Figuring How to Work with Color Gels

Last week, I had a photo session using strobes on which I used color gels, and I thought I should take some time and look back into how I’ve been using them until now.


I recommend checking Daniel Norton’s, YouTube channel; he’s my favorite photographer when it comes to learning how to work in the studio. There’s also, a must-see for anyone interested in light control. So, there's plenty of information online that can show you how color gel photography works. This post is just my way to share how I've used color gels in the past three years or so, and how I intend to continue using them in the future.


Color Gels on Ambient Light

Using color gels to influence ambient light is an excellent way to make an image seem less ordinary. I enjoy the the atmosphere they create; especially if there’s good color saturation, consistent light spread; and overall contrast.


In the past, I've used color gels on speed lights both bare or with small modifiers as a means to make things seem modern, hip or surreal; and I don't recall ever using more than two light sources at the time


Compared to speed lights, using strobes to influence ambient light provides better results and I plan to invest on a strip box so I can effectively outline the contour on the main subjects.


I love mixing constant light with color gels as it creates a cinematic, even painterly effect. In those instances, exposing for the tungsten light source gives the image enough detail on the shadows which I can adjust later on. However, filling shadows with a reflector is a more effective way for extending shadow detail in the raw file, so getting things done on camera as much as possible is the best approach.


contrast and complementary color combinations are very common on color gel photography. Even though those kinds of images can be incredible, blending monochromatic tones to a photograph can be just as striking.

Color Gels on Backgrounds

I've used color gels on backgrounds either to spice things up, add some depth of field or even to enhance attributes like the pose, wardrobe, props or even eye color.


Another way I've used color gels is to match an specific color, like a person's eyes or their wardrobe. One of my earliest reference with this technique was the work of Al Parker, a renown illustrator from the 1950s whose work I enjoy a great deal.


Combining color gels with color correction gels (like CTO gels) can create the illusion of sunset lighting, which renders realistic skin tones quite nicely.


One thing I like about using color gels on a background is that it can magnify texture, create gradients and reflect its color on the subject, which interestingly enough cleans and softens up the form.


Reflective Light

On my most recent photo session, I used various techniques I listed on this post. The result I like best was when I bounced a gelled light from a blank wall and pop-up reflector, as I feathered the strobe light to ensure I would get a dark, solid background.

So, working with color gels is a lot of fun, I’ve always loved the flair it adds to an image, especially to portraits. But, doing it right takes a lot of practice, so I choose to use them sporadically.