HOW TO USE COLOR GELS FOR MENS PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY

Using artificial lighting for photography seems easy enough at first glance. However, it takes weeks of practice to begin understanding how to use lighting to your advantage.

Add color into an already difficult process and you’ll be pulling your hair out, unless you love split lighting of two very saturated colors. Hint: that’s not good. That’s not good lighting and it always looks like an accident. You can experiment and be creative, but be purposeful with your lighting decisions.

I took on a photography project in this area – color gel portrait photography. I asked both men and women to pose as models for 4 separate photoshoots. Each time was an awesome learning experience. Let’s dive into the men portraits.

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Just like most men in the following portraits, this model had a great jawline that I wanted to focus on. We started with an orange and green, but it reminded me too much of carrots so I added some blue gels to adjust it for a teal. I had him wear a gray hoodie that absorbed the color well. Using two speed lights and a reflector (held by my assistant), I was able to capture this image. The lighting was too harsh at first, but I needed the light source to be close so the edge of shadows weren’t so sharp. I put diffusers on both speed lights and dropped their power. We took a couple images and this one stood out. I believe it is because of the fill lighting which was bounced from the teal rim light. This is my favorite image among the mens color gel portraits.

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The turquoise and magenta color combination was a great choice for this model’s blond hair and white shirt. White reflects/absorbs color well enough to make it prominent. Black is dull enough that it hardly holds color, and gray is a good middle ground. I used a third light on this subject – a Godox 400 – as a Rembrandt strobe light.

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I did want to try color on different skin tones, so I asked a friend of mine from India to model as well. I absolutely love the colors of this image and how the blend together at the edge. It is smooth and seamless, and doesn’t jar you as much as other colors might.

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I was trying out a new color combination and decided to experiment outside of complementary colors. I paired red with purple. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the right amount of color gels to make a deep purple, but had a lavender instead. It felt more like a normal light with a hint of purple. I added the Godox strobe light to fill in the shadows on this model’s face. The transition of color I feel is intriguing on this one. It goes from pinkish red, to blue, and on to lavender/purple.

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I tried another setup using two speed lights with color gels and one reflector. The thing you have to be careful with reflectors is that you don’t bounce the light UP INTO the model’s face. Rather, bouncing the light DOWN & ONTO the subject gives the lighting a more natural and appealing look. I liked the dark look of the unlit eyes for this model. By placing the green light directly behind him and bouncing the reflection down and onto his face, I was able to capture the image above.

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One thing that is hard with men portrait photography is posing. Especially is they don’t have much hair. Hands are awkward, expressions are awkward, and just about everything besides looking serious seems unnatural. Another important thing to note with color gel portraits is that color will be in your model’s teeth if they smile. Nine times out of ten – it doesn’t look good. For this model, I had him sit on a chair with his elbow propped and his head resting. Adding this gave a lot more for the viewer to look at – the red silhouette is a magnet for the eyes to follow.


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I started using the reflector more and more as a fill light for the portraits. Most of the time it works, but in some cases it doesn’t turn out quite how you want it. I wonder what this image would have looked like had I not had such saturated colors. Still, I kept it and used it. I did make adjustments in Photoshop, where I edited all these images. Although not my favorite, I like the mood and overall feel.

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With this last model, I chose to do silhouette lighting where shadows in the middle are dominant and the two rim lights are the only lighting. I chose this because this model has an awesome man-bun. Most guys can’t pull it off, but he can. Although simple, it was exactly what I was going for. I love the spill over onto the background (I used a simple gray blanket. Always use gray! It’s easier to change colors in post.)