What is Split Color Lighting, and How Do You Use It?

split color lighting

After I posted a story on the photographers’ sunglasses, I got a lot of emails asking how I sparked the series. So, while on the road to take a recent photo, I spent some time on my AirBNB and wrote how I approach what is called “split color lighting”.

What is split color lighting?

Split chromatic lighting is a lighting technique where you approximate the shape of a subject with color in your color ranges. For some subjects, you will set the baseline color temperature on the primary light, while in other shots, you might use complementary colors and not have to worry about skin tone at all.

The easiest split-chromatic lighting setup I recommend uses three lights: one switch (or main) light and two (a term used to identify side lights, or lighting complementary to the main light) fitted with colored gel. If your primary lamp remains neutral, you can use any color you like for the other two lamps to achieve the separate color effect.

split color lighting
One way to set up split color lighting.

How to use split color lighting

As your lighting depth increases, you’ll want to use more lights and gels to create the same feeling of shooting. However, you will need to ensure that the overall color palette remains balanced. The way I approach this is easier described in steps:

Step 1: Dial your subject’s skin tone by referring to the primary light. Keep in mind that all skin types reflect light differently. I find dark skin a lot easier to light up because the dynamic range (especially if the subject is sweating) is wider and creates more data that can be captured by the camera sensor.

Step 2: Determine the parts of the body that will be hit by the lights that will contain gels. You can do this by taking some test shots. Make sure there are no distracting color combinations when the lights cross. Where this is usually tricky is the lights behind the subject and pointing slightly toward the camera. You may find that one of the lights is trying to sneak into your subject’s nose. A good way to mitigate this is to mark (or block out) the lights so they don’t hit that part of the subject’s face.

Sunglasses campaign photographed by advertising photographer Blair Banting in Phoenix, Arizona.

Step 3: Decide which background, if any, will be affected by the color cast of kicker lights. When taking portraits, this is usually not too difficult, but for car photography it can be difficult. It is very difficult to get chrome to be a neutral color and to look natural at the same time.

The fourth step: Make the camera exposure and lights power consistent and set correctly with the light meter. Yes, the light meter is still very important in order to get the overall ratio of lights in your scene to match the cool spot from the sensor.

Fifth step: Finally, adjust the white balance in the camera manually, and adjust the color balance of the key lamp. Split color lighting with auto white balance turned on is a recipe for disaster and frustration.

go slow and exercise

Like everything in photography, connecting to a color split lighting system requires training. Also know that not every great light and color ratio will suit a particular theme. In order to get to a level where you can produce an advertising campaign, you’ll need to make sure that you and whatever staff you have know your approach. For example, with proper communication and planning, you should have no problem as your wardrobe designer embellishes the subject in conflicting colors or patterns that make life difficult for you in post-production.

Another detail to think about is how you will treat your subject’s hair for the piece you are creating. If there’s no plan for the text to appear with the final image or you don’t have a lot of post-production editing in the works, you can be too relaxed with movement and poetry. However, if these things are on, you’ll need to pay special attention and reduce movement or you’ll end up with a lot of work editing.

Nike ad campaign, photographed by fitness photographer Blair Bunting
Color split portrait lighting used in a Nike ad campaign.

In many ways, it pays to approach split-light photography similar to the way a filmmaker looks at video production, although as photographers we have a bit more of a safety net for our capture if our lighting isn’t perfectly connected.

With a boldly saturated color on your subject, if you decide to change the final look of a heavily split color lit photo, you’ll have to go to Photoshop and manually repaint the skin tone (a task not for the faint of heart). If you’re going to get an order from a client or want to try this approach in a paid campaign and you’re not yet comfortable with the process, I recommend using no more than one gel, and keeping it low-density. By doing this, you’ll get a look that can be moved around with the saturation slider in the edit, but is also required with hue correction if the color doesn’t complement perfectly.

When it comes to equipment and finding the right gels, you’re in luck, as there are so many inexpensive options on Amazon to teach yourself. Personally, I think packaging with more colors and a lower tonal range for a particular color will help you experiment more, as it is interesting to see a subject that differs when it glows with red versus green gel. In real production, color gamut will be significant in orange gels. You can adjust skin tone with the main light and 1/8 CTO, then contrast it with 3/4 CTO and full color division CTB. Most studios will have Rosco Cinegels for hire with grip gear, so think of this practice as helping you to be more comfortable with your environment on the set.

Whether you are a commercial photographer or just a hobbyist who wants to see what adding light gels can do to an image, there are some good fun to have in trying them. Like the great Bob Ross said, “We don’t make mistakes. We only have happy accidents.” Go out and have some happy accidents in your photos, who knows, you might just find your new favorite thing in photography.


About the author: Blair Bunting is a commercial photographer for the Phoenix Company. You can see more of his work on his website, blog, Facebook and Instagram. This story was also posted here.

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