Portraits Using Flash Gels
In this article we are going to look at the creative opportunities opened up when we shoot portraits using flash gels. If you have never tried using them before then you might like to look at the blog post I wrote giving an introduction to flash gels. Most speedlights/flashguns (but not studio lighting) will come with a couple of basic gels – orange and green. These are mainly intended for colour correction when shooting under artificial light if you want to match the colour of your flash to the ambient light. You can also get hold of packs of different coloured flash gels to give you a far greater choice of colours to use creatively. There are different sizes for speedlights and large studio lights, so make sure you get the right type for your needs.
You can create a fully coloured scene by gelling all your lights. In the images below I have used one main light with a coloured gel. In some respects it simplifies the scene a bit like black and white, but it also brings a different mood.
You can also blend more than one colour together by using 2 lights (e.g. a key light and a fill light) and putting a different colour on each. It is possible to create a quite surreal look and grab your viewer’s attention with something out of the ordinary. At the same time, it is not necessarily the most flattering way to photograph someone.
Although it can be fun, this effect is not very subtle and has limited use. Instead, I suggest creating portraits using flash gels as accent lights, rather than for the main light. Initially, you might like to try just using colours to spice up your background. Keep the main lights as you would normally have them but add gelled lights pointing at the backdrop. You might want to try using a grid and/or snoot to control the spill of the colour, especially if you want to achieve a coloured spot.
With the above 2 examples, the lights have been positioned behind the models to keep them from spilling onto the model. However, we can create an interesting rim lighting or outline effect for our portraits using flash gels. To do this, we need to aim the gelled lights so that they will clip the outline of our subject. We can choose to allow them to light the background as well, or limit the light with grids/snoots, etc to only provide an accent light on the model. This can add a little lift by adding a splash of colour along the shoulder, hairline or elsewhere. Here is an example of a lighting setup that I have used along with a few sample images illustrating the idea. The main light doesn’t use a gel and is modified with an octabox. The softbox on the left has a baffle fitted to limit the light to a vertical strip out of the middle of the softbox so that the light doesn’t spill around too much.
If you use more than one colour it is a good idea to choose complementary colours. Another option to consider is using colours that blend in with the backdrop and help the subject look more like they belong there. For example, in these 2 images (one is a repeat of the image at the top of the page to save you scrolling back up) I have chosen colours that you can find in the backdrop to add accent lights to the model.
As you can see, the effect is much more subtle than the images we started out with! One useful tip is to use lower power where possible when you use flash gels in order to get deeper, richer colours. Generally, if you underexpose them slightly you will get stronger colours. I do encourage you to try creating your own portraits using flash gels. There are many combinations you can try and you can also use them on location indoors as well as in the studio.
© Joe Lenton, March 2016