Many of you have been out to my photography workshops and last night we celebrated our two-year anniversary by getting together to socialize at the Oasis restaurant overlooking Lake Travis. As many of you know, the Oasis bills itself as the "Sunset Capital of Texas". I wanted to show everyone who came out a little trick for making sunsets look especially stunning while still maintaining good skin tones for the subject in the foreground. It all comes down to the color of light.
As a people photographer, the color of light is especially important. If you don't get your color right, your subject either looks like a smurf or like someone who ate some bad eggs. If you've ever had one of these pictures then surrendered and converted it to black and white you know what I'm talking about. Managing color is one of the key elements that many new photographers struggle with. As challenging as managing color can be at first, once you understand how to manipulate color to your advantage you open a whole world of creative possibilities.
It looks simple enough but, if you would have been there you'd know that the sunset that evening wasn't quite as spectacular as the photograph leads you to believe. That being said, I didn't use Photoshop or other post-processing wizardry to create these vibrant colors. I simply managed the colors and manipulated them the way I wanted them to be. To Natalija, the subject of the photo, there was nothing special about the photography - I just walked up and clicked a snapshot. It was the preparation I did prior that made the difference.
Here's what I did. Whenever I shoot outside, I think of the process as making two photos at once - one of the background and one of the foreground/subject. These two photos are squashed flat into the two-dimensional finished image we see. Each part has its own exposure and white balance - or, to put it in other terms, luminance and chrominance. If we're aware of these two factors, they can be molded in lots of fun ways. For the background of this image, I wanted really rich colors - big surprise, right? To get those rich colors, I needed to underexpose. I used a circular polarizing filter and bumped my ISO down a stop to reduce the camera's rate of exposure. I could have used a one-stop neutral-density filter instead of the ISO change but the ISO change allowed me to achieve the same result without putting additional filters in front my lens. I shot at f/3.5 with a shutter speed of 1/250 of a second. You'd think I would have had to use a smaller aperture but the polarizer gobbled up sufficient light to knock down the exposure - along with the ISO adjustment. I didn't want to stop down the aperture too much because I knew I wanted to used a camera-mounted speedlight for the subject and wider apertures would work better with the speedlight. So the exposure for the background was a combination of the usual triangle of exposure - ISO, aperture and shutter speed - along with the polarizer. The result would have been fine but I wanted more color. So I came prepared with a FL-W filter on my lens. The FL-W filter is intended to color correct fluorescent light for daylight film. While it works fine for that, what I wanted was to use the filter for was its magenta color - a color that would make the sunset appear even more spectacular than it really was.
Of course, screwing the FL-W filter on my lens should have made Natalija look an odd color like she'd been holding her breath. But I came prepared. As I mentioned, I had a speedlight on my camera so Natalija's exposure was driven mainly by ISO, aperture and flash power. For clarity, the camera body was set to manual mode to control the background and the flash was set to TTL so the speedlight would adjust its power based on the camera body's internal light meter. TTL does an okay job but with this shot I had to dial down the flash compensation a couple of stops. But what about the color of light, right? Well, I knew that Natalija's exposure would be primarily from the flash so I put a Rosco Tough Plusgreen gel on the speedlight. This gel is intended to color correct for fluorescent light - and it's exactly the opposite of the FL-W filter I had on my lens. To put it another way, the two colors are complementary. So the flash put out green light, bounced off Natalija and was filtered by the lens filter so normal light reaches the lens. The light from the flash has virtually no effect on the background but the FL-W filter does. The result - a gorgeous sunset that never was with a normally colored subject in the foreground. Best of all, it takes significantly longer to explain than it takes to set up and shoot! How much fun is that?!