The Formula: Lighting with Gels with Ab Sesay

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Quick Tips on Using Gels

In this in-depth lighting, tutorial see how photography Ab Sesay uses a Sekonic L-478DR to dial in a simple, but dramatic three light setup you can easily do against any white wall.

A Quick Breakdown:

Step 1

Know what your lights are metering without the gels.

Step 2

Gel your lights, and re-meter them to compensate for the exposure change.

Step 3

Metering to get the maximum saturation from your gels.

The Diagram:

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Understanding Flash Duration

For this image of Chris Sheehan mountain biking under golden aspens in the Sangre de Cristo mountains above Santa Fe, New Mexico, I used two strobe kits: an Elinchrom ELB 1200 and an ELB 400 both fitted with the Elinchrom Action flash heads that have a fast flash duration even at full power. As can be seen in the tech specs, the shutter speed was 1/5th second so freezing his motion was entirely determined by the strobe’s flash duration. Tech Specs: Hasselblad H5D 50c WiFi, HC 50-110mm f/3.5-4.5 lens, 1/5 second at f/12, ISO 800. 

The Flash Duration for any strobe or flash is technically the length of time that the flash tube emits light for a single burst. As simple as that sounds, be aware that almost no flash or strobe company will tell you how long the actual flash duration lasts. Instead most companies quote what are known as the t0.5 or the t0.1 flash duration specifications, which I will define here in just a moment. These flash duration specifications are part of the standards for a “discharge duration” as defined by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Aside from these ISO standard specifications, the reason strobe companies don’t disclose the total flash duration is that the flash does not have a constant intensity over its entire duration. As in Figure 1 below, the flash intensity is brightest just after the flash is triggered and then generally decreases as shown in the curve below:

As you can see the t0.5 value is the period during which the flash intensity is above 50% of its maximum brightness. The t0.1 value is the period during which the flash intensity is above 10% of its maximum brightness. Hence, the t0.1 value is a much more accurate assessment of the actual flash duration. 

The t0.5 specification is the period during which the flash intensity exceeds 50% of its maximum brightness. What this means is that 50 % of the light is emitted after the t0.5 threshold is met. Hence, as you can see from the chart above, the actual flash duration can be significantly longer than the t0.5 specification. What this means for the photographer is that there is still a lot of light being emitted after the t0.5 threshold and thus there is the possibility for motion blur in the image. For sports photographers, or any photographers trying capturing fast moving subjects using flash, this is a major issue and the reason an in-depth understanding of flash durations is so important.

Because the meaning of the t0.5 specification is somewhat ambiguous, the ISO governing body set the t0.1 duration as the “total flash duration.” The t0.1 specification is the period during which the flash intensity exceeds 10% of its maximum brightness. As you can see in Figure 1 above, the t0.1 value is significantly more informative and much closer to the actual duration of the flash.

These two separate flash duration values allow us to compare the flash duration of various strobes fairly accurately. For the photographer that shoots sports, dance, or anything that moves quickly, selecting a strobe with a very short flash duration is a must if you want to freeze a subjects motion with a flash or strobe. Most manufacturers offer strobe kits with extremely short flash durations that are marketed specifically to sports and action photographers. Some strobe companies even have flash cut-off technology built into their power packs, which reduces the flash duration significantly

These two images show the effect of flash duration on a moving subject, which is this case was a bicycle wheel rotating with some serious speed. In the upper image, the t0.5 flash duration (as measured on the Sekonic L-858D-U) was 1/353 second, which is pretty slow as flash durations go. Because of the slow flash duration the bicycle wheel is blurred. In the lower image, the t0.5 flash duration was 1/5,350 second, which is a decently fast flash duration and hence, the wheel is frozen.  

After going through all of these numbers and specifications, it can be a bit dizzying to figure out how fast a flash duration you actually need. In general, a t0.5 value of 1/2000th second or higher will be more than adequate for most photographers who need to freeze the motion of a moving subject. For faster moving subjects a faster flash duration will be needed.

This multiple-exposure image of Luis F. Castillo shadow boxing at Undisputed Fitness in Santa Fe, New Mexico was captured on a black background using a very fast flash duration to stop his motion has he bounced around and punched the air. The multiple exposure was created in-camera using Nikon’s multiple exposure feature. Tech Specs: Nikon D810, Nikkor 70- 200mm f/2.8 lens, 1/250 second at f/8, ISO 64, Elinchrom ELC 1000 HD strobes and modifiers. 

In contradiction to the above paragraph, the latest Hi-Sync and HS technologies allow for using shutter speeds above the maximum flash sync speeds of most DSLRs. This means we can stop the action, and still sync with a strobe, using a high shutter speed like 1/8,000th second, to stop the motion of an athlete instead of using a fast flash duration. HS technology requires a slow flash duration, typically less than 1/800th second, to work properly, which can be quite confusing. Nevertheless, regardless of what technique and technology is being used, knowing the actual flash duration is always an important factor when working with a moving subject

The Sekonic L-858D-U, as shown here, can measure the flash duration of any strobe or flash. It can also be set to measure the t0.5 or the t0.1 flash duration. And of course it can also measure ambient exposures, flash exposures and also High Speed Sync (HSS) flash exposures—all of which makes it the most powerful and versatile light meter on the market.  

Sadly, most flash manufacturers don’t tell you the flash duration for each power setting, though some have this information in the manual that comes with the flash. A few manufacturers display the actual flash duration for that exact power setting on the flashes LCD readout, which is very handy. But these numbers aren’t always accurate and the actual real-world flash durations can vary widely from flash to flash. Because of this, using a light meter like the Sekonic L-858D-U, which can very accurately measure the flash duration, as well as the light output, is quite helpful. Using a light meter like the Sekonic L-858D-U will help to reign in control of the actual the flash duration.

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Background Light

How do you set up and meter a background light for a well-exposed portrait? Jeff Smith explains it in this excerpt from his Amherst Media book Step-by-Step Lighting for Studio Portrait Photography.

This excerpt from Step-by-Step Lighting for Studio Portrait Photography is provided courtesy of Amherst Media. To purchase the book and learn more about the publisher, visit the Amherst Media Web site.

When you turn on your main light, you raise the quantity of light on the subject. The area behind the subject, however, will then appear darker in comparison. To attain a balanced exposure, this means you will need to use a background light to increase the light levels in the background. Using a background light may seem pretty simple. However, using it correctly can be a challenge for new photographers. 


If you want the background to appear as it does normally to your eyes, you will need to add the same amount of light that you used on the subject’s face (if your main light reads f/8, the light on the background should read f/8). Of course, there’s no reason the background has to match “reality.” You can easily brighten or darken the background’s appearance by increasing or decreasing the amount of light on it relative to the main light source. (Note: If you paint your background a medium tone, you can darken it to near black or brighten it to near white by changing the amount of light you add.)


Backgrounds with strong lines look best when illuminated with a soft, even light. This is achieved by using a bounce light attachment to soften the light or using your flash without the parabolic reflector. If you are working with a background without distinct lines, you might want to create a hot spot behind the subject. This is done with a parabolic reflector, which focuses the light onto a spot behind where the subject will be positioned. The reflector allows the light to spread softly, becoming darker as it moves outward from the center. I prefer this style of background light because it helps to separate the subject from the background. Also, it can help you to direct the viewer’s eye right where you want it.


The height and angle of the background light can also change the characteristics of the light. When the light is directly behind the subject and aimed at the background, the light beam will create a circular pattern of light. This will ring the subject and fall off as it moves outward from the center. You can also lower the light and angle it upward to create a fan-shaped beam of light. This allows for better separation than placing the light right behind the subject. You can also put the backgorund light on the side or top of the background and have the beam of light come in from a different angle to achieve different looks with the same background.

Consider the Background

Before setting up your lights, consider the tone of your backdrop. Medium to dark-toned backgrounds can be lit similarly. White backgrounds need to be approached differently; if you are not careful, a white wall behind a subject can reflect light from all around the subject’s head back into the lens. If you’re shooting digitally, meter the white area and adjust your lighting so that it reads ½ stop less than the main light to ensure it is not reflecting into your lens and compromising your images. You can create a simple action to brighten and blur your white wall/background in postproduction.

We repaint the white floor in our studio every two business days. Because of the foot traffic, plus the Harley and the Viper (these are popular props for our senior sessions), the floor looks terrible most of the time. We simply run an action that brightens and blurs the floor to do away with this problem in the final portraits.


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Lighting for Product Photography: Shoes on a White Background

Allison Earnest demonstrates how to light and photograph a pair of athletic shoes for an online store in this excerpt from her Amherst Media book Lighting for Product Photography.

This excerpt from Lighting for Product Photography is provided courtesy of Amherst Media. To purchase the book and learn more about the publisher, visit the Amherst Media Web site.


Product: Field-hockey shoes

Directive: Photograph the shoes on a clean white background for use on a web site

I was commissioned to photograph products for a field-hockey company’s online store. The client requested a white background and a realistic depiction of the shoes’ attributes.

Flat lighting a product on a white background will not enhance its look—or its sales. I have often heard people say, “It’s only for a web site—it doesn’t have to look good.” In fact, when a product is placed online it is more important to show every characteristic of the subject. Many people who order items online are not equipped with calibrated monitors, so the photograph must convey the product’s attributes in their entirety.

For this assignment (see the final image in plate 6-55, above: ISO 200; 80mm lens; f/14; 1/100 second), that meant the lighting had to show the protruding tread on the sole, as well as the silver (with black breathable fabric) at the top of the toe area.

How It Was Done

Plate 6-56 is well-exposed, though flatly lit. Unfortunately, you can’t see many of the different fabric textures and characteristics of the shoe. There are burned-out highlights as well as blocked-up shadows. If I saw this photo online I would probably perceive the shoes to be black, red, and white—when, in reality, they are black, red, and silver. Can you see why lighting products is critical for your clients?

Plate 6-56. This flat exposure doesn’t do the shoe justice—or help the viewer decide to buy it. (ISO 200; 80mm lens; f/14; 1/100 second)

In plate 6-57 you can see the auxiliary tools that were necessary to shape this image. The black finger blocked the reflected light from the white surface to help shape the metallic silver trim and “D” logo on the shoe and the back sole of the product.

Plate 6-57. The tools needed to shape this product.

Plate 6-58 shows the final setup used to create plate 6-55. Let’s take a look at the diagram. A single monolight (A) with a 7-inch parabolic reflector was positioned high and angled down onto the back shoe as a hard source to show texture and depth on the treads. A double net cutter (B) was placed just in front of the monolight so that no additional light would fall onto the front of the shoe or the white surface. This would have added unwanted bounce light on the product. A second monolight with barn doors (C) was aimed at the white seamless paper to illuminate the background. (Note: To obtain a white background, the background exposure must be at least 1 stop brighter than the subject.) A 7-inch parabolic (D) was directed toward the background, metering about 1 stop brighter than the main light, ensuring a white background. A small stripbox (E) was placed to camera right as the main source of illumination on the product. Notice that this light was not on the camera axis, which would have produced flat lighting. It was placed at approximately a 90 degree angle to the product to create shadows and highlights and enhance the texture of the shoes’ black fabric. A small mirror (F) was used as an accent light, bouncing a highlight onto the silver fabric of the shoe. Another small mirror (G) was placed to add a highlight to the tip of one shoe and the logo on the back of the other. Remember that clients want to see their logo as clearly as possible, so don’t allow any highlight or shadow to run through any part of it.

Plate 6-58. The final lighting setup.


Plates 6-59 and 6-60. Viewing the bad (left) with the good (right) gives you an idea of how a few small adjustments can enhance the overall image and show all the product’s realistic attributes.



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Corporate Portraits

Working with overscheduled business people can be a challenge for any portrait photographer. Alyn Stafford explains how to set up and meter your lighting to make even the most time-deprived executives look good in this excerpt from his Amherst Media book Flash Techniques for Location Portraiture.

This excerpt from Flash Techniques for Location Portraiture is provided courtesy of Amherst Media. To purchase the book and learn more about the publisher, visit the Amherst Media Web site.

Working with professionals in a corporate environment is very different than taking photos of individuals for their personal portraits. The corporate professional is typically a busy individual who doesn’t have a lot of time to spend during their portrait session. So, getting your lighting correct and fast is essential.

When I’m hired to take corporate photos, I almost always take more than one assistant with me. My corporate clients do not have the time to waste while I get my gear ready and test my flashguns for the correct settings. I generally arrive anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes early to scout the location where I will be shooting and set up my lighting. I use one assistant to stand in the position where I will be photographing so that I can set up my lighting and make certain that all of my flashguns are positioned properly and powered according to my meter readings. I do this so that when it comes time to call the subject to the set, I can take the portraits without wasting the individual’s time. By taking the time to test the lighting with the assistant, I know that when I am photographing my subject, any lighting modifications that may be necessary would be minor.

Image 7-23. My assistant stands in the place where the businessperson will be photographed. Configuring and testing the setup before the shoot prevents me from wasting the businessperson’s time.

Working with Busy Professionals

Each location portrait session is different, so your lighting setup may vary from shoot to shoot. For this particular session, I could have set up a shoot-through umbrella to camera left, added my backlight, and called it a day. However, I wanted to demonstrate working with a light panel, which is nice if you have the time to set it up. If you don’t, then I recommend that you just go with the shoot-through umbrella—it’s quick and easy to use. 

Image 7-24. A setup shot showing the subject with various light modifiers, flash units, and my assistant holding a reflective bounce.

For this corporate session, the businesswoman I was photographing was a busy individual and didn’t have a lot of time to waste, so I used my assistant to stand in as I set up my lighting (image 7-23). Once I had my lighting configuration set up (images 7-24 through 7-27) I was able to call her from her office and place her in position to take the portrait. My decision to work with the light panels rather than a shoot-through umbrella came about because I was originally hired to photograph two individuals together. The light panel offered a wider surface area where I could set up two flashguns, not because I needed the power, but because I needed good light coverage across the area where the subjects would be standing. However, after I had set up my lighting, I ended up only having to photograph one individual, so I didn’t add the second flashgun. 

Image 7-25. A setup shot with a reverse view. Notice my assistant to the left holding a reflective bounce. This is a 2-in-1 bounce with a white surface on one side and a gold reflective surface on the other side.

Image 7-26. Detail shot of a Nikon SB800 flash unit mounted on a cold shoe flash/umbrella bracket, positioned above a shoot-through light panel. Notice the 45-degree angle, which is common in portrait lighting setups.

Image 7-27. A flashgun mounted on a tripod, gelled with a full CTO filter to warm up the background. Cinefoil was added to help create a pattern on the background wall when the flash was tripped. 

I took one photo using a bounce (image 7-28) and one without (image 7-29). If a client has time to spend with me during a photo shoot, I like to experiment with different lighting setups and see what works best. This isn’t to say that I don’t go in with a plan to begin with, because I do—however, each environment is different and brings new challenges and oppportunities to explore with lighting.

Image 7-28 and diagram 7-8 (left). Portrait made with bounce. Technical data: Nikon 80–200mm lens, 1/250 second at f/5.6, ISO 200. Two Nikon SB-800s, manual mode. 
Image 7-29 and diagram 7-9 (right). Portrait made without bounce. Technical data: Nikon 80–200mm lens, 1/250 second at f/5.6, ISO 200. Two Nikon SB-800s, manual mode.



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