it would look like:

Since I told the camera that blue light is normal, it adds orange to counter the blue. So everything that is not lit by the blue light has orange added to it.

Get it? The blue light on the subject is now normal, and everything else is warmed up with a 1/2 CTO gel.

I just gelled the sun and the whole sky with 1/2 CTO. I felt pretty good about the results.

Think like a camera

Your eyes automatically adjust the white balance in your brain. Try laying out in the sunshine with your eyes closed for several minutes. The sunlight will be shining through your eyelids, which are full of blood so you’ll see a red/orange light. When you open your eyes, you’ll notice that the whole world looks more blue. That’s because your brain was compensating for the red shining through your eyelids.

There are all kinds of light colors. Make yourself aware of those colors and think about how you could compensate for them in the camera. Think about how you could use them as an effect! If I had added orange to the flash, then the rest of the world be bluer, which could be very cool.

Portrait Tips come out each week, and you can see them all right here.