How to Use Plastic Wrap to Create Neat Color Special Effects

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In this article I’ll show you how to use a common household item, plastic wrap, to make creative images with colored filter special effects.

Plastic wrap (a blanket term for Saran Wrap, Glad Wrap and Cling Wrap) is a clear plastic film typically sold in rolls or boxes with a serrated edge. Usually used for sealing food items like sandwiches to keep them fresh for longer, plastic wrap is an incredibly versatile material. Great for a picnic or practical jokes, it’s also a useful tool for creative photography.

If you’re looking to add something a little different to your portfolio, plastic wrap is a simple, low-cost option. Using a rubber band, a camera, and some markers, you can easily create a colored filter out of plastic wrap – adding an experimental edge to your photographic repertoire.

How to Use Plastic Wrap to Create Neat Color Special Effects

The science

Like many great scientific discoveries, plastic wrap was discovered by accident. Ralph Wiley, a lab worker at The DOW Chemical Company was having trouble washing out a beaker which contained a substance he couldn’t scrub clean. He called the substance “Eonite” named after an indestructible substance created by chemist Eli Eon in the Little Orphan Annie comic book strip. DOW researchers adopted the substance, using it to create a greasy, dark green film they called “Saran” and shared it with the military to spray on fighter jets as a guard against sea spray.

How to Use Plastic Wrap to Create Neat Color special Effects

A very subtle red and blue colored filter adds a little color to this image of a Ferris wheel.

Saran works by polymerizing vinylidene chloride with acrylic esters and unsaturated carboxyl groups to create chains of vinylidene chloride. What does that mean? Simply put, the process results in a film with molecules bound so tightly that very little can penetrate it. The chemists at DOW eventually removed Saran’s green color. They also removed an unpleasant odor the Saran emitted when exposed to oxygen. It was first sold for household use in 1953.

How to Use Plastic Wrap to Create Neat Color special Effects

A surreal green shade created with a plastic wrap filter colored with green marker.

Plastic wrap in art

While handy in the lunchbox or fridge, plastic wrap is also a great material to experiment with creatively. Artists have used plastic wrap in sculpture, painting and as a prop for photography. Many well-known fashion designers have created clothing from layers of plastic cling film for the runway.

Because of its relatively clear composition, plastic wrap is great for forming a barrier between your camera lens and foreign materials. Recently, I applied a layer of Vaseline to plastic wrap stretched over the front of my camera lens. The result was a fine, misty effect without the agony of a greasy camera.

How to Use Plastic Wrap to Create Neat Color special Effects

This image was captured using plastic wrap over the lens with a red section on the upper half and a green colored portion below.

Creating a colored special effects filter

You will need:

  • A piece of plastic wrap at least 30cm in length and width.
  • Camera and lens.
  • Permanent markers.
  • A few rubber bands.

Adding color

To create a colored filter for your camera, first you will need to add some color to your plastic wrap! The easiest way to do this is to stretch the plastic wrap over your lens and color in the plastic within the circle. However, this method is a little risky. If the plastic wrap is pierced, you will end up drawing on your lens or lens protector (cap).

Instead, take your lens cap or lens and place it on the plastic wrap. Trace a circle around the outside. Now you’ll know where you should color your plastic wrap to get full coverage of the lens. To minimize the use of plastic here, you can trace multiple outlines of your lens on the same sheet of plastic wrap as I’ve done below.

How to Use Plastic Wrap to Create Neat Color special Effects

Use the same sheet of plastic wrap to create different effects, making it easier to keep for later and minimizing waste.

Finally, add color to the sectioned-off portion of plastic wrap, make sure you use quality permanent markers. Low-quality texters won’t leave any visible color on the plastic wrap and the ink from non-permanent markers simply slides off the plastic (onto your hands or something worse).

You can color in your circles any way you would like. For a full effect, color in the whole interior of the marked out circle with one or two colors. For a softer gradient, draw a light squiggle. You can color in the center of the circle and leave the perimeter clear, or vice versa. Don’t be afraid to experiment here!

How to Use Plastic Wrap to Create Neat Color special Effects

The effect of a portion of plastic wrap colored entirely green and placed over the front of the lens.

How to Use Plastic Wrap to Create Neat Color Effects

Coloring only the outer perimeter of the plastic wrap filter produces a fish-eye effect.

How to Use Plastic Wrap to Create Neat Color special Effects

Create an eerie atmosphere with a thick layer of red permanent marker.

Time to photograph

When you are happy with the colors of your circles, select one and lay it carefully over the front of your lens. Fix the filter in place with a rubber band, but don’t pull the plastic wrap too tightly or it will split.

When the filter is fixed properly to the lens, it’s time to get photographing. Because your camera will have difficulty focusing with the layer of colored plastic wrap in the frame, you should use manual focus over automatic. Because the filter will cut down the light reaching your sensor, you may also need to increase your exposure time or adjust your aperture accordingly.

Also, be sure to check the rubber band is fitted snugly around your lens. You don’t want it to come flying off, especially when photographing portraits!

How to Use Plastic Wrap to Create Neat Color special Effects

How to Use Plastic Wrap to Create Neat Color Effects

Using colored plastic wrap can add an effect imitating the light leaks produced with partially exposed film.

Finishing up

Once you are happy with your photos, take them back to have a look on your computer. As I mentioned before, the filer may cut down the amount of light reaching your sensor. This could result in photographs that lack contrast. Photoshop is your friend here.

Open your images in Photoshop and adjust the Curves layer to increase contrast. For more intense colors you may also want to adjust the Vibrance and Saturation of the image with the Vibrance and Saturation tool.

How to Use Plastic Wrap to Create Neat Color Effects

Adjust the Curves tool for more contrast in your images.

How to Use Plastic Wrap to Create Neat Color Effects

Adjust the Vibrance and Saturation tool for more intense colors.

Your Turn

Once you’ve got some quirky plastic wrap photos, please share them in the comments below. And remember to keep your filters for later. You never know when you might need them. Fold them down or scrunch them into a loose ball, they last for ages. Have fun.

How to Use Plastic Wrap to Create Neat Color Effects

An apocalyptic scene created with red ink that completely covers the plastic wrap filter.

How to Use Plastic Wrap to Create Neat Color Effects

How to Use Plastic Wrap to Create Neat Color Effects

Loosely fixing colored plastic wrap to the lens, mirrors the view through a window on a rainy day.

Pulling the plastic wrap taut reduces glare.

An image with a slower shutter speed creates light trails as if looking through a window with raindrops on the outside.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Megan Kennedy is a photographer and writer based in Canberra, Australia. A lifelong fascination with flight has inspired her photographic practice in documenting the intricate form of aircraft. Megan is also interested in travel photography and documenting human interaction with the modern landscape, through both intentional and incidental intervention. She is well versed in both digital and film practice. Both her writing and photography has been featured in numerous publications.

  • Woah cool tips! I’m totally going to try these out. It weird how something so simple can have such great results.

  • Megan Kennedy

    I agree Frederic! Glad you found the article helpful πŸ™‚

  • Odette Moss

    Wouldn’t it also work using children’s coloured sandwich bags? No need to use a marker, and the filter is even. I’m not sure which countries have them, but if we have it in South Africa, it should be available elsewhere.

  • Dan Merkel

    Sounds like a fun experiment but BE CAREFUL! Even the best of markers can rub off onto the wrong things at the wrong time. πŸ™

  • Megan Kennedy

    Good advice Dan, thanks!

  • Megan Kennedy

    Hmm, not sure I’m familiar with those Odette, but they sounds like they’d make a good substitute.

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  • Looks interesting. I might try this one.:)

  • Megan Kennedy

    Would love to see the results!

  • Delilah Ripley

    Passing terrible pictures as a “creative” art? I use the word “pictures” intentionally – the final result does not qualify as “photography” by any stretch of imagination. Sorry for the blunt opinion, but the pictures used as an example have only one place – in the trash bin.

  • Megan Kennedy

    Sorry you feel that way Delilah! It would be great if you could try out the technique and share some of your own results with us?

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