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Lights, Camera, Colour: An Introduction to Using Colour Gels in Photography

Last Updated 28th February 2023

When you need to fine-tune the colour of your lights to match the ambient temperature or want to be creative with your lighting, colour gels are an affordable way to achieve your goals.

What is Colour Gel Photography?

Colour gels add visual interest to standard product shots and portrait photos. They are a simple way to change the colour of your lights, and it’s easy to control their colour saturation by adjusting the intensity of the light source. They are attached to continuous lights, strobes or Speedlite flashes to create a mood or bring a creative flair to a shoot.

Colour gels (or colour filters) are thin pieces of tinted transparent material placed over a lighting source. They are used by photographers who want to compensate their lighting to daylight tones or tungsten sources. The effects of colour gels are often seen in music videos and album covers, but they are also fun and effective when experimenting with eye-catching portrait photos.

Gear Needed for Colour Gel Photography

When using continuous lighting, keep the gel away from the light to avoid melting the filter. A low-intensity light such as the Godox SL60IID can be used with gels to provide illumination for colourful head and shoulder portraits. With stronger continuous lights such as the Godox VL150II, especially when firing at full power, it’s best to use a filter frame or barndoors to add extra separation from the LED to the gel. The barndoor is a budget-friendly modifier that holds colour gels away from the light to reduce the risk of overheating. Our Godox Four Leaf Barndoor Kit is designed to fit on the front of a Godox AD-R6 7-inch reflector. It includes a set of yellow, green, blue and red gel filters for a creative wash of colour. The Godox Barndoor & Gel Kit for AD400Pro Outdoor Flash is part of the specially designed range of accessories used in combination with the AD400Pro for dynamic lighting effects. If you are using a Godox AD400Pro light for outdoor shots, the Profoto-mount adapter ring offers the ability to attach Profoto gels to inject colour and creativity into your lighting setup. The other highly recommended light is the Godox AD600Pro Witstro studio strobe. It’s a powerful light that can be reduced to 1/256 output to gain more colour saturation with gels. But remember to turn off the modelling light whenever possible to minimise the risk of overheating the lamp or gels.

If you want to experiment with gels, our Creative Colour Gel Set includes 14 gels in 7 different colours (red, purple, yellow, pink, green, blue and orange). Each rectangular sheet is 28 cm x 22 cm that can be cut to size and attached to the front of a strobe’s reflector with a peg or bulldog clip. These sheets are flexible, so you can even use masking tape to hold them in position for the duration of the shoot. The other size sheet available is the 30 cm x 20 cm set which includes 18 colour gels in 9 different colours (red, blue, pink, cyan, purple, orange, green, yellow and black). They are perfect for filmmakers, photographers, and theatre stage productions where colour correction and accentuation are essential. The quality of these sheets is impressive; they have a solid distribution of colour that ensures even coverage.

Spectrums’s colour gels are soft enough to cut to the size of Speedlites. When wrapping them around the head of a Speedlite, leave a gap so a flow of air can keep the gel and the front of the flash from overheating. We have a 7-colour set that is a universal gel range for Speedlites incorporating the following hues: #010 Medium Yellow, #026 Bright Red, #079 Just Blue, #024 CTO Full CT Orange, #205 1/2CTO/1/2 CT Orange, #206 1/4 CTO/1/4 CT Orange, and #244 Full Plus Green. If you want to experiment with other colours, the Falcon Eyes Speedlite Colour Gel Kit has 30 different colour gels for playful and flamboyant effects.

Basic Techniques for Using Coloured Gels

You can use gels to adjust the colour temperature of your lighting to match a scene. For example, if you shoot indoors under tungsten lights, use a blue gel to change the scene to daylight temperature. It’s easier to do this at the time of shooting rather than make adjustments to the white balance in post-processing.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but increasing the power makes subtle shifts in colour available, whereas decreasing the output intensifies the colour. Gels are perfect for accentuating a portrait with a hint of colour. It doesn’t matter whether you prefer a single-light or a three-light setup; a mix of gels offers a touch of colour on the skin or hair of your model to turn a standard portrait into an artistic image.

Colour gels can also make your subject stand out from the background. Using standard daylight illumination on the face while saturating the backdrop with colour adds depth to the shot. Adding colour also generates various moods depending on the hue. A red gel creates a warm and inviting feeling, while a blue gel suggests a cool and moody atmosphere.

Combining complementary colours (red and green; yellow and purple; orange and blue; green and magenta) creates bold yet harmonious images. But avoid having colours spilling onto the model’s skin unless you intend to manufacture an artistic vision. Sometimes this becomes an odd hue when it mixes with natural skin tones.

Creative Ways to Use Colour Gels

Being creative with a standard portrait is as simple as keeping the key light free of gels but adding filters to the others. The lights with gels are used as rim lights, hair lights or side lights. Place the coloured lights close to the subject so the main light doesn’t wash them out. Position these lights slightly behind the model to avoid spilling colour onto the subject’s face. Incorporate barndoors to accentuate particular colours and allow others to bleed onto the background. You can be more adventurous by using complementary colours to create contrast. For example, use an orange gel on the subject and a blue gel on the background to add visual interest.

Making multi-coloured backdrops is easy with gel lighting. Direct two or three light sources onto a seamless backdrop and illuminate the background with different gels. Keep the background fully saturated by bringing the subject forward, so the main light doesn’t override the colours on the backdrop. When using multiple coloured gels in a shot, it’s a good idea to be mindful of how you position your lights. If the colours from your lights mix, they might create unintended hues you don’t want in your final image. So, try placing your subject between the lights so that the colours fall on either side of them without an overlap.

Experiment further by placing two different gels on top of each other to create new colours. But remember that layering will block light, so you will have to increase the intensity of the output to produce the same brightness level.

Post-Processing Tips for Colour Gel Photography

Unless you are using continuous lighting, incorporating numerous coloured gels against the backdrop and subject can confuse the eyes when taking the photo. Sometimes, it’s only when you look at the final shots on your computer monitor that you notice unwanted colour casts creeping into the image. Opening images in Photoshop or Lightroom means you can make subtle alterations to improve skin tones by adjusting the white balance and hue.  

Depending on the look you are going for, you may want to increase or decrease the saturation of your image. Experimenting with the saturation adjustment tool can help you find the right balance of colours you originally intended. Combine this with the contrast adjustment tool in your post-processing software to enhance the contrast and make colours pop from the screen. If you still don’t have the effect you intended, or if you want to take artistic license to the extreme, play with the colour curves adjustment tool to fine-tune the individual colour channels in your image. Adjust the intensity of specific colours to create unique effects.

Final Thoughts on Colour Gels

Colour gels are essential to modern studio photography because they allow photographers to add a creative element to their images that cannot be achieved through traditional lighting techniques alone. This type of modifier is particularly useful in studio photography because they allow photographers to control the lighting and colour in their images precisely. By using different coloured gels in combination with varying lighting setups, photographers can achieve a wide variety of looks and moods in their pictures, from dramatic and moody to bright and vibrant. Colour gels can complement a set’s colour scheme or add a pop of colour to a standard image.


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