Off camera gelled flash

This past weekend I changed up my off-camera lighting just a little bit than I normally have been doing. Using off-camera flashes has been part of my repertoire for quite some time now with certain bars/bands, but I never used a dome diffuser nor did I use any colored gels (even though I own both). The main reason I didn’t use a dome diffuser was because I wasn’t sure I wanted the light to spread out as I usually implementing them to backlight the band. A more recent innovation I began trying was to set up another flash from the back of the room in order to help light the crowd as well as the front of the band. I haven’t quite perfected that approach although I’ve had some luck here and there. But what I’ve noticed over the course of about a year and a half is the tendency of a non-gelled flash to compete with and in some cases dominate the photos, because I tend to compose many shots with the flash appearing in the background. I don’t have a problem with that look most of the time, and I don’t even mind the flare that often results in such a shot. I think from an artistic sense it can have merit. However, I decided the time had come to change it up a little bit and commit to successfully integrating colored gels (as opposed to CTO and CTG gels) in my approach.

First off, here are several samples, starting with a couple of shots that didn’t utilize any off-camera flash:

Disco Dick, October 2010. 1/50th, f2.8, ISO 6400.
Disco Dick, October 2010. No off-camera flash; just house lights.

As you can see, it’s pretty dim and muted. That has a lot to do with my post-processing techniques, which I feel compelled to do in order to desaturate the image, or else it would be too “loud” for my tastes. Also, see how the left of each pic, with the crowd, is obscured by shadow with little detail? It also has to do with the dim house lights (some bands and venues have really great, bright lighting, but in this case, the bar’s lighting is probably what you’d consider “standard” fare, stage-lighting-wise). Had to crank up the ISO to 6400 for the first pic, which on the D700 isn’t terribly bad, and in fact the second shot is at ISO 1400—that’s what you can expect with shifting house lights—but more often than not I had to crank it up to get any detail. As it is, they’ve got a pretty psychedelic look that can be appealing, but limiting, especially if you wanted to change it up and not have all the pics look the same.

(Oh, and while I’m thinking about it, you can forget about me using on-camera flash to light the band members. Doesn’t look good all, in my opinion. On camera for party pics is fine and I do it all the time, but never to light the band. Now, some who observe me out shooting might notice the flash is in fact going off when I’m shooting the band, but that’s because it’s set to be the master, triggering the off-camera flashes; it’s not ever contributing light to the shot.)

Here’s one more shot of the same bar with no OCF; again see how the crowd and the rest of the bar just vanishes into a cavern…

Now, here’s where things start getting interesting. I initially started by just backlighting the band and using the house lights to key them from the front:

The photos have a little bit more pop to them. I generally try to compose the shot so that the subject blocks out the OCF (off-camera flash) in order to cut the flare and give more of a halo effect. Having said that, I don’t mind it that much as is, again, I kind of like the flare sometimes. But also, you can see how the OCF tends to compete with the main subject in the photo.

These next two photos are from when I began experimenting with lighting from the back of the room, in this case directly over the soundboard:

In the first shot you can see that the band are being lit by both the soundboard light and the OCF from the previous photo. In the second photo I really like the look with some of the crowd being silhouetted. But also, again, there’s the issue of the bare ungelled flash kind of taking over the whole pic. Not necessarily “wrong”, because I do like it sometimes, but still limiting.

However, shooting with that technique from the appropriate angle can create a terrific look:

With both photos, I shot from practically the same angle (just zoomed differently) and I had the so-called soundboard light combined with the stage backlight flash complimenting each other wonderfully. However, this only works from this ONE angle, it seems. Great look, but limited in how I can achieve it. I move around a lot so inevitably the look is more like the pics immediately preceding these two.

So I finally got to thinking about gelling the OCF. I’ve tried it before, but only briefly because I was unsure about it. Typically for me such ideas and concepts take a while to gestate in my brain before I finally go, “Hmmm, let’s give it another go”.  And this time I decided to implement an OCF with one of my “main” bands, The Zeros, a local New Wave 80s cover band in Kansas City (not to be confused with another band by the same name based in L.A.). Now, I have rarely, as in hardly ever, bothered to light the Zeros in the past because they, quite simply, have the absolute best lighting in KC:

Hardly any bands, and not many venues, bring this kind of lighting to their show. (It ain’t cheap!) And quite honestly, it spoils me because when it’s most other bands or venues I don’t have this luxury to work with. On the other hand, that reality has pushed me to stretch my skills with off-camera flashes so I can create interesting lighting, and hence, this post, right? Another X-factor is whether the band uses a fogger or hazer to soften the lighting and create that gorgeous atmospheric effect. Not a lot of bars/bands use fog, but it’s the difference between taking good photos and taking great photos.

Moving on, because the Zeros have such a great light show, I wasn’t interested in backlighting the band from the back of the stage; I just wanted to accent the crowd. And I didn’t want the OCF to compete with the rest of the action this time, the way it’s tended to in the past. That’s where the colored gels came in. I’ve owned a set of colored gels, produced by Honl, for a while now. These gels are great in that the have velcro on the edges, and you attach them via a velcro strip wrapped around the head of the flash. Mostly I’ve used color temperature orange gels in order to balance the light indoors or out on the street at night under street lights. This time I chose between a solid blue or solid green for the explicit purpose of coloring the crowd, ideally separately from the stage lighting the band has (which changes over the course of the show). I also used a dome diffuser to spread the light out more, something I hadn’t done in the past, either.

Now, here’s one of the more challenging aspects of implementing OCF in a bar environment: where do you actually PUT the flashes? Obviously I have tripod stands, which can be a challenge to find space that the band/patrons won’t trip and knock over. I make sure to bring some ankle weights (or sandbags or whatever, but I have 5 pound and ten pound ankle weights) to hold down the stands. I also have some justin clamps that you can hotshoe the flash onto and I find something, like a ledge or even the handle of a monitor (band permitting) to set it on (always ask permission of the band; once you explain what you’re doing they tend to get excited and think you are about to turn them into rock stars). There are times, though, when there’s no useful spot to fasten a Justin clamp onto and you have no choice but to use a tripod.

However, in the case of the Zeros shoot the other night, that wasn’t quite an option. What happened was that there was no room around the soundboard to open up the tripod in such a way it wouldn’t be tripped over, nor was there a suitable spot in the area I could fasten the Justin clamp to. Almost had to call it off. However, I realized that, right next to the sound board station was a large, heavy case (that they transport and store the soundboard in, I think). And this is where being a photographer requires some MacGyver-like thinking. I pulled back the case far enough that I could wedge the tripod stand, legs folded in, in between the case and the soundboard station. To hold the stand in place, I used ball bungees to hold the stand in place. I also use ball bungees as a support to the Justin clamps, just in case the grip slips; at the very least the ball bungees will prevent the flash from falling to the floor and breaking. Ball bungees are wonderful.

Here is what the set up looked like:

I wish I would have taken a shot specifically to record this, but I had to make do with a crop from a larger shot that showed the crowd to the left of the frame. Notice the red ball bungee cables, tied around the handle of the case and wrapping around the stand. The upper ball bungee is wrapped around a Justin clamp fastened to the soundboard station. That stand wasn’t going anywhere.

Another quick thing, I use RadioPoppers to trigger my OCFs most of the time. They take the flash pulse from the master flash and convert it into a radio signal, then transmit that signal to the receiver on the OCF, which in turn converts it back into a flash signal, which tells the OCF to flash and at what power. You can do this without Radiopoppers, but you’re constrained by line of sight and distance limitations. With the RPs those issues are moot. They generally work really great, although I have to say, they’re not the most durable gadgets (I had to have at least one replaced three times in a year and a half), plus they drain batteries (AAAs) horribly fast, even when they’re turned off. Something about the wiring, I guess? Anyway, once you learn to pay attention to the battery power and make sure all the RPs are stocked with fresh batteries, there’s usually no problem. Just don’t let them drain too much because when they are nearly empty they start malfunctioning and start setting off your flash like a strobe and you’re left scrambling on stage in the middle of the show trying to turn them off…

And here’s what I got that night. First shot is from the stage looking out past the band and into the crowd WITHOUT the OCF contributing:

Again, like the earlier photos, see how the crowd vanishes into shadow, like a black hole or cavern. There are TVs on the wall in the background, but they don’t help illuminate anything and might actually be a distraction from the shot.

Here’s the next shot I took seconds later, with the blue-gelled OCF:

See the difference? I love it. The blue gel mutes the glare of the off-camera flash so that it’s no longer competing with the rest of the photo, much less dominating the shot. It’s accenting the crowd and giving the shot depth that was lacking in the prior shot. Another thing I noticed is that the gelled flash is less annoying when firing off than a bare flash head, something to consider for the patrons in the immediate vicinity of the flash.

Mostly I only used the OCF for shots from the stage, in order to light the crowd. Not so much on the shots from out in the crowd looking at the stage. Except…

The first shot is just the stage lighting with no OCF. The crowd is lit from mainly one direction, the stage. In this particular shot the lights are obviously blaring out into the crowd, so they’re actually well lit. Not always the case with most shots. The second photo I have the OCF on. Again, more of a subtle accenting that compliments the main lighting. In this case the stage lights are similar, risking the shot becoming flat, which is another challenge of shooting bands/concerts; mono lighting just kills photos. As you could see from the previous photos, when the stage is lit differently from the crowd light the shot pops more. So choosing which color to gel your flash can be a challenge in its own right. Most venues and bands just bathe the scene in red or magenta, so a solid green, blue or even yellow might be the appropriate color.

So that’s about it. I felt using gels to accent the crowd turned out to be very successful. Of course, the key is repeatability; will I be able to duplicate this everywhere I go? I think so, but one of the challenges in this kind of photography is that different venues present different challenges, as far as size of the place, height of the ceilings, etc.

Until next time…

One Response to Off camera gelled flash

  1. Great post Brian. I have also been thinking about buying some gels to use when taking photos of DJs to get a different feel. I love the idea of using the OCF to light the crowd…and especially with the gel on. As soon as I pulled up this post I remembered that I needed to pick up a Manfrotto quick plate and OOOO…I can get some gels to play with. Too bad it just turned 5pm on a Saturday and Crick, Independent Photo Art Supply and Overland Park Photo Supply close at 5. #fail 😉