Most people have seen at least one or two shots that seem to have a burst of colored lighting that highlights a person's face. It's a beautiful look that emits emotion and is excellent for highlighting a person's cheekbones. Unless it's a shot done outdoors near neon lights, chances are the effect you're looking at is done using color gels.
Photographers who want to get that sexy retrowave look need to know how to use color gels in studio lighting—and that's why we're making this guide.
Color gels, also known as CTB gels, aren't really jelly-like most of the time. Color gels are little square sheets of transparent, colored material that is typically placed on top of studio lighting. Most of the time, you can get a set of these in order to play around with different effects or get a variety of different colors.
If you aren't sure how to use color gels in studio lighting, it's a good idea to get a variety of them—and to grab some not-too-sticky tape to help them stay on.
I also suggest having a strobe light, a white background, a reflector bowl, a black background, a softbox, and of course, color gels. The more gear you have, the more options you can pursue when getting the right shot for your work.
Learning how to use color gels in studio lighting is actually fairly easy.
Literally, all you need to do in order to use color gels with your lighting equipment is to clip the gel film onto the lighting—or just tape it on. They only thing you really want to avoid is getting the gels too hot.
However, most gels won't catch on fire unless you're in ridiculously extreme conditions. In other words, you don't really have to worry about that unless you're shooting in 100-degree weather and are using a flame as a light.
You can use color gels in studio lighting a variety of different ways.
You can use them as the main light, the accent light, the solo light, or many other ways. The one thing I will say, though, is that most people enjoy using color gels in beauty work and avoid using them outdoors as it minimizes the impact they have.
For the most part, color gels as an add-on to your lighting are used for one of two reasons. First, it tends to remove flaws from a person's skin. Second, it adds depth and emotion to photos. The end result is a visually striking shot.
A classic way to use color gels in studio lighting is to use contrasting colors to amp up the mood.
You might have seen this on music videos, or on CD artwork covers. For this, the model sits on a chair or stands up behind a white background. One light gets a pink hue and is placed on one side of the model. On the other side, a blue (or other contrasting light) is used.
When you take a photo, this creates a dramatic appearance that is both flattering and sci-fi in nature. A lot of the best portrait photographers on Instagram are addicted to this look since it mimics techniques used by many of the best street photographers.
To change the background color of your white background, place a color gel on a strobe light.
Use a reflector bowl to help spread out the colored light. This gives your background a relatively even flash of color when the camera snaps. For photographers, this means better coloring and more options than ever before.
In order to get a different hue on your model, have the model step forward beyond the range of the lighting rig, and use a white flash to highlight them.
A lot of people use color gels in studio lighting in order to even out harsh lighting.
If you've ever been to a Baja Fresh, you already know what I'm talking about. Unflattering light happens when a light source has too much blue light or casts a stark set of shadows on a person's face. Color gels can act as a way to correct them.
To correct harsh lighting, warm tones like amber, subtle pinks and mellow oranges are ideal. Just place them over your light source and you'll get a more flattering and inviting tone.
To make shadows appear cooler or warmer, use a color gel on a strobe.
To get the most of this look, mount the color gel onto a strobe that's being fired towards a wall or a ceiling. This adds a very distorted, surreal look to your shadows while also adding a more colorized look to them.
Personally, purple and blue color gels seem to be my go-to for this. However, red and orange hues also can go well for very "fiery" shots. The color temperature you choose will make a shot go from morning to night with this technique.
If you're looking to add a little bit of bleakness, a subtle light grey-blue gel is ideal.
You know how a lot of horror movies seem to shoot everything in that eerie pale blue light? That's color gels at work. If you're doing a horror shoot, you can use color gels in studio lighting to pull off that very same look.
This typically works best when you use the same gel color on all the lighting that you're using in that shot. Any lighting setup gets creepier with this tool.
There's also a pretty neat way to improve the way glitter appears on your shots using gels.
One of the best ways to use color gels in studio lighting is to have a black backdrop and a model wearing glitter. The gels tend to make the glitter stand out more and adds a lot of dimension to your shot. Multiple differing color gels, obviously, add this effect even more.
The key thing with this kind of portrait is just getting enough glitter to have that kind of profound effect—and making sure that the light is positioned in a way that adds that boldness to your shot.
Finally, you can also use gels over your camera for a more bizarre look.
Some artists also enjoy using color gels in studio lighting in a very roundabout way. Rather than using it on the lighting, they use them on their cameras for a unique way to blur and wash out their models. This gives it a very edgy, artsy, and at times, downright unique look worthy of a gallery show.