In this edition of Saturday Light, we’re going to take a look at making studio portraits that are a bit different from the norm, utilizing colored gels to inject some color into the process.  This is a technique that I’ve been intrigued with for some time now, and which I’ve appreciated in the work of other photographers, and the time finally came to try it myself.

This isn’t a professional session, or even a personal-project session, although the results may lead to either of those end-points.  Rather, this is what I term a “proof of concept” session, an experimental test under controlled conditions and without external pressures, just so I can (try to) figure out what the hell I’m doing.  And staying true to that concept, I had some success and I had some failure, both of which I’ll share.

This isn’t the first time I’ve used colored gels with my speedlights.  At its basic level, it’s a common technique, especially for color-correction.  As in, if I’m shooting environmental portraits in a setting that includes tungsten lights, and I want to maintain some of that ambient tungsten light, then I’ll use at CTO gel of varying strength to color my speedlights so that they match – or at least complement – the ambient light.  (Same thing in a fluorescent environment, although I’m more likely to simply overpower the ambient there – but if I wanted to include it, there are gels for that, too.  And for sodium vapor lights, and just about any other kind of lighting you can imagine.)

But that’s just color-correction gels, which I think of as being one side of the gel kit, while the other side includes the sort of colors that don’t correct for anything, but rather serve the sole purpose of intentionally injecting color into a scene.  The color options here are almost endless, and are limited only by the selection of gels and that ways that you might use or combine them.

(If you haven’t guessed yet, gels have been around for a long time, and are heavily relied upon in the movie industry – it’s yet another cinema tool that’s found its way into still photography.)

My color gels are from the Rosco sample kit: back before the Strobist craze really took off, Rosco gave away sample sets that included a swatch of each of their gels – both colored and color-correction.  All you had to do was ask.  And funny enough, these samples are the perfect size to use with a speedlight.  You can guess where this is going – Rosco stopped giving them away.  They now offer several different sets for sale from their website – you can also order the basic sample pack from B&H cheaper.



At any rate, I’ve used colored gels in the past for things like coloring a white backdrop, but I’ve never built a real proficiency with it, nor have I tried purposely injecting color into my portraits.  In fact, I’ve struggled with using colored gels, and my attempts at using them on background lights haven’t always been successful.

Using colored gels is somewhat counter-intuitive.  With bare flash, if you need more output, you dial up the flash power.  Throw a gel on, however, and dialing up the flash power doesn’t give you more color – in fact, after a point, it gives you less.  There’s a point at which the gel provides optimum color transmission – basically, where the resulting light has the most color saturation and effect.  If you increase the flash power above that point, to gain light, but lose saturation – the flash begins to overpower the gel.

(It’s also worth nothing that gels eat light, and the more dense the gel is, the more light it eats.  A dark red gel may eat up one or more stops of light.  So remember to account for that as you begin tuning in your lights – a light that you’d normally set at ¼ may need to be set for ½ or higher when using a gel.)

Color Flash Lighting Diagram 01 & 02

The photo above with the blue backdrop is from phase one of my proof of concept session, and corresponds to the diagram directly above.  I’m using a beauty dish as my key light with a yellow gel; a bare speedlight as a rim light with a purple gel; and another bare speedlight as a background light with a blue gel.  I also have my 42” reflector clamped to a stand, using it’s white face tucked in close to the model to provide fill opposite the key light.

In case you’re wondering, this photo was one of the failures.  The idea was to have the yellow key light contrasting with the purple and blue, for a hopefully-interesting effect.  Instead it looks like crap.  The yellow is  just overpowering, and the ratio between the key light and the background is much too close.

I’d surmise that a very close-up portrait, with careful sculpting of the model’s features via flash, and a much darker background, might work with a gelled key light.  I’ll keep that one in the back of my mind to try someday.  But for experimental purposes, it took only a couple of frames before I pronounced this setup DOA and moved on.


This next photo represents phase two of the session, which utilized the same setup as phase one, except that I’ve removed the gel from the key light.  This solved the immediate problem of having my model look jaundiced, but I’m still unhappy with the overall look of the photo.  I had to think about it for a moment, but realized that it’s a two-pronged issue:

First, the ratio between the key and the background is still too close, by which I mean that the entire frame has lighting that is too consistent.  Point two, it’s boring.  This looks like any other basic headshot I might setup in the studio, with nice, even lighting.  The inclusion of color doesn’t add anything to this image, because there’s already too much light flying around.  (Although it is one of my more successful uses of gels for a colored background.)


The third and final phase of this session is interesting because it really only involved minor changes, but resulted in a completely different image, and was the most successful of the experiment.

For this series, the key light remains the same, although the ultimate position of the reflector was adjusted slightly to both provide better fill on the model, and flag the background from the key light.  The speedlight with the purple gel was moved to the opposite side of the frame, and was brought in much closer to the model.  The third speedlight, which had served as the background light up to this point, now became a second rim light and was positioned farther back from the model, still with the blue gel, to provide a contrasting rim light opposite the purple.

Color Flash Lighting Diagram 03

We left the model’s glasses on in the first frame, but later removed them due to issues with the reflector’s reflection clouding the one lens.  Glasses are often a problem in portraits, and the easiest solution is to remove them whenever possible.

From this point on, the adjustments were all minor.  We moved the model and lights another two feet forward from the background, to increase the separation – and thereby decrease the light that reached the backdrop, allowing it to become a deeper gray.  I also tweaked the position of all three lights to try and find an optimum intersection between them.


I was careful to make notes after each phase, sketching my studio setup and recording the modifier, gel, and power setting of each flash for future reference.  I also use the term studio lightly, as my “studio” for this session was actually my living room, with the coffee table moved out of the way.  It’s a long, narrow room, and I placed the background at one end and stood at the other, with my model in between.  I also closed all the curtains to block the midday light, which would have otherwise overpowered my flash exposure.

It may not have been the ideal studio, but it’s what I had, and it worked just fine.

Before I close, I should mention that the model is none other than my dear fiancee, Mandy.  She was a reluctant model – Mandy doesn’t like being in front of the camera and her discomfort usually shows in the resulting images.  It was terribly sweet of her to agree to model for this test series, and I am very appreciative.  I also think we got a few lovely photos of her in the process!


Shooting Info: I used my E-M5 and the Lumix 35-100mm for this session, at f/4 and 1/160 and ISO 200 and 250.  The three flashes were all YN-460 IIs, and the beauty dish is my DIY plastic model.  The flashes were all triggered with YN-602 radio slaves.

I learned about this technique from the supremely talented Julia Kuzmenko McKim, who shared a series of photos on her Facebook feed.  I later found that she had written an excellent tutorial, which was published by Fstoppers, and which I used for my template.

Brent Pennington is a freelance photographer and the driving force behind The Roving Photographer. When he\’s not working with portraiture or promotional clients, he’s usually in the field, hiking, or kayaking in pursuit of nature and wildlife shots.

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