Wireless off-camera flash is a great way to add a splash of light and give a scene an added dimension, or to fill in shadows in high-contrast scenes. The TTL (through the lens) exposure feature makes it easier than ever to get a well-exposed image without the need for a flash meter. However, there’s one more ingredient that you can add that will open up a new world of creative possibilities for your photography. That ingredient is easy to find, easy to use, and affordable: colored flash gels.
What’s a gel?
A gel is a piece of colored cellophane that you place over your flash head. Gels are available individually (expensive) or in more pocketbook-friendly multiple gel kits, which may contain anywhere from half a dozen to 20 or more different color variations. Gels come in primary (red, yellow, blue), secondary (green, purple, orange), and tertiary colors (Kelly green, red violet, pink, aquamarine, etc.).
The Expoimaging Rogue Gel Universal Lighting Filter Kit has 20 different gels that are: well-organized in tabbed compartments; housed in a handy-dandy holder; and divided logically into warm colors, cool colors, and color corrective gels. Each gel has information about how many stops of light it blocks, as well as White Balance values. This will help you determine appropriate exposure, flash output, and camera White Balance settings.
Some kits include color correction gels, which are intended to balance the flash (normally balanced for daylight) with artificial light sources, such as incandescent or fluorescent lights. They can also be used to add elements of warm, or cool light, as more subtle effects. While individual gels are larger and can be cut to custom-fit your flash, kits gels are generally smaller but large enough to fit over nearly any shoe-mounted flash, and usually come with a band or fabric fastener strip that affixes the gel to the flash.
All you have to do is take the gel and affix it to the front of your flash. While Rogue includes a black band that will do the job with just about any flash unit, sometimes a forgetful author needs to make due with a MacGuyver-like solution, such as using a rubber band (see image above).
The key to using a color gel to accent a scene is to use it with an off-camera flash. Fortunately, the cost of a TTL wireless flash is low. For instance, the Canon Speedlite 430 EX II currently costs under $260 USD, which is quite affordable. Whether you are using a DSLR, such as the Canon EOS 70D, or an advanced compact with wireless flash control, such as the Canon G16, you can fire the off-camera flash via a pulse from the on-camera flash.
Let’s take a look at one example of gels in action
Blah foreground – this white fence could be a unifying element in this photo of a restored colonial village in Piscataway, New Jersey, but because it’s in the shade, it’s just a boring grey. Gear: Canon EOS 7D, Canon 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens.
A splash of flash – even if the fence had been more evenly lit, the plain white flash on the fence overpowers the image. Gear: Canon EOS 7D, Canon 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens, and Canon Speedlite 430 EX II flash.
Bright red adds interest – the idea was to pick up the red tones of the building in the background while leading the eye into the shot by adding a red gel, courtesy ExpoImaging Rogue Gels (read on). Reducing the intensity of the flash output would have changed the color from pink to red. Gear: same as above with Rogue Bright Red Gel added.
Oops, wrong color! In this case, the lavender gel was a mismatch. A color wheel, available at art supply stores, will help you make better choices. Gear: Same as above with Rogue Special KH Lavender Gel.
Step-by-step – how to trigger a Canon off-camera flash wirelessly
Here are the step-by-step directions for triggering a Canon 430 EX II wireless Canon flash from the Canon 7D. If you’re using another camera, check your manual for wireless flash instructions. Among Canon bodies, the directions will be similar to the following:
- Turn the flash on, then press and hold the Zoom button for a second or two. You’ll see a new flash icon and Ch 1 Slave A appear in the LCD screen (see photo above).
- Turn the camera on and pop up the flash.
- In Menu in the first tab (camera operation), choose Flash Control, then scroll down to Built-in flash function setting, select Wireless Functions and choose the middle setting of the single flash (see above)
Although the on-camera flash is flipped up, it will not fire during the exposure. Rather, it will flash a split-second before the exposure, which triggers the off-camera flash to fire during exposure, so your only source of flash illumination during exposure is the off-camera flash. To the naked eye, it looks as if the two flashes are going off simultaneously, but they’re not.
If you want both the on-camera and off-camera flash to trigger simultaneously during exposure, go back to Wireless Functions and choose the bottom setting, which shows the off-camera flash icon + a flip-up flash icon. In this setting, your off-camera flash is your key (strongest) light source, and the flip-up flash is a fill light. Choose the top setting (Off camera flash = flip-up flash) and both will provide equal power. We’ll explore these options in future articles.
The other way to set off a wireless flash is by using a separate wireless transmitter such as the Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E2. The advantage of using a transmitter over triggering your off-camera flash via your camera’s built-in flash, is that the transmitter uses infrared signals, and can trigger the flash from farther away, and at greater angles. When using your on-camera flash, your flash sensor must always be within line of sight of your camera. If you’re using a full-frame DSLR, such as the Canon EOS-6D or 5D Mark III, neither of which has a built-in flash, you will need a transmitter to trigger off-camera flash.
Let your imagination run wild! You can add crazy colors and transform a scene, or you can use a more subtle approach to improve a scene without overpowering it. Here are a few examples of both techniques.
Wild and crazy – red tree adds primary color to offset the deep blue sky and add foreground interest. Too much? It’s a matter of personal taste.
Before -this “frame within a frame” composition doesn’t quite work because the foreground is too dark, and the sun-drenched but interesting background is too light.
When lit with an unadorned flash, the foreground was uninvitingly cool. After adding a full CTO gel, the subtle splash of warmer light frames the background nicely.
Experiment. Try different gels to see what they look like. Don’t like your result? Try another one. Here are several variations where different color gels were used against a foreground wall in the shade, to balance a bright, sunlit scene in the background. Camera and flash setup are same as above.
Have you done any experimenting with colored gels and off-camera flash? Please share your results and comments below.
Thanks to Adorama to sponsoring this series of articles by Mason Resnick.