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Portraits on cloudy day to get a soft light and use CTO color gels to make a grey sky blue.

Ever woke up on a Sunday morning feeling bored and wondering what you can do? Then you want to go out and take some pictures but drawing the curtains just reveals a dull and depressive cloudy day. Well I can tell you this happens to me quite regularly here in London... But what can you do? I can say bye to everything here and go back to Montpellier in the south of France or back to my parents there in New Caledonia that wonderful tropical island. But I can also accept Frank's invitation to go by the coast and instead of staying at home vegging out in front of the telly...

Grey day in Norway

About a month ago, I went to Oslo for a training course for web development and met some new friends. Gunleik and his girlfriend Vivi has proposed that we should go hiking in the forest on my last day in the city. What's cool in Oslo is that you can just take the underground train from the city center and get down in the forest. Yeah... the train is taking you right in the middle of the forest up the mountain! That is just awesome! Unluckily for me, it was very cloudy on that day and it even rained at the end... We got down from the train and entered the forest. There was still some snow or should I say ice on the ground making it very slippery and not suitable for a hike with my urban shoes... So we took a safe path down the mountain. On some part of the path, you could see the city and the Fjord. I could tell the great view that I could have had if the weather was better, what a shame. But we then found a good spot and I started to unpack my gears and take some shots of the couple.

Cloudy days are great for headshots because the clouds are acting as a huge softbox casting nearly now shadow. But for this pictures we wanted to include the environment and give to Gunleik and Vivi a nice souvenir of one of their favorite weekend locations. And as you can see in the first picture, cloudy day in the wood is a bit flat and you need a fast lens or slow down the shutter speed which is not really great for stability. That first picture was actually a test shot I've taken to set my ambiance exposure to prepare a base for my second photograph where I've added a flash. It was underexposed but I've saved it in post-processing. Here was the process for assessing the exposure of the ambiance and the subject:

  • set the ISO to 400 to help with the low light condition
  • take a shot in aperture priority then switch to manual mode and set the aperture/shutter speed to what the camera has calculated in aperture priority mode
  • underexpose by changing the shutter speed or the aperture. I've changed the aperture to f/5.6 for the depth of field and to help the flash output (I did not want to use too much flash power) and continue to up the shutter speed till I got what I think was looking good for the ambiance light
  • once I was happy with the ambiance exposure, I've set my flash on my left zooming it in at 70mm
  • I've then added a 1/4 CTO (orange) colored gel on the flash to warm it up and give a feel of a sunset lighting the scene
  • for this shot I decided to trust Nikon flash system and use CLS with iTTL and let the camera control my flash exposure and adjust it by using the flash exposure compensation

The result is a nicely lit photograph, the use of an orange gel help to warm it up as the natural light was quite dull, using bare flash produced a harsh but yet natural looking light, you could think that the sun was pointing out in the late afternoon shining thru an opening in the clouds.

After a little walk thru the forest, Gunleik took me to the beach, so we went back to the city and took the bus. The weather was going worse as the wind started to blow. With the help of Gunleik holding the umbrella on the lightstand, I took some headshots of Vivi:

Note the blue sky, it was completely dull grey. Photoshop? No. You can get this on camera and even on a compact camera by using a full CTO (orange) color gel taped on the flash and setting your camera white balance to tungsten (bulb). What a full CTO gel does is converting your daylight balanced (white or nearly) flash into a tungsten balanced (orange) flash just as if you are using a light bulb to light your subject.

Ever noticed that your pictures are all orangy when you shoot indoor under tungsten light bulb? This is because light bulbs are not producing white light but orange light. Your eye can adapt to the orange lit environment but not your camera. So to correct this you need to set your camera white balance (WB) to tungsten or bulb and the camera will try to correct the picture by adding blue to it. Just try it, set your camera to tungsten white balance and take a picture outdoor, you will see that your picture will be all with a blue color cast this is because the scene is lit by a white light instead of an orange light but your camera doesn't know that. Now if you add a flash with a CTO gel on it, every object lit by the orange light produced by that flash will looks "normal" on the picture and what is not lit by the flash will look blue. You can create your blue sky even if you live in the UK! That's cool isn't it?

Grey day in UK

Last Sunday, my friend Frank Williams proposed to go to Brighton, we ended up in Worthing another beach near Brighton. It was an opportunity for me to try the California Sunbounce micro-mini that I've won at the last Strobist seminar in London. My first impression is that it's quite a great tool, it was easy to handle even in the wind and created an artificial sun for my photographs. But I need to experiment a bit more and get some creative shots using it. For the picture below, I've added an orange color gel to the flash mounted on the Sunbounce to create a warm light.

Earlier, when we arrived at Worthing, we first went for a coffee and found a great location in a sort of gate by the beach. Behind the gate was a long brick wall with couple of arches that I've found very interesting for a portrait, using patterns are great to give a sense of depth to the picture. I took the picture below using an SB-600 speedlight mounted with DIY grid spot to focus the light on my wife's face only and casting a shadow on the wall, without the grid spot I would have lit the whole wall behind her and probably also the one next to her:

I've then chosen to shoot in the gate it self as it was opening to the beach and you could see the pebbles, the see and the sky thru it. The mix betweem the orange bricks and the blue sky can give an interesting result:

Minh Sa in Worthing

Getting closer with added cross processing effect:

The ceiling inside the gate was light cream and I thought it was ideal for bouncing my flash off of. The light cream color would just warm up the light and the ceiling will soften it. I've thus used Frank as my VAL (Voice Activated Lightstand), he held one of my SB-600 at his head level pointing to the ceiling at camera right. And I've set his SB-800 mounted with a Stofen diffuser on the floor at camera left pointing at the ceiling too. The Stofen diffuser makes the SB-800 an omni-directional flash, sending the flash light everywhere. Setting the flash on the floor did also fill in the shadows if any from below the face of the subject and also create some highlights on the dark boots. After a few shots, I decided to warm up the light even more by adding a full CTO gel on both flashes and balance it by changing the white balance on my Nikon D300 to tungsten. Why? I wanted the sky to be even bluer and by raising up my shutter speed I could darken the whole scene outside of the gate: dark blue sky, dark blue beach just as it was shot right after sunset:

I'm very happy with those two last pictures of my wife. It looks like two studio shots except that it was done nearly outdoor on a dull cloudy british day!


What do you do if you have limited gear?

First off I would like to thank you for this article and I am just amazed at the photographs and how little equipment used to do it.

The gear I have is very limited. The flash I have is a Canon 580EX II and have a Sto-Fen Gold Colored Omni-Bounce and a white one. I also have a 42" 5-in-1 Collapsible Disc Reflector, Translucent, White, Black, Silver & Soft Gold.

Do you know if the Sto-Fen Gold bounce would work in place of the orange filter?

Would you still be able to get results like the ones in your article with the equipment I have?

I am used to shooting in sunny weather and never really shot in cloudy weather. The shots I have done in cloudy weather have been desaturated and would like to figure out how to get more color.

My background is landscape and wildlife photography and have been trying to get into portraits and weddings.

Are there any books or websites that you would recommend someone in my situation to read?

Any help you could give would greatly be appreciated.



Hi Shaun

My comments notification was apparently down, sorry for the delay.

I'm not sure if Sto-Fen gold has same color temperature as CTO (orange). But you still can use it by shooting a white paper and use your camera custom balance. This will makes any object lit by the gelled flash looks correct and the rest will be shifted to blue.

And yes with the equipment you have you still can get the same results. One single flash and a CTO gel is usually enough. You can use the reflector instead of an umbrella to make the light source bigger.

Cloudy weather have a dull light. That's why you need flash to boost the colors on the subject and CTO trick to make the background nicer. Using multiple flashes you can, in some situation, use them to light the background as well.

For weddings I suggest you have a look at http://www.flashflavor.com/, http://www.lovegroveweddings.com/ and http://www.planetneil.com/

Dear Quo,

I have written quite a few timws in your blog.I have subscribed it and finding it really interesting.

Please tell me how of these teqnique can be really achieved by using in camera flash.right now i am really broke to invest in new strobe(canon Dslr i use).Can i gel the pop up flash?Since the pop up flashdoes not sync lower than 1/60 slow sync is out of question i beleive or am Zwrong?Please advice.Also find some of my pics in facebook if u have time.U r guidance will help me a lot.



CTO and built-in flash

Hi Rupak,

Thanks for all your comments on the blog, very much appreciated.

This technique can definitely be used with the camera built-in flash. You just need to buy a CTO gel and cut it to the size of your flash and tape it on. Then set you camera white balance to tungsten. Although I strongly encourage you to buy a cheap external flash such as the Yongnuo YN460 which can be bought for less than £40 from ebay, then buy a set of radio triggers such as the CTR-301P or RF-602. You don't have to spend a lot of money.

The sync speed depends on your camera. Most cameras can sync at max 1/200sec and can also sync at any speed slower than 1/200sec, but you will propably need to set your camera to Manual mode as Auto and Aperture priority will try to set sync speed to 1/60sec.

Great Advice!

I love the photographs and advice on using grids. I just made a few of my own recently.

Popping the skies

Gelling the flash is a mark of professional. I love how the skies are blue, even when there is no apparent blue hue to begin with. This makes for a really dramatic shot that has WOW written all over it.

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