Add Interest to your Background with Colored Gels - Digital Photography School
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Add Interest to your Background with Colored Gels

Colored gels are commonly used to balance flash color temperature with the color temperature of ambient light. But you can also use gels to add creative color effects to your photos.

Photo of a young boy dressed as a Japanese samurai

I recently shot this portrait of my son to commemorate his Shichi Go San (7-5-3) ceremony. Shichi Go San is a Japanese rite of passage performed at ages 3 and 7 for girls, and at age 5 for boys.

The background is a black piece of cloth, stretched across a Manfrotto background stand. To separate him from the background, and add visual interest, I used a single flash with a DIY blue gel to add some color to the background. In this article I’ll explain how to make your own gels, and how to use them. Lighting your background separately from your subject, with or without gels, is a great way to add depth to your photos and can help separate subjects from a dark background.

Here’s how it looks with only the background light:

Photo showing the use of a blue gel to tone a black background

First, an overview of the lighting setup for this shot:

Main Lights: 2 x Canon 430EX II Speedlites at full power, fired through 24″ Lastolite EZY-Box softboxes at camera left and right, just outside the frame.

Background Light: Single Canon 430EX II Speedlite in a snoot, with DIY blue gel, fired at the background from the right side of the set. I aimed this flash so that the hotspot would be centered behind my son’s head.

Exposure: 1/200, f/6.3, ISO 200
Lens: Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L
Camera: Canon EOS 5D Mark III

How to make your own DIY Gels

Any piece of thin colored plastic will work well. For the above photo I used two circles of plastic that I cut from a notebook cover. I purchased the notebook for 100 yen, or about USD $1.25. Experiment with different colors to find what works with your creative style, and for the particular photo you’re creating. For portrait work, I’m partial to cool tones, especially blues. Warm colors appear to pop out against cool colors, so a cool colored background works well to compliment skin tones.

In addition to the gel, you also need a snoot. A snoot narrows the light, and gives a spotlight effect. This keeps blue light from spilling all over the place. For this photo, I used a Gary Fong Powersnoot, because I already have one. But a piece of black poster board folded into a cylinder works just as well.

Photo showing steps to make colored flash gels

My 8-year-old daughter taped the blue plastic to the end of the snoot for me. If you don’t have an 8-year-old, see if you can borrow one from a friend or relative. Failing that, you can also tape the plastic onto the snoot yourself.

How much flash output?

So, how much flash do you need on the background to get a nice color effect? At first glance this may seem counterintuitive, but here’s the rule:

More flash = lighter color
Less flash = darker color

The reason for this is simple. The brighter your background flash, higher the luminosity of the color hitting the background will be.

So for a nice, deep blue like in this photo, you only need a little kiss of light from your flash. I powered a single 430EX II at 1/4 power for the background light, compared to two 430EX II’s at full power for the main lights. My background flash was about the same distance from the background as my main flashes were from the subject, so basically the light on the background is 4 stops weaker than the light on the subject. (1 flash @ 1/4 power on the background, 2 flashes @ full power on the subject.)

I hope this article has given you some ideas about how to make your own DIY flash gels from inexpensive materials, as well as how to use gels to add creative color effects to your photos. I’d love to hear from you, feel free to comment below or reach out to me on Google+ or Facebook.

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Jason Weddington is passionate photographer and the creator of PhotoQueue.com, a service that helps photographers maintain their online presence by scheduling uploads to Flickr and 500px. PhotoQueue will soon add support for Facebook, and Tumblr. You can connect with Jason on Google+, Facebook, or Flickr. Jason is also an Associate member of the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP).

  • http://www.portraitinspiration.com Jai Catalano

    DIY is totally the way to go. Good post. Happy Thanksgiving.

  • Scottc

    Very well written, an interesting and informative read!

    I’ve “dabbled” with lighting like this, but your article has given me some new ideas and added inspiration.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/7817428180/

  • http://jasonweddington.com Jason Weddington

    @Jai – thanks! Happy Thanksgiving to you too!

    @Scottc – Thanks for pointing me to your Flickr page, love the recent sunrise shots you’ve posted.

  • http://dewandemmer.com Dewan Demmer

    Hah. I like the bit about the snoot and colour, I should and will be looking to be getting one of those snoots in the near future. Now I have to train my 18 month old how to tape everything, that should be easy.

  • http://500px.com/wisemx Mark Wisecarver

    This is awesome! DIY kudos ;-)

  • Phil Anderson

    Thank you for sharing this. You make it so simple to understand. I’m new to all this, but because of people like you who are willing to take the time to share your knowledge with us “newbes” I’m learning so much. Again, I thankyou.

  • Kaleb M. Garcia

    I love the picture! So cute! God Bless!

  • Barry E Warren

    Great tips on Gels. I just got a package of gels for speed lights, it contains 12 different gel colors.I purchase it at Amazon.com for about 12 US dollars. This couldn’t have came at a better time. Thanks Jason..

  • THT

    Great tip!

Some older comments

  • Kaleb M. Garcia

    December 18, 2012 03:29 am

    I love the picture! So cute! God Bless!

  • Phil Anderson

    December 10, 2012 02:56 am

    Thank you for sharing this. You make it so simple to understand. I'm new to all this, but because of people like you who are willing to take the time to share your knowledge with us "newbes" I'm learning so much. Again, I thankyou.

  • Mark Wisecarver

    December 6, 2012 02:54 am

    This is awesome! DIY kudos ;-)

  • Dewan Demmer

    November 27, 2012 07:39 pm

    Hah. I like the bit about the snoot and colour, I should and will be looking to be getting one of those snoots in the near future. Now I have to train my 18 month old how to tape everything, that should be easy.

  • Jason Weddington

    November 23, 2012 01:46 pm

    @Jai - thanks! Happy Thanksgiving to you too!

    @Scottc - Thanks for pointing me to your Flickr page, love the recent sunrise shots you've posted.

  • Scottc

    November 23, 2012 05:16 am

    Very well written, an interesting and informative read!

    I've "dabbled" with lighting like this, but your article has given me some new ideas and added inspiration.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/7817428180/

  • Jai Catalano

    November 23, 2012 03:16 am

    DIY is totally the way to go. Good post. Happy Thanksgiving.

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