How to Use Lighting Gels to Change your Background Color

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If there’s one thing that bugs me about shooting in studio, more than anything, it’s that you need to have tonnes of backgrounds, taking up loads of space. I’ve even gone as far as having a painter come in and create an interesting wall for me because I get bored with what I had. I’ve got over 15 backgrounds between paper, canvas, cloth, and even some vinyl castle doors.

Part of what I love about location work is the variety of backgrounds. Often you’re restricted to working in the the studio by the client, so that where this handy technique comes into it’s own.

Changing-your-background-with-gels-magmod

I’ve been using gels in studio to add color to my subjects for years. A gel is a colored, transparent, sheet of heat resistant plastic. They look akin to the colored wrappers you get on some candies. They’re generally used in theatre to create mood, or emulate natural looks like moonlight, fire, etc. Gels were a big thing in photography in the 80s, and they’re making a comeback now thanks to photographers like Jake Hicks and Glenn Norwood. This article isn’t about their techniques, but it is about something I’ve started to do because of seeing their work.

Shooting on location with speedlights mean that I’m always on the lookout for great tools that make life easy for set up. Using gels meant that when I saw the MagMod kit, I knew I had to get a set. MagMod uses strong magnets and rubber mouldings to create a grip that stretches over your speed light. It’s much neater than rubber bands or velcro. Accessories like the MagGrid, or the MagGel holder are simply held in place with internal magnets, and are easy to swap on and off as you need.

Basic Kit 1 1861968723

The really great thing that applies here, is that the gels they use are rigid, not flimsy and awkward to get in and out of a holder. The basic kit ships with a MagGrip, a MagGrid and a MagGel set with color correcting gels. I also bought the Creative Gel set, and that’s what I’m using to get different background colors in my studio. They’ve also just announced the new Artist set as well.

Let’s start with the basic back wall in my studio. It’s dark grey, with a light grey mottle over it as brush strokes.

Using Gels background 05

You should set the flash to get the amount of light you want on the background. Here is mine set to 1/4 power (below).

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Below it is at 1/8 power, which I think is better for getting the color to work.

Using Gels background 06

From here you can add the gels to change the color of the background. There are plenty of options for using gels, you can even just use gaffa tape with sheet gel-or even just a rubber band. Even using the MagGel set, it’s possible for you to cut out sections from gels sheets, and then trap this cutout between the empty MagGel holder and the MagGrip.

 

Let’s have a look at the different gels:

Using Gels background 07

Cyan

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Purple

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Red

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Blue

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Green

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Straw

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Yellow

As well as changing the color, you can also change the intensity of the light by varying your flash power.

Here’s how the the cyan gel looks at varying power, in one stop increments starting at 1/64 power up to full power.

Using Gels background 20

1/64 Power

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1/32 Power

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1/16 Power

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1/8 Power

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Quarter (1/4) Power

Using Gels background 21

Half (1/2) Power

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Full Power

As you can see, it’s possible to get a whole range of looks from just a few gels. By using the MagGrid, you can also create coloured spots of light, that fade out to the original background color. A neutral grey background is a great starting point because it takes the color well. White tends to be harder to add color to with gels (just looks washed out). You can also mix gels together to get other colors, just know that this will also absorb more light.

If you want to get started by just using gels sheets, check out Lee Filters or Rosco on Amazon. They both have sample packs with strips that just fit over the front of most current speed lights.

Have fun!

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Sean McCormack is a Fuji X Photographer and author based in the Galway in the west of Ireland. He's the author of The Indispensable Guide to Lightroom CC. When he's not writing or creating YouTube content, he shoots people, places and even things.

  • Swami Pavan

    It’s useful information.

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  • Mike Mahaffey

    What is the circle device holding the flash in the first photo. I’ve not seen this holder before.

  • Sean McCormack

    Hi Mike,
    It’s a Godox bracket. They come in either Bowens or Elinchrom fit. They’re great.

  • Gary Hammond

    How are you lighting the background so evenly vs a hot spot that generally occurs?

  • Sean McCormack

    The wide angle diffuser is out, and then it’s all about distance really. One of the practical effect of the inverse square law of light falloff is that light falls off quickly in close, or slowly far away. So if the flash is far away, the spread is more even. You do need more power to compensate for this in terms of the light level.

    The gel mount is slightly cutting the spread though. I didn’t want the gel pressing hard on the lens of the flash, just for heat reasons.

  • Tony Bassman

    I’m sorry to say that this article could have been very useful but falls short on telling us how you actually used the gels. Good product placement and nice photos, but how did you do it? What position did you put the light in? I’m confused. Is the light source behind the model or to one side? If its to the side, how do you get an even light across the background?

  • Sean McCormack

    Some fair points Tony. The product is mentioned simply because I use it. I get nothing for mentioning it. I’m not an affiliate. I’ve used products from plenty of other companies, and this one just works for me. I did also mention what else you can use instead in the middle section. I’ve discussed the spread of light in another comment. “The wide angle diffuser is out, and then it’s all about distance really. One of the practical effect of the inverse square law of light falloff is that light falls off quickly in close, or slowly far away. So if the flash is far away, the spread is more even. You do need more power to compensate for this in terms of the light level.” As long as the model isn’t being hit by the light, you can have it anywhere you like. In this case it’s directly behind her back about 6-8 foot from the wall. I’m about 4 foot away from her. Hope this helps. Thank you for your comment.

  • Tony Bassman

    thank you, it all makes sense now, I’m going to try it, its a little cheaper (well quite a lot actually) than buying many backgrounds 🙂

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