Colourful studio portraits ~ Techniques and Pictures

Here is my technique for creating striking studio portraits using a grey background and the Lovegrove Studio Collection of gels. Grid collections like the one above make fantastic large acrylic products or canvas prints for the home. They are easy to shoot, command high prices, and they look great in a studio shop window too. Here’s how I shot the one above.

Here is my studio set up for the grid of colour shots above.

Here is my 4 light studio set up for the grid of colour shots above with the background light set to quarter power.

Now here is the same set up with the colour gel fitted to the background light.

Now here is the same set up with the colour gel fitted to the background light, still on quarter power.

The Paint on the back wall of my studio is Dulux Ice Storm 2. It is as near a neutral as you can get with pigment and comes from their professional range. You will need to get it mixed for you. The computers at Dulux paint mixing centres have the recipe built in. The top light is a Bowens 1200ws head in a Wafer 140 soft box. The head is set to quarter power. The reflector is my original triflector bought in 1994. It was designed by the legend Stu Williamson. The background light is a Bowens 750ws head fitted with a Maxilight reflector. The two backlights on Henri, my model are Bowens 750ws heads with beauty dishes fitted with grids to avoid flare.

The gels were all photographed illuminating the grey background whilst Henri posed in the foreground to give a true skin tone reference. The gels were simply clipped to the flash head reflector with a single small crock clip (These will be available from the consulting site by mid January) and the power of the flash head was adjusted to reveal a range of luminance values with each colour.

The shot on the left is with no gel on the background light and the flash head set at half power. The shot on the right is with the flash head off completely.

The shot on the left is with no gel on the background light and the flash head set at half power. The shot on the right is with the background flash head off completely. I use a grey wall because it will go pure black when unlit with just 3 stops less light than my subject.  There is always some spill light in a studio, especially one as small as mine and white backgrounds usually turn a muddy grey when unlit. The shade of grey should be chosen so that you can recreate the two shots above just by adjusting the power of your background lights. This will give you full control over the luminance of the background colour.

I have now put together the definitive collection of gels from literally hundreds of candidates. As part of the product preparation for the Lovegrove Studio Collection I shot every shortlisted gel to see how it looked in camera. Each one has been chosen because of the mood or character it evokes in a digital image. The way a gel photographs is often very different to it’s visual appearance so all the assessing was done using digital files straight from camera. It’s easy to see colours that work when you are looking at real photographs rather than gel swatches.

With such vibrant colours to hand, it is vital to be in tune with subtle shade and hue changes. A small hue shift can have an enormous effect on the mood a picture evokes and putting together a great collection of gels has been like creating a paint collection for houses.

I’ve put in a bit of hard work over the past two months to put this collection together so that hopefully you can enjoy creating beautifully lit masterpieces to transform your clients homes. If you shoot hair shots for stylists, accessories for fashion designers, make over portraits or magazine covers then these gels are for you. If you don’t shoot any of the above but you want to have a bit of fun then these are for you too because for less than the cost of just one roll of background paper you could be the master of colour wherever you shoot. Each gel is 12″x 12″ (305mm x 305mm).

The full set comprises 38 gels and will hopefully be available by the SWPP convention on the 15th of January. Each gel can also be cut into 12 Honl sized (4″ x 3″) smaller gels if you want to add some colour to your Speedlight work. The complete set of gels is expected to cost £45 – £50.

For wider shots, larger studios, or to create gradient backgrounds, it is advisable to use two or more background lights and gel sets.

See the full portrait colour swatch of gels here showing the effect of various power levels of light shone through each one. Then let me know  your favourites using the comments box at the foot of that post.

If you found this helpful, you may also like to read Studio portrait lighting with minimal kit ~ feature article and  Studio Lighting Pictures and Techniques

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About Damien

Damien Lovegrove learned his trade as a cameraman and lighting director during 14 years at the BBC, working on programmes such as the Clothes Show, Top of the Pops and Casualty. Fifteen years on, Damien has become one of the foremost trainers of photography and entrepreneurial business strategies in our industry. A published writer and regular columnist, Damien has travelled the globe sharing his knowledge and expertise. “Photography fascinates me” declares Damien. "Much of my photography is inspired by a burning enthusiasm within me” explains Damien. “Picking up a camera gives me such a rush that I’m instantly driven to create pictures.”

89 thoughts on “Colourful studio portraits ~ Techniques and Pictures

  1. Thanks again for giving away your techniques Damien. I really like this concept and it’s something that i can see being very popular. Something to work on over the next few weeks.

    Hope you and your family have a fantastic New Year.


  2. Damien,

    This is a great set up. I use it a lot in the studio. It works well for couples, kids and even for corporate shots with more muted background colours. Its very fresh and client buy lots of them.


  3. Hi Damien, What make are your beauty dishes fitted with grids? I have been searching for large grids, the biggest Bowens do is 7″. I can’t find any in the Bowens range to fit their beauty dish.


  4. I’ve been looking for a suitable gray paint for the wall behind my monitor to help with colour comparisons this Dulux Ice Storm 2 paint looks ideal for that purpose as well as my studio walls. What colour did you paint the studio ceiling Damien?

    kind regards


  5. Hi Damien

    A timely post as I’m moving in to a new studio on Monday and will be decorating it in grey. I have used Little green Paint Company’s paints before with success but it was quite pricey. I’ve tried looking up Ice Storm on Dulux’s site but there doesn’t seem to be any mention of it. Was it difficult to obtain? I realise in needs mixing in store but would have thought there would be some mention of the range on their site. Perhaps I’m looking in the wrong place!


  6. Hi Robert, I can’t remember the name of the ceiling paint but I know it isn’t white. White is the worst possible colour in a studio.


  7. Hi David, just go to a Dulux paint mixing place and ask for Ice Storm 2. Forget trying to look it up. It’s as good as a secret. Cheers, Damien.

  8. Hi Ken,

    Charcoal is the closest match. Mineral Grey might be better for you depending upon the size of your studio. The bigger the studio the lighter the background can be. Because you can move your model and subject lights further from the background and hence reduce spill.

    Happy New Year,


  9. Hi Mark, Yes, I have 6 lights on Hi-Glide so I can shoot all my walls in one session without lots of rigging. I bought the Hi-Glide on Ebay for £250 from an art college that was closing down. I hope you and Kirsty have a great New Year. Damien.

  10. Thanks Damien – yes I am looking forward to 2010 – although we had our best year yet in 2009 – so its hard work to ensure another one follows!

  11. Hi……New too you’r website and blog,fantastic reading. I love the gels you use to create these lovely coloured backgrounds. I am fairly new too photography but i do have one speed light at the moment. What kind of light can i use for the background light to use the gels when they come on sell. I have bin looking at the The Arri 300W Junior Fresnel lamp, Is this like the sort of light i need?
    Glad i found this site,I have learnt things from just browsing around.


  12. Hi Jay,
    The Arri is not the right tool for you. I’d invest in another flash unit. A Speedlight that you can use with a Ezy-Box as a keylight. You can use both Speedlights off camera and take them on location too. One Speedlight can be fitted with a gel while the other is used in a softbox or with a ringflash adapter. The Arri is a tungsten balenced light and not easy to mix with flash from a Speedlight. Damien.

  13. Damien,

    I am an avid fan of your work and have learned so much. I wish to thank you for your input on Prophotonut, also I have found your DVDs highly valuable in theead up to where I am now as a photographer.

    Thank you.

  14. Really great set of photos and makes a cracking wall display.
    I am new to this site and find your work very inspiring and will be following all you do.
    Thanks for sharing

  15. Cheers, John. I’ve loads of new ideas to share with you guys this year. Apart from the blog, I write a column in Photo Pro magazine each month. Cheers, Damien.

  16. Damien, hello,
    I just love reading your blog, there’s always something new and very interesting.
    I tried this with my Interfit 150 head, and it went out awful, since I see different shaded of color through the gel I have.
    It’s like an orange circle which I suppose a reflector, and around it I see red.
    Is it happening because the flash is not too strong or is it the gel? Or may be a reflector.
    Also, it covers smaller part of the walls then you have. I am planning to buy your gels set, but the question is whether I need to change my hardware.

    Thank you so much,

  17. Hi Julian,

    Thanks for your kind words. Your interfit 150 is probably creating a ‘hot spot’ and this can demonstrate itself in one of the colour sensors in the camera clipping. Clipping in the red channel looks like a orange/ yellow hue shift rather than just a luminance rise.

    Hardware is a likely cause of your woes. Try moving the 150 another 2m from the background and leave the exposure set the same. If the result is a clean colour of mid tone density fading rapidly towards black at the corners then the reflector is not wide enough and the original shot was over exposed.

    Once you have the kit to create a clean colour background then you will be able to make the most of our gels. A Speedlight with the wide diffuser flipped out gives an even enough light source so with the right reflector the interfit should be up for the job.


  18. Hi: love these gels…just out of curiosity, is the soft box above the tri flector or above the model…

    also have you ever had an issue with cerise type colours looking red on the camera lcd (5d) (and in lightroom until rendered)…makes it very tricky to guess the outcome

    any way here’s my first effort with these gels…doing my head in a bit trying to remember which one is which once they’re in camera :)

  19. Julian – its most likely that the reflector you are using has an insufficiently wide beam angle. Don’t know about the Interfit, but on my Elinchroms and at reasonable distance the background light needs a 90 degree (16cm) reflector. The ‘standard’ 50 and 60 degree reflectors give the hotspots you describe.


  20. Martin is spot on. You need a wide angle reflector or a dedicated background lighting reflector. I use a Maxi lite reflector on my Bowens kit.

  21. thanks damien…am loving the results with these…the link in previous post above has my fav 8 colours

  22. damien.
    Brought my gels at the SWPP and spent the wek painting a wall in the studio, ready for the weekend. Really pleased with the results. Thanks for the advice at the convention and love the gels

  23. Damien.

    What would your recommend for the best covering on a floor when taking these kind of images.Like when you have a subject sitting on the floor, to continue the colour as your images show. Many thanks

  24. Hi Ivan,

    Sorry for my delay in replying. I missed your comments somehow. I use grey paper background rolls when I need seamless backgrounds. If I need a colour to continue past my subject to the foreground then I have to use coloured gel or use the theatre trick of using a colour wash from the back and a follow spot from the front. The pool of white light just seems right.

    Cheers, Damien.

  25. Hi Damian,
    Good work, your concept is great. I painted wall ( dulux ice storm 2 ) now i’m lookin for wide angle reflector, my regular 18cm is too spot.
    What do you think about Lee Filters – Saturates Pack seria Colour Magic ?

    Thanks, Jacek

  26. Hi Jacek,

    Thanks for your kind words.

    I’ve never heard of seria Colour Magic. Lee Saturates pack is just that. Very saturated bold colour – not subtle, perfect for stage performances, lighting a band etc with Par cans. I’ve used a few of the colours before, but as you can see I’ve chosen a completely different set of colours for my collection designed specifically for photographic portraiture. My gels are all made by Lee too;)

    If you use a medium wide reflector you can expect some vignetting. I like the look – See my latest post. Another way is to light the background from both sides. Far more even but needs two lights and two sets of gels.

    Regards, Damien.

  27. Hi Damien,

    I love these vibrant gel portraits. I have a white paper background and am struggling to get any noticeable change in colour when shooting with gels. Have you got any advice please?
    Thanks Rob

  28. Hey Rob

    You need to use coloured gels on a dark background for them to work. Dark grey is the best but black also works…


  29. Hi Rob: Mark is right grey is ideal. When i used a white background I had to turn the backlight right down to prevent the head completely blowing out the colour and was very careful not to get other lights spilling over on to the background…
    even then you’ll probably find them washed out….

  30. This looks great! What a wonderful variety of possibilities! I shoot mainly kids and love the colour, but I don’t have a studio so I would like to know if you think that the gels will work with a mobile grey textile background, too? I could set that up quickly…
    Thanks, great website! And let me know if you are coming to Italy in 2010 as I would love to attend one of your workshops!

  31. Hi Robert, As Andy said, grey is better than white. However you can usually get some great pastel looks with a white background. Just remember to keep your subject lights off the background. Damien

  32. Hi Elena, Thanks. Italy was 2009 and it’s Holland’s turn this spring. Yes the gels will work well with a grey textile background on location. Cheers, Damien.

  33. Hello, I’ve just ordered a set of gels :) As for the grey background, I mostly shoot on location therefore I don’t think I ought to turn up at someones house with a tin of Dulux Ice Storm paint!! I read a previous answer to a question on here which said the nearest paper roll would be Charcoal. I was just wondering if the colorama smoke grey would be ok as they do that colour in a 3/4 roll, which would be about the right size for portability, compared to a full length which would be too big and a 1.35m length which might be too small.

  34. Hi Brian,

    As I say, the shade of grey is dependent upon the size and type of space you are shooting in. A white walled room will need a darker grey to reap the maximum benefit. With the background light switched off the background should look black and with the background light on full power without a gel it should be pure white. I hope this helps. We use Calumet Smoke and Calumet Storm depending upon shooting location. You can cut a paper roll down to size with a wood saw ;)


  35. Hi Damien,

    Do you have any suggestions on using your Gel’s with a lastolite hi-lite background? I primarily shoot kids so would ideally like the floor to be lit as well, not sure if that is possible. The background I have is white but I also have a black material cover.


  36. Hi Penny,

    Gels and the Hi-Lite are not an easy option because any light you put on the front of the unit including spill from your keylight will washout the colour effect. Normally with the Hi-Lite any spill just adds to the white and is fine.

    Regards, Damien.

  37. hi damien, this is a great idea. if i cannot find the dulux ice storm 2, can i get the paint shop to colour match a grey card? will that work? my choices of paint are behr or benjamin moore (canada).

  38. Hi Chris,

    It could do but the trick to chroma key is even lighting. I’d use more than one light to light a chromakey background for people pictures. Green is used because there is little green in skin ;) Other colours work too. All you need is a single colour to create a clipping path.

    Kind regards,


  39. Hi Damien,

    Just wondering which shade of grey background paper you would recommend from Creativity International? They offer Storm, Cloud, Smoke, Seal and Charcoal grey! I shoot portraits in a ‘white box’ studio. If you’re not familiar with the CR papers which would you recommend from Calumet, Storm or Smoke grey? (for shooting using gels).


  40. Hi Harpreet,

    The size of your studio is going to determine what paper you use. In larger spaces you can use lighter paper and still get it to expose to black. In small and light spaces you need to opt for darker paper.

    I hope this helps.


  41. Thanks for sharing so much information and your beautiful photos with us! may I shoot 2 questions :)?

    Where are your seminars held?? (do you have a link where we can see the schedule too??)? and Can you please tell me which size is your softbox???

  42. hi, i’m newish to photography! Do you have to have grey background to use the colour gels on the back light or will a white background do? Do you have the back light on all the time or does it go off with the flash lights?

  43. Hi Katie,

    Welcome to photography. I hope the magic of capturing images stays with you forever. I use a grey background so that I can achieve all luminance values from black (with the background light switched off) to white. I create white with the background light switched on full power and with no gel in place. With this range of luminance I can create some fantastically varied colours.

    The darkness of the painted or paper background required depends upon several factors. The colour of the walls to the left and right, the colour of the ceiling and the distance from the subject to the background. If your studio walls and ceiling are white they will reflect the subject lights and lift the lightness of the background so you will need a darker grey to be able to produce a true black. If you can create a true black you can add a splash of light through a blue gel to create a midnight blue etc. If there is spill light hitting the background or the background is too light the depth of colour that can be achieved will be disappointing.

    The background light is a flash light. I do not leave the modelling light on because it will ‘cook’ the gel.

    I hope this helps,


  44. Hi Damien,

    Loving the gels!!!

    I am having a little trouble trying to get full body shoots with the floor and backgriound the same colour.
    Do you use a gel on the background and then another pointed at the floor of the same colour?

    Would this create a colour cast on the models feet or dress?

    Refering to your comment here >
    I have to use coloured gel or use the theatre trick of using a colour wash from the back and a follow spot from the front. The pool of white light just seems right.

    How do you do this? any links?

    Sorry about all the questions i am just very excited about the poetential images by using your gel set.

    Cheers, Chris.

  45. Hi Chris,

    The coloured gels used in the way I use them is for head and shoulders only. You can light a background but you need to keep your subject separate from the background for the obvious reasons you describe. I dont have a link for the theatre trick I describe but you can see it on all the ‘talent’ shows. A black or grey floor paint lit with colour from behind.

    To shoot full length shots with a infinite colour you need a paper roll of a painted infinity cove. I use paper rolls and have a few of them in my studio for when I need them.

    Kind regards,


  46. Hi,
    I love this idea, but cannot paint the walls. Does Savage make a color of seamless paper that would work in place of this color gray?

  47. Hi Maryann,

    Go to a commercial paint supplyer and ask them for the neutral colour codes. Nearly all paint companies make the ISO set of shades that includes 6 neutrals from black to white. Each company gives them unique names. Alternatively take in a Pantone swatch and the paint company can type in a code to the mixing computer. Some companies do it, and some dont. It’s what architects use to specify pint colours on commercial jobs.

    I hope this helps,


  48. Hi Damien,
    Thanks for taking the trouble to write about this. I have found it very useful and will now put it into practise.

  49. Hi Damian

    I’ve had the gels for a year and only used them very occasionally, but from next week I’m getting my own studio, so I intend to go to B&Q to get the paint mixed up. Let’s hope they know what I’m talking about!

    Derek Pether

  50. Hi Derek,

    Good man,

    You need a Deep Matt Base, and the colour is Ice Storm2. If they type that in the mixing computer it will give them the magic formula.

    Kind regards,


  51. Hi Damien,
    I’m a college student and this is just what I needed! I didn’t think this was possible but I knew there had to be a way of having different colored backgrounds (apart from Photoshopping it/actually having different colored backgrounds) and this will be super helpful for my shoot next monday!
    Do you think this could work if instead of a gray background I had a white background? Thanks in advance, and greetings from Mexico!

    Daniella Murillo.

  52. Hi Daniella,

    Thank you for your comment. White is usually a problem unless you are in a very big studio. White walls or backgrounds should be avoided as much as possible in studios as stray light rattles around and you lose control of it. With your subject correctly lit but the background light off the background should be black. Most high key studios never achieve this. If you switch on the background light on full power the background should be white. This way you can have every density of colour from your gels. A deep midnight blue is amazing but looks like a washed out baby blue on a white background.

    I hope this helps.


  53. Hi Damien, I bought a set of your coloured gels and I’m having a hard time lighting my subject without spilling light onto the background and washing out the colour from the gel. I have a limited space (12ft deep room) and am using a speedlight with gel for the background, and a westcott appollo softbox for lighting the subject.
    Do you have some recommended settings and distances that would work?

  54. Hi Scott,

    The Westcott appollo is the culprit. It’s lighting your background as well as your subject. Use the Westcott at 90 degrees to the background and use a grid on the front of the Westcott. Make sure you have a grey background if you want saturated colours. The ino sheet on how I work with the gels is here: As you will see my softbox is 90 degrees to the background and rigged from above.

    Kindest regards,


  55. Can these color gels be used with Paul C. Buff Alien Bees? LOVE the colors!! Might invest in these later this year as I get my studio set up. :)

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