How to Use Colored Gels for Creative Off-Camera Flash Photography

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Diving into off-camera flash photography opens up a world of exciting, new and creative possibilities. Besides giving you the option to shape and control the light in your image with a flash unit, you can also use colored gels to modify the color of your scene to add either a subtle creative touch or a more dramatic impact.

off-camera flash using a blue colored gel

A man playing electric guitar lit creatively by an off-camera flash colored blue.

This guide will help you to get started using off-camera flash and colored gels to bring your photography to the next level!

What are colored gels and how are they used?

Colored gels (sometimes called color filters or lighting gels) are thin pieces of colored transparent material. They can be fitted over the top of your flash unit to modify the color of the light.

Examples of colored gels that can be used to modify the color of light from off-camera flashes

A small example of the variety of colored gels available.

Often, the reason for using a colored gel is to tone of the flash so that it matches the color (white balance) of the room. For example, a typical camera flash fired in a room lit by tungsten light bulbs will appear much bluer against the orange ambient background light. By covering the flash with a gel that is tinted orange, you can make the flash match the existing lighting conditions so that all sources contribute the same color to your final image.

Attaching the colored gels to your flash

A gel can be attached to a flash in a number of ways. Perhaps the most common method for portable flash units is with a velcro strap that wraps around the flash tube. If you’re in a real pinch, you could even simply use a piece of tape. Just make sure that the gel completely covers the flash so that it completely modifies that color of the light.

Note: Magmod makes a system to do just that – read Suzi Pratt’s overview of Magmod options here.

A red colored gel filter covering an off-camera flash unit

A red gel has been attached snugly to the flash unit and will now change the color of the light from the flash to red.

A sideview of a colored gel fitted over a flash unit, attached by a Velcro strap

A view of the Honl Photo Speed Strap, which uses velcro to allows you to quickly and easily attach a color gel to your flash unit.

Gels come in a wide variety of colors and are very inexpensive, which makes it easy to get started experimenting with this fun style of photography. Also, they can continue to be used even if they are scratched or folded. You only need to replace a gel if it has a rip or a small hole.

Once you have your off-camera flash or multiple speedlight units ready, you can begin to get creative!

Using colored gels with a dark background

When getting started, one of the best ways to get a sense of how to use color gels is by taking pictures in a dark room. This gives you full control over the light throughout the scene. Creating a dark background doesn’t have anything to do with putting up black curtains or finding a wall that is painted black – it’s all about controlling where the light spills.

First, you’ll want to find a medium to large sized room. Dim the lights so that you can produce a perfectly black image without flash (available room light only). Place your subject a fair distance away from the far wall. By directing the light from your flash units only towards your subject and away from the wall behind them, you can create a completely black background.

To add just a hint of color, put a color gel only on your secondary flash. The key (main) light provides adequate lighting for the subject, while the secondary flash adds drama, intrigue, and style to the photo.

A man plays guitar with a burst of blue color from the flash behind him

This photo was taken with two flashes – the one in the front hitting him is not tinted with any color, the one behind him is gelled blue. Light from the blue-tinted flash has been allowed to “spill” towards the camera lens, created the colored lens flare effect.

Once you’ve mastered this straight-forward style of shot, you can start to mix and match colors for unexpected and fascinating results.

Getting creative with color

Color plays an incredibly vital role in telling a story or establishing a mood. We are all familiar with typical color associations – yellow represents happiness, red represents anger, blue represents sadness, and so on.

With a variety of color choices at your fingertips, you can craft a precise feeling or mood in your images simply by adding a colored gel over your flash unit.

A portrait of a man taken with a light from a flash that has been tinted blue

This image was lit by a single flash with a blue colored gel to give it a mood of introspection and melancholy.

It is important to visualize the final image you intend to create, otherwise, your shot can quickly turn into a jumble of mismatched colors.

Remember that you can also color more than just the subject. Firing a colored flash at the background wall can instantly update it, which is perfect for adding some variety to studio-style portrait shots.

An image of a man with a lightsaber, made possible through a red colour placed over an off-camera flash unit

Since lightsabers haven’t been invented yet, an off-camera flash that has been covered with a red color gel provides the distinctive glow for this image. The lightsaber itself was added later in Photoshop.

How understanding color can help you create drama

Once you start playing with color, it helps to have an understanding of how and why certain colors work better together than others.

Colorwheel

You can apply even some basic knowledge from a color wheel to get a sense of how you can create bold and vibrant color pairs. For example, colors directly opposite each other on the color wheel are called complementary colors, as they pair together very well. Knowing this you can mix blue and orange for a dramatic shot. Many Hollywood movies use color theory to help make their footage more vivid.

Or, you can break the rules for more surprising and unexpected results!

A man holding a guitar, lit by light from blue and red colored gels on off-camera flashes

Blue and red create a strong contrast, which adds a feeling of tension and drama to this image.

Once you get comfortable with controlling and creating colored light, your creative options are endless. For example, you can use a flash tinted orange to recreate the glow of a sunset. You can also begin mixing and matching with ambient light conditions, which is much trickier but can be very rewarding.

You’ll be surprised how much a thin sheet of colored plastic can transform your photography!

Some important tips to remember

  • Darker color gels, such as deep reds or blues, block a portion of the light that the flash gives off. When working with these colors you will need to increase the amount of flash power compared to when you use flash on its on.
  • If you don’t have a full set of colors, you can layer two colored gels over top of each other. For example, blue and red colored gels can be combined to make purple. Remember that doubling them up will block even more light and require additional flash power.
  • You can use any traditional flash modifiers, such as umbrellas and soft boxes, along with color gels in order to soften or shape the light that is produced.
  • Experiment and play! Even if it seems intimidating or complicated at first, trial and error is a fantastic way to learn a new skill or technique that you can add to your repertoire.

Please share your questions, comments and images shot with colored gels below.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Frank Myrland is an avid photographer from Toronto, Canada. Many years ago he picked up a camera on a whim, and he's been hooked ever since. As an active and independent learner, Frank likes to continuously explore ways to make his images worth a second look. You can see more of his work by visiting his website, or by connecting with him on Instagram and Facebook.

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