How to use Colored Gels to Create Unique and Creative Portraits

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We’ve all seen the usual studio set up –  beautifully crisp white light, maybe some strobes, diffusers, and other things of the sort. However, what can you do beyond that to make your portraits stand out? Add some color! In this article, learn how to use colored gels to add some spice to your images.

musician portrait with pink background - How to use Colored Gels to Create Unique and Creative Lighting

Colored gels are filters that go on your light in order to change the output color. They are usually sold at photography stores and clamped onto your lights. They range in size, thickness, color cast, and most importantly, price. Be very mindful of how hot your lights are because we’ve had gels melt on the set before during long sessions (such as music videos). 

However, you can also make your own colored gels using cellophane and tape. Just take some really saturated cellophane from a local party or art store and wrap them around your softbox or LED light (so long as the LED runs cold and won’t melt the plastic paper) and fasten with tape.

This may not look like the most professional setup, but I suppose that matters little so long as the final outcome is fantastic!

spooky photo with double exposures - How to use Colored Gels to Create Unique and Creative Lighting

There are limitless possibilities with gels. In regard to color combinations, I suggest making sure all of your gels are saturated the same in order to match with one another (and not become a headache in the editing room later).

Here are some of my favorite gel lighting arrangements to create some new and unique imagery. As a personal preference, I use continuous light, but the same can be achieved with studio strobes or speedlights.

One Color Gel Setup

The simplest and most traditional gel lighting look. There isn’t any fancy setup for this look, you can photograph your model in any fashion and just replace the white light with a color. Make sure your colored gel is really vibrant or the image may fall flat. 

portrait of a girl with amber gel - How to use Colored Gels to Create Unique and Creative Lighting

Play with distance, shutter speed, and some light post-processing to see how far you can get the light to spread. That can add a unique and unexpected twist to your one-light setup!

A good use of the one color set up is backlighting! Take your light and place it behind the subject.

backlighting with gels - How to use Colored Gels to Create Unique and Creative Lighting

Double Colored Gel Setup

My personal favorite is the double colored gel setup. All this requires is two lights, each gelled with different colors. Set them to the side of your model and watch the magic happen!

The division can be very eye-catching and intriguing.

model with red and green lights - How to use Colored Gels to Create Unique and Creative Lighting

lighting diagram - How to use Colored Gels to Create Unique and Creative Lighting

Be mindful of your model’s physical structure. You want to make sure that the color division hits the proper place. Aim for the lighting to (generally) divide right at the center of the nose (split lighting).

Tri-Color Gel Setup

How to use Colored Gels to Create Unique and Creative Lighting

You can go as intense with colors as you like, but when I do three color looks, I like one of those colors to be white. The white softens the whole look and doesn’t make it overly exaggerated.

However, if you prefer a color, I suggest placing a lighter color in the center of your arrangement and the darker colors on the sides.

portrait with 3 colors of light - How to use Colored Gels to Create Unique and Creative Lighting

For three color looks, my favorite arrangement is the traditional triangle light setup. This includes one light in front of the subject and two lights at the sides.

Depending on the look you want to achieve, you can set up the two side lights behind the model and just turn them towards the model. That keeps the light from being too harsh. For a more intense look, place the lights directly at the model’s sides.

lighting diagram - How to use Colored Gels to Create Unique and Creative Lighting

Rim Light Colored Gel Setup

girl with rim lighting - How to use Colored Gels to Create Unique and Creative Lighting

Always a very dramatic and edgy look, using gels for rim lights can bring a bit of flair to your portraits. It does depend on your model’s structure as to where you place the lights. What I do is set up a white light in front of the model and two colored gels on lights to the side pointed forward.

The best colors I’ve found for the rim light look are purples, blues, reds, and greens – oranges tend to get a bit lost with the white light.

How to use Colored Gels to Create Unique and Creative Lighting

Background Light Gel Setup

How to use Colored Gels to Create Unique and Creative Lighting

The quickest way to liven up any location is to aim some lights with colored gels attached toward the background wall.

You can photograph your subject in any traditional studio light manner, and just shoot two gelled lights to the back wall. This allows your subject to be really well separated from the background (something we always strive for in studio photography).

How to use Colored Gels to Create Unique and Creative Lighting

Now go out there and play with colors!

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Anabel DFlux is a published photographer in Los Angeles, California. Having started her photography business at the age of 15, Anabel has dedicated her life to her photographic passion. From canine sports to exotic animals, to some of the biggest musicians in the world - Anabel’s work doesn’t fall into any specific niche. She believes there are no limits to what you can create, and to photograph everything that gives you that spark of inspiration.

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