Do you want to know how you can use flash gels for amazing results? Are you struggling to understand how flash gel photography actually works?
You’ve come to the right place.
Because in this article, I’m going to tell you all about flash gels–what they are, how they work, and how you can use them (both creatively and for color correction!) to get stunning photos.
Let’s dive right in.
What Are Flash Gels?
Flash gels refer to transparent, colored materials that are placed in front of your flash to alter its color.
For instance, you can place an orange flash gel in front of the flash to make it orange; you can place a blue flash gel in front of the flash to make it blue; you can place a green flash gel in front of the flash to make it blue.
Flash gels are cheap and easy to use, which is why they’re a fantastic way to spice up your photography. By adding a flash gel to your light sources, you can quickly add some flair to otherwise bland images.
Here’s what flash gel photography can look like:
Nice, right? The gels create very interesting lighting effects that help the image really pop–but note that flash gels are sometimes used in an invisible way, to deal with unwanted mixed lighting in an image (more on that later!).
Types of Flash Gels
Most photographers use some form of transparent plastic, which are cut so that they fit right on the front of a speedlight or strobe.
You can hold the gels over the flash with a specially-made gel holder (the one that I own looks like a thick rubber band). Or you can use DIY solutions, such as standard rubber bands or (in a pinch!) tape.
Note that you can also create flash gels yourself, if you don’t feel like purchasing them, or you find that you require a more custom solution. Some colored cellophane will do the trick; mount it over the front of your flash, and you’ll get a great result–though you may need to double or triple the cellophane layers in order to create a noticeable effect.
Personally, I’d recommend just grabbing a set of flash gels. As I mentioned above, they really are quite cheap, and they’ll come with a holder.
When Should You Use Flash Gels in Your Photography?
Flash gels are useful for two huge reasons.
First, you can use flash gels to correct colors.
And second, you can use flash gels to capture eye-catching, creative photos.
Let’s take a look at each of these options.
Flash Gel Photography: Correcting Colors
Say that you’re photographing a person in front of an orange streetlamp.
You’re using a flash, but the flash keeps coming out a cold blue color (as naked flashes do!).
How do you address this?
You put a gel over the flash, one that will warm up the light (e.g., yellow or orange) and can balance out any cold color casts from the naked flash.
That way, you’ll get an image with consistent colored lighting, and you won’t end up with an impossible scenario with blue light in front of your subject and orange light behind.
(To be clear, it is possible to use a blue/orange effect like the one described for creative results. But if you’re going for a more natural portrait, then it’s probably a lighting scenario you’ll want to avoid.)
That’s how color correction with gels works; you balance out the flash’s light to match any ambient/additional light sources.
Then your camera’s white balance goes to work, making the overall image color cast free and neutral looking.
Oh, and don’t be afraid to use flash gels when modifying your flash–with an umbrella or a softbox, for example.
The gels will still work just fine, and you’ll get a beautiful diffused result.
Flash Gel Photography for Creative Results
Here’s another fun way to use flash gels:
Find some colors you like.
And create artistic, vibrant portraits.
Photographers do this all the time to create stunning images like this:
Though you do have to be careful not to go overboard. Make sure that the colors you use fit with the mood that you’re after. Blue is good for moodier portraits; red is very intense and angry; green is more peaceful.
Let’s take a look at a few lighting setups you might use to get creative looks via gels:
This is the most basic flash gel setup, where you put the same gel on all of the flashes in the scene (to create an orange or blue or green or purple, etc., effect).
And while it can be artistic, I often recommend going with a slightly more complex setup, such as mixed lighting. This will give you a more sophisticated, subtle result.
Using Mixed Lighting
With mixed lighting, you put a gel on one of your flashes, but leave the others un-colored.
This will give you a slight tint in certain areas, but it’ll be less obvious and more natural.
So you can use it to subtly influence the image.
For instance, you might use an un-gelled key light and fill light, but put a gel on your rim light (which will create an orange or blue halo effect around your subject’s outline).
Or you could use a normal key light but a colorful fill light, for a tint on half of your subject, but not on the most dominant, brightest portion.
And if you want to get really creative, you can use another type of mixed lighting:
Two colored lighting!
Using Two Colors
With two different gels mounted on two different flashes, you can get a stunning effect, like this:
Simply put one gel on your main flash, and another gel on a fill flash or a backlight.
I recommend selecting colors that will work together.
So you might go for complementary (opposite) colors, such as blue and yellow, which will create an interesting contrast.
Or you might go for analogous (similar) colors, such as red and orange, which will create an interesting harmony.
Really, the sky’s the limit, so play around with different colored gels and see what you get!
Lighting the Background
Here’s one last gel tip for you:
Even if you’re using a plain white or plain black backdrop…
…gels can help spice it up.
Simply point a gelled flash at the background, and it’ll create a blue or a pink or a green effect, so it looks as if you had fancy, colored backgrounds all along!
Flash Gels in Photography: Conclusion
Now that you’re familiar with how to use flash gels in your photography, you should be able to get striking images with just a little bit of extra work.
So don’t be afraid to have fun with flash gels.
The results can be incredible!
Not at all. Flash gels are extremely cheap, so you don’t need to worry about price–go ahead and get some gels, then have fun experimenting!
Any color you want! You can pick up most colors online, and if for some reason you can’t find the color you’re after, you can always make it yourself (flash gels are easy to create using cellophane!).
Absolutely! Flash gels used with light modifiers create a softer, more natural lighting effect–except they also include very cool colors. So it’s definitely a combination worth trying out!
Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel.