If you’ve been a strobist for a while, you’ve probably considered working with gels in some way or another. Gels are little pieces of plastic that go onto the front of your camera flash or strobe and add some sort of extra color to the output. They’re used very creatively to give a bit more pizzaz to a photo. Lots of photographers use them once they learn to understand how they work–and many of them tend to use them with multiple flashes to get unique looks that can’t really be made any other way.
So if you want to work with gels, here’s how.
Understanding White Balances and Flash
So let’s start this off by at least first explaining how white balances and flash work. You see, gels were really used a lot in the film days when most film was set to one white balance: daylight. But as digital came around, we got auto white balance and most photographers didn’t really know how to work with gels. Why? Well, because when you work with gels and one wild card variable like white balance, you can never be too sure to know what kind of colors you’ll get. But if you lock your camera to one white balance, things start to become easier to understand.
Flash itself is typically balanced to daylight and a few strobes have variations like some offerings from Interfit. But once you understand that your colors will be stuck and set with working in daylight white balance, then you start to understand that you can move forward because at least something else will be more predictable.
Big Takeaway: Lock your white balance when using the flash for a bit more predictability.
Understanding Colors and How They Are Perceived
Now, when you put a gel on a flash or strobe, you’re going to change its color. These colors all emit different feelings in the same way that using daylight white balance vs shade in a shady/shadowy area work. For sure, the cool thing about working with digital cameras is that you’ve got room to experiment.
In the image above, I used a Westcott Mat set to really warm and my flash camera left was gelled to be purple. It gave off a look that Erica and I both liked. Many gels come in packs and I’m using some from ExpoImaging because I think that they’re fantastic. You can get a pack of so many different colors for a pretty darn good price point.
Now here’s an image from the same shoot without gels. Different look, right? The gels add character vs the more sterile look that an ungelled flash delivers. However, gels aren’t all that add character to a photo. There is certainly something to be said for your subject and the colors already in the scene.
Here’s another shot with Erica in the same shoot. What we changed here was the wardrobe. Purple and orange would make this scene look a lot weirder because the wardrobe was more neutral. Let’s demonstrate this a bit more below.
Now here’s Lomo 200 Slide X Pro film shot with a flash. This film is considerably warmer in tone; as it’s designed to be cross processed.
But here’s what happens when you gel the flash to hell with blue. It sort of normalizes the colors. Notice how the colors are all perceived differently as you looked through the images?
Now let’s analyze this more: the feeling from the image has to do with a few things–the content and the color scheme. And with a gel, you’re defining the colors more than without one. That means that you should also carefully consider your subject’s wardrobe.
Big Takeaway: Wardrobe, colors in the scene, content and the colors added from the flash all provide you with a whole load of creative freedom.
Mimicking the Look of Real Life?
Sometimes photographers will use gels to mimic the look of real life if they can. For example, in this image above with a Thai boxer I was trying to make it look like he was practicing during the day in a semi-shady/sketchy spot by adding the red gel on him with the flash. It sort of does the trick, but I could’ve found ways to make this more effective for sure.
However, that’s the beauty of working with gels–the simple experimentation that they offer.
Big Takeaway: Gels don’t need to mimic real life, but they can be nice. Think creatively!