Why And How You Should Be Using Flash Gels To Make Your Portraits Pop


Flash photography combined with the use of colored gels certainly opens up an entirely new world of creative possibilities. While color gels might not seem like an important accessory, they can easily modify the atmosphere of the scene or help you create more dramatic portraits.

There are two main reasons for using flash gels. First, it is to make the flash match the existing lighting conditions by using the color correction gels.

This strategy makes it easier to achieve the correct white balance in your images. Second, you can use various flash gels to achieve unusual special effects. In this case, there are no limits – you can play with different colors without any pressure to make it perfect.

No matter which one of these two approaches you want to follow, it is crucial to know a couple of things about flash gels and best ways to use them.

Equipment you will need

  • The flashes and strobes that you regularly use. Even though you can use continuous lighting equipment such as various lamps, you have to be careful and make sure that the lamp doesn't melt the gels. LED lamps are a safer option since they don’t produce heat.
  • Proper photography color gels or filters (they are quite inexpensive) or colored cellophane rolls or wrapping paper that you can buy in many craft stores.
  • Gel frame assembly or a roll of duct tape. It’s up to you – even though you can play safe and buy a gel frame assembly from a lighting equipment seller. you can also improvise the whole thing and create a home-made frame for your flash gels.
Photo by Jessica Felicio on Unsplash

Getting started

You can attach a gel to a flash in a number of ways. The most common way to do this (for portable flash units) is with a velcro strap you can wrap around the flash tube.

Since gels come in a variety of colors and are quite affordable, you can take it easy and simply start experimenting with this style of flash photography. Even if you damage your gels you can easily replace them, which is not the case with lenses or flash units.

When you start using flash gels for the first time, one of the best ways to understand how they work is by taking pictures in a dark room. Having a dark background helps you with controlling where the light spills. It can also help you understand where and how to position your subject in order to get the desired effect.

If you have more than one flash, you can use a color gel only on your secondary flash for the starters, so that you can understand the subtle changes in color. The main light provides the basic lighting for the subject, while the secondary flash adds drama and more specific styling to the photo.

Photo by Zeke Nesher on Pexels

Being creative with color

Every photographer knows that colors play a vital role in storytelling and creating diverse moods. There are also some typical color associations – for example, green represents freshness and health, red represents love (or sometimes anger), blue represents sadness, violet represents mystery and so on.

Before using your flash gels, it is important to visualize the final image you want to create. While randomness is not bad by itself, it can easily turn into an unpleasant chaos of mismatched colors that don’t create any specific atmosphere.

You don’t have to use flash gels only on your main subject. Don’t forget the background – firing a flash with color gels in the background can instantly change the appearance of it. Even some dull walls can obtain an entirely new and fresh look thanks to the right choice of flash gels.

Photo by Alican Ergin on Pexels

Creating drama

Even though there are no strict rules when it comes to using flash gels, understanding how and why certain colors work well together is very useful.

Some basic knowledge of the color wheel comes in handy when you want to create bold and vibrant color combinations. For example, complementary colors are pairs of colors which, when combined, cancel each other out. Knowing this you can mix blue and orange or red and green for a very dramatic shot.

On the other hand, analogous colors are groups of three colors that are next to each other on the color wheel and using such combinations can create softer and more balanced look.

Photo by Nappy on Pexels

Additional tips

  • Darker color gels (mainly deep red, greens and blues) block a considerable amount of light coming from the flash. Working with these colors requires the increase in flash power compared with the regular settings you use for the flash on its own.
  • If you don’t have an entire set of different colors, you can always get creative and layer two gels on top of each other. For example, blue and red can be combined to get purple.
  • You can always use traditional flash modifiers, such as umbrellas, softboxes and grids, along with color gels. These modifiers will soften or change the shape of the light that is used.
Photo by Nappy on Pexels

Even if flash gels seem intimidating or complicated at first, they are quite easy to tame after a period of trial and error. In a nutshell, they are fantastic accessories for any curious photographer who wants to learn some new techniques and start creating more playful portraits.

Also, if you want to take your portraits further, then it's well worth taking a look at Kent's Book on portrait photography.


About Author

Jasenka is a photographer with a background in web design. You can find out more about her on her website, see some of her newest images at 500px or get to know her better here.

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