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Lighting setup: Textured fashion lighting with coloured gels

I spent many, many years working in a busy studio that focused on quantity over quality. As photographers working there, we did our best to push back against this where we could, but sometimes you only had 20-30 minutes with a client to achieve a handful of different looks and sadly this invariably led to you often reverting to the simplistic, yet professional looking white background shots out of necessity.

It was ultimately the repetitive nature of this white background work that spawned my gelled lighting that many of you know today. It really was a simple case of ‘shoot something different or go mad!’.

But there is certainly room for a middle ground between the flat, white backgrounds from the Gap adverts of the 90’s, to my bold, brash and overly saturated gel shots you see today.

In this article you will see how to setup a series of escalating setups from the simple, clean, white setup, to a bolder and more contrasty colour-infused version.

One element that may strike some of my regular readers as unique, is my inclusion of a full-body setup. I almost never include feet in my shots and that’s not simply because I find feet uninteresting, but more to do with the fact that complicated, multi-light setups often leave a busy and ugly mess of shadows on the ground. One of the reasons I called this article ‘fashion lighting’ was simply due to the inclusion of a full-body setup as most fashion photography is forced to include the whole body.

When I shoot, I choose to compose the feet out where I can in the studio, so make the most of this full-body setup, as it’s unlikely to happen again.

Foundational Lighting

To start with, I’ll show you the basic principle behind this lighting for you to build upon as and when you’re ready, but the basis of this setup is once again using my hard & soft technique that so many of my lighting designs revolve around.

I won’t go into details on the theory of it and why I believe this is such a strong foundation here, but if you’re interested, you can read more about it via my ‘Combining Hard & Soft Light’ article.

Base Setup

Take a look at the image example here to get an idea of what the basic setup looks like. One of the things you should immediately notice is how textured the light is and by ‘textured’, I mean the mottled or dappled shadow-play we can see surrounding the model.

To begin with, you’ll need a couple of lights;

  1. A very hard-light modifier like an optical snoot.

I’m using an optical snoot here as it gives one of the hardest looking light qualities available. This can be tricky and unflattering to work with, so we’ll need to balance it out with a soft light as well.

  1. A very soft light to help with those harsh shadows.

I’ll be using a large umbrella in conjunction with a scrim, but a very large softbox could work, or alternatively, just use a very large white umbrella.

Let’s take a look at the setup via the diagram below and then I’ll explain what’s going on and what I’m using to get these unique looking in-camera effects.

Products Used

Optical Snoot

A unique modifier that you’ll use more often than you realise. No other modifier creates strong directional light that this does and although often used with gobos, I often simply use it without them.

Large Umbrella

Although the title of ‘Parabolic’ umbrella may be a little misleading, it’s still an excellent modifier for illuminating large rooms or for producing very soft lighting.

Large Scrim

I originally got this for cinematic studio lighting, but now I nearly use it on every shoot that requires a soft light. This scrim produces noticeably cleaner and softer light over simply using a softbox alone.

Creating Textured Light

Okay, let’s discuss the elephant-in-room: ‘What the hell is that glass ‘thing’ sat in the middle of the set?’

The glass block on set is just that, a collection of glass blocks simply taped together and then placed on a stand in front of my optical snoot.

You can buy these glass blocks from a variety of places, but the cheapest I found were on eBay. 6 of them is enough for what I wanted.

As you can see in the images above, when hard light is shone through the glass blocks, the resulting light is dappled and broken up. It’s this effect that we’ll be using to create this textured light in our shoot.

Emulating Dappled Light in the Studio

I’ve used a similar setup to this many years ago and shared it then, so if you’d like to know more about the details surrounding these blocks and a basic lighting setup for them, take a look here: ‘Emulating Dappled Light in the Studio’

Don’t have glass blocks? – Your Blue Peter badge awaits!

I appreciate that not everybody does this for a living and isn’t obsessed with trying harebrained ideas off-the-bat like this. So if you don’t fancy buying a small glass wall that you may never use again, feel free to play with the basic concept of this textured lighting idea with gobos. If you’re not sure what a gobo is, then simply put, it refers to ‘go-between’ the light. This can be anything at all and can be custom made gobos that likely come with your Optical Snoot, or you can even make your own out of spare cardboard. Hell, I’ve even shone light through knickers (not mine) on a light stand in front of my light! Just play around with some ideas to find a cool way of adding textured light to your scene.

If you don’t fancy accidentally cutting holes in your carpet just yet, get the pro-gobos that are laser cut by people who know what they’re doing!

Don’t have glass blocks? Too cheap to buy proper gobos? Make your own textured light by cutting holes in cardboard and shining light through that instead.

Managing the hard and soft light

If you’re still a little hazy on what’s going on here, the basic premise of this setup is the optical snoot fires hard light through the glass blocks, it then creates a dappled light on the subject with highlights and shadows. To counter this somewhat harsh effect, I’ve introduced a soft light in the form of the large umbrella and scrim. This helps to add light to the shadow areas on the subject and thus reduces the overall contrast.

In the original image above, we had stronger shadows as I was only using a tiny amount of light through the umbrella, but of course we can add more light through the umbrella and this will reduce the contrast of the darker shadows whilst still getting a hint of the original textured light. Take a look at the images below to see how we can vary the look.

In left image above (or first image if viewing on mobile), we can see there is almost no textured lighting effect in the scene due to both the hard light and soft light being almost the same power of light. In the right image, we see far more texture in the lighting as I’ve reduced the amount of light coming from the large umbrella and as a result the shadows start to show though.

It’s this basic premise of managing the varying powers of both the hard and soft light in a setup like this that can be extremely powerful and in the next sections I’ll show you how to introduce colour into this as well.

Note: The variation in colouring in the two images above (left image is rose tinted over the colder right image) is from colour grading the shots in differing ways in post to illustrate examples of final looks. It’s not relevant to the teachings here though, as we’re looking at differences in light and shadow only.

Introducing Colour

This is actually super-simple and we’ve already done the hard part by getting this far. Once we understand the principles of combining hard and soft light, we can really start to play with the more creative aspects of it and adding colour is one way to do just that.

Below I’ll show you a couple of ways to add colour, one more dominant than the other, but if you’re after a subtle colour look, try this first one.

The Kelvin-Grade

I often love to play with Kelvin shifts when using gels, but here we’re being clever with it to create a subtle colour look by not shifting the Kelvin itself, but by adding Kelvin gels (colour balancing gels) to the lights instead. Take a look at the shots below to see the final results.

White balance 101

We know we can adjust the white balance on our cameras to make the image either warmer or colder. As a rule, I like to shoot my studio images at around 4500K. This may seem ‘cold’ to some of you, but remember that Kelvin is not a universal term to describe colour, it is a way to measure temperature. Contrary to what many believe, Kelvin is different on nearly all camera platforms, so you will have to experiment with what works for you and your system. For reference though; I shoot Nikon.

One way in which we can control the white balance of our lights, is to use them with colour temperature gels like CTO and CTBs. These are ‘Colour Temperature Orange’ and ‘Colour Temperature Blue’ gels respectively and these enable us to shift the Kelvin of a given light. Another little known fact is that colour temperature gels stack to create increasing effects. For example, unlike traditional gels, you can layer these gels to increase the colour and it’s this idea that I’m using here to add a hint of blue to the shadows of this shot.

To do this, simply add a couple of colour temperature blue gels to the soft light, which in this setup is the large umbrella. If the effect is still too strong for your tastes, either play with the Kelvin on your camera or, simply remove one of the CTB gels.

Go all-in!

Of course no JHP article is complete without some way to add a bit more colour to your shots, and this one is no exception! If you fancy going all-in on the colour effect, you can certainly do that too and take a look at an example of the results of doing so below.

Adding colour

I’m sure by this point you have a pretty clear idea of how this is done based on what we’ve done up until this point….. you guessed it, add a colour gel to the soft light.

Closing Comments

The premise of this setup is actually fairly simple. Firstly; get a very hard light source and shine it through something to create shadows. This can be glass blocks, gobos or even a pair of knickers (no kink-shaming here). The point is to add textured light to the subject in the form of shadows. From here, we add a very soft light to control just how dark those shadows are. Lastly, we can then choose to add colour or not.

For this technique to work, you really do need to use a strong hard light and a simple snoot or grid may not be enough. Ironically, even though I ordinarily hate speedlights for their unforgiving hard light, they are actually an ideal solution to the hard light here. So if you don’t have an optical snoot just yet, but have an old speedlight knocking about in the bottom of your camera bag, try using that instead.

When using such a strong hard light, we need very soft light to counter it effectively. A simple small softbox for example, likely won’t work as it’ll be casting its own shadows and the resulting lighting will look busy and confusing. A very large softbox or big umbrella are needed to make this truly work.

Give it a play and by all means test it with some simple DIY gobos* to begin with, AKA cardboard with holes in.

*Disclaimer: I am not responsible if you or your model’s knickers catch fire if used as a gobo too close to the light!

Featured Model: Basia Panecka

About the Author

Jake Hicks is an editorial and fashion photographer who specializes in keeping the skill in the camera, not just on the screen. For more of his work and tutorials, check out his website. Don’t forget to like his Facebook page and follow him on Instagram, too. You can also sign up for the Jake Hicks Photography newsletter to receive Jake’s free Top Ten Studio Lighting Tips and Techniques PDF and be sure to download his free 50-page studio lighting book. This article was also published here and shared with permission.

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