George Wilson: Shooting the Moody Blue

Katelyn Crawford Moody Blue Final 2 1

At the start of each of my photo classes I explain to my students that photography is about capturing light and mood in a photograph is dictated by how you shape that light. The challenge that we face as photographers is demonstrating mood, thoughts and meaning to a viewer without being present ourselves. If we are not present for a verbal explanation (which we usually are not), we must rely on our skills to create visual clues that communicate an experience to the viewer.

A photographer may also be asked to create an image that depicts a specific mood or event that is not currently happening. For example think about how you would create a Mardi Gras theme in June, which can be done with props. Think about the warm gold tones of morning/late afternoon light. In this case I would reach for my Photoflex 39x72 LitePanel or one of my Photoflex LiteDiscs during a midday or evening session. The “moody blue”, as I call it, is just that type of image.

The premise here is to capture an image that shows a “cold” toned or blue background with the subject’s skin tone exposed properly. The challenge for me is to capture this image in Florida on a day when temperatures are above 90 degrees and humidity is above 90%. Those of you familiar with Florida know this is a fairly normal condition in the summer months. The location is Harry P. Leu Gardens, a 47-acre botanical garden in the middle of the city.

In the image above I approach the task as I would most standard portraits. My lens of choice for this is my Nikon 50mm f1.8 as I enjoy shooting with the “nifty fifty”. The wide-open f1.8 aperture achieves a fantastic blurring of the background (bokeh). In order to render the skin tones softly and evenly, I set the camera to the Portrait picture control setting. I also use this setting because of the slight softening of the focus. By softening the crisp focus ever so slightly I am adding a slightly dreamy mood.

When shooting in open shade, I add +0.7 exposure compensation for just a bit more light and usually set my white balance to shade for color accuracy. To add to the moody feeling, my model Katelyn chose tops that were blue in color. My goal with this portrait is not only the blue background, but to have Katelyn blend into the overall blue cast I was working towards (except here face and hands). Katelyn is a real trooper in dealing with the heat and the blue sweater really helped the overall feeling of the scene.

The resulting image establishes the basis for the correct blurring, pose and location. I usually take a number of test frames to establish all of this, just like a movie director who wants a specific look or feel to a scene, a photographer will do the same. The exposure for this image is ISO 100, 1/250 @ f1.8.

The second image above retains all of the original settings except for one; the white balance. To achieve this effect, I manually adjust the white balance to 2,000° K. By telling the camera that the color temperature is in the yellow/orange color range, the camera’s programming adds blue tones to compensate. Had the scene actually been in the color temperature range of 2,000° K, the image would have had the expected warmer colors. As you can see, the image instead has a strong blue color-cast. In this case I began shooting at about 2900°K to test the amount of blue and the effect I looking for. I always shoot a few test frames and Katelyn knew what I was trying to achieve and by sharing the images on the back of the camera, the session turned into collaboration between us as her ideas became part of the resulting image. I have always found better success in a portrait session by sharing and exchanging ideas. My exposure in this second image remained ISO 100, 1/250 @ f1.8.

For the final step I turned on my strobe, positioning it at a 45° angle to Katelyn’s left, just above her eye level. Instead of a Photoflex HalfDome, which is my favorite light modifier to use, I chose the 7” metal reflector and taped two large CTO gels over the front of the flash.

By keeping the white balance at 2,000° K, the CTO gels compensate for the blue cast on the subject only. Katelyn was wearing a blue and white sweater and white shorts, which blended into the image’s desired overall blue cast. Anything on Katelyn not originally blue renders as color correct in the final image, specifically her hands, hair and face.

Before proceeding, the flash must be positioned for the most flattering effect. I enjoy having 100% control of my exposure; therefore TTL flash is not in my back of tricks. All of my flash images are controlled with manual settings. I always fall back to the below Flash Circle for determining settings. I learned this technique years ago and it has never failed me.

I established previously that my strobe has a Guide Number of 100 (see LiteBlog - “Determining the Guide Number for FlexFlash 200W” September 2015). The Flash Circle is designed to help photographers determine each of three variables for working with flash lighting. In this case, I have determined the desired aperture to be f1.8 and I already know the Guide Number is 100. The last step is to determine the distance from the flash to the subject. If I were to block the word distance in the circle, it would show Guide Number over aperture (f). Guide Number divided by aperture equals distance. So, 100/1.8 = 55.

Wow, at f1.8, that means the flash needs to be 55’ away from Katelyn. I need to shorten that distance to minimize the spread of the flash and for the fact that I do not have 55’ of space to make the shot. By cutting the flash power by one half, I can move it half the distance to the subject.

So, at 1/2 power I can shoot 27’-6” from the subject. At 1/4 power I can shoot 13’-9” from the subject.

And at 1/8 power I can shoot 6’-9” from the subject.

At 1/8 power I positioned the flash roughly 6’-9” from Katelyn and began to shoot. I made changes in lighting by subtle changes to flash position. My final exposure in the final image below remained ISO 100, 1/250 @ f1.8.

Keep in mind that flash is controlled by aperture and distance. The shutter speed only ensures that the camera’s shutter is fully open during the exposure. I tweaked the image slightly in post processing for cropping, sharpening and some light spill near Katelyn’s hands.

George Wilson has more than 30 years of experience as a professional photographer, and his work has appeared in many national and international publications. Now focusing on nature and wildlife photography, George exhibits his infrared black and white landscape work and teaches photography at numerous art centers, botanical gardens and at the Walt Disney World Resort in his home state of Florida. A key element to George’s work is his dedication to traditional photography as his post processing is strictly limited to tools aligning with the traditional darkroom. To see more of George's work, visit

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