Shooting With Color Gels

Shooting With Color Gels

There are times when I find myself shooting the same stuff or using the same lighting setup over and over again. Repetition helps to improve and fine-tune my skills, but sometimes it just feels boring and degrading, let alone useless for my portfolio.

But as much as I dislike feeling stuck and repeating myself, I now realize how such times in fact help me to become a better artist and shooter. It's usually the desire to entertain myself and experiment that leads me to new personal artistic discoveries. It's when I'm bored and want to "spice it up", I start searching for new lighting ideas, tricks and techniques.

If you have come across this post at a similar time in your photography career, I hope a stream of new ideas and images will pump up your love for photography, inspiration and enthusiasm. Let me offer you a few fun lighting ideas in a series of posts, and I will start with one of my most favorite lighting accessories - color gels. I will also mention how to make each lighting technique execution rather affordable without compromising the quality of the outcome.


Equipment that you will need

1. The strobes and flashes that you already have. Continuous lighting equipment will also work, but you have to be careful and make sure the higher temperature of the lamp doesn't melt the gels, which in turn will damage the light bulb.

2. You can buy proper photography color gels or filters - they start from as low as $6.99 for a set of four 12-inch color gels online. But I personally use colored cellophane rolls or wrapping paper from hobby and craft stores.

I actually only had to purchase them once a long time ago, and I haven't gone through 1/3 of any of my four rolls (yellow, green, red and purple). Each roll cost me under $5 and I use them in almost every studio photo shoot. So, not only they are really cheap, they also last for years.

The density of colored cellophane and color gels sheets may be different and colored cellophane is often very thin, so the resulting colors may be not as vivid. To solve this problem I simply double- or triple-fold it before mounting on the strobe, and, like I said, I am still not even half-way through my rolls.

3. Barn door / Gel frame assembly or a roll of duct tape. Obviously, if your studio is full of expensive lighting equipment and cool photography "toys", and that's how you and your clients like it, you might choose to go for proper color gels and gel frame assembly from your lighting equipment manufacturer.

I personally carry my colorful rolls and duct tape to all my commercial and personal shoots, and my clients and fellow creatives don't care how I do the "color magic" as long as I get them the pretty pictures they are after.

If you end up deciding to use colored cellophane and duct tape, keep in mind, that the cellophane will melt if it's placed too close to the modeling lamp as the lamp heats up during the shoot. The cellophane will be ruined and it may also damage the lamp if you're not careful. I always turn off modeling lamps after the lights' power and positions are adjusted for the shoot, so I don't have to worry about it.


And here comes the fun part! There are so many ways you can utilize your color gels, it's not even funny. There are a couple of main ways of how I use color gels in my lighting setups: coloring rim lights and coloring the main light, and tons of variations of each. Let me show you what I have created with them and how I achieved those color effects.


Lighting diagrams for such setups are usually similar and vary slightly for different shoots. You can add one or two (or more) rim lights, background light, fill light, etc.


1. Using only one strobe for colored rim light, subtle touch of color:


2. Using only one strobe for colored rim light, vivid and rich color. You need to pump up the strobe power and use a dense color gel, or fold your colored cellophane a few times to get nicer and richer color.

Shooting with color gels

3. In the following image you can see that even though the lighting setup is similar to the previous (mirrored), there's a lot more color on the model's body. You can achieve this by moving the strobe with the colored light slightly closer to the camera plane allowing more light to spill on the model's face and body, and, of course, position the model accordingly.

 Shooting with color gels

You can also control the width of the rim light by adjusting the position of the strobe, moving it along the camera-model-background axis (see illustration below). The closer the strobe to the plane of the model's position, the wider the rim light will be. And the further back from the model's plane along that same camera-model-background axis you place it, the thinner the rim light will be, i.e. less colored light visible to the camera will be spilling on the model's face. I know this may sound confusing, but once you try this in your studio, you will see how simple it actually is.

Be careful to not move the strobe too close to the plane, in which the model is positioned, or the rim light will become side light, and side light can create messy shadows on the model's face and ruin the shot. But it, of course, depends on what you're trying to achieve in your photo.

 Shooting with color gels

4. Two strobes with color gels, one on each side, subtle touch of color. When I want a very thin rim light on the model's cheek, I usually point the colored light approximately at the back of the model's head.

Shooting with color gels

5. Two strobes with color gels, one on each side, vivid and rich colors. I also added a red color gel onto the background light. I was shooting with gray backdrop and it looked really dull behind the colorful subject.

Shooting with color gels

  6. You can also play with longer shutter speeds, but I will talk about this technique in one of my future posts.

Shooting with color gels


This is when it helps to have a roll of colored cellophane. I can cut a generous piece and wrap it around my beauty dish or even a soft box, if I want to.


Basically, everything goes - you can mix strobes and flashes, and try various light modifiers. I normally combine complimentary colors, but it never hurts to experiment with unexpected pairs of colors.

1. In this setup I used a beauty dish on a strobe (red) and a simple flash (green).

Shooting with color gels

2. Two strobes: hard blue light and soft red light. There's a simple metal reflector on the strobe (blue) and it's placed a little further away from the model, so that it creates hard light and a well-defined shadow on the wall.

The strobe with the beauty dish (red) is much closer to the model, the light is softer (larger size of the light source, plus diffuser and it is closer to the subject) and its mission is to only fill the shadow behind the model with rich red color.

Shooting with color gels

These are the setups I've played around with, and I'm sure you will come up with many more if you like the idea of experimenting with color gels. Come back and show us what you got!

Use #FScolorgels hashtag when sharing your photos on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Have fun!

Check out my full tutorial on beauty photography to dive deep into shooting and editing at the highest level. You can also check out these incredible Photoshop tutorials and plugins that will speed up your workflow and help you create stunning, professional work.  Save 15% by using "ARTICLE" at checkout.

Julia Kuzmenko McKim's picture

Julia is a Los Angeles based internationally published Beauty & Fashion photographer, digital artist, retoucher and educator. An International College of Professional Photography (Melbourne, Australia) graduate. Retouching Academy founder and Editor-in-Chief.

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Great Post Julia.

Welcome to the team, officially. :-)

Thank you Zach! :)

Really enjoyed this post. I started using them in some of my senior portrait sessions recently...

They are so much fun, right? I love color gels.

They definitely allow for more options in the studio. I love using them with a 70-80%ish gray background paper. Really makes the color vibrant and fits into my style.

Me too! I prefer gray backdrops too! Not only the colors pop against it, but you can add/remove light from it and basically go from white to black background with just one same backdrop. Which is especially nice when you often shoot in your studio - it really becomes boring using the same empty backgrounds.

Hi Julia,
Very nice article!

I actually have only a white background, and the color does not pop enough on it (it's nearly white at the end). What kind of gray background would you suggest for a start? A neutral gray (18%), or something darker, as Brook Clayton said?

Hi Jerome,
I always shoot with gray backdrops, or most of the time - you can throw more light on your backdrop and have white background, or move away from the backdrop and "cut" the light falling onto it and have black background in the pictures.

And in order to have any rim light visible you have to have a darker background behind the model, otherwise rim light won't be visible whether it is with color gels or not.

Understood, thanks Julia. I have now new inspiration to play with :)

This was inspiring and very educational. i'm definetly buying your book hahahaha I'm such a fan of your work. Awesome post!

lol, thank you so much :)

Fantastic post Julia!

Thanks for the informative post. It's great seeing a fashion photographer on the team. Looking forward to more posts from you.

Thank you Paul! :)


This is great! more posts like this please! :)

Love this post! I definitely need to play around with more color gels, too =)

can you suggest some gels to buy for speedlights ?

I got these like 5 years ago and am still using them almost every time I am using speedlights.

hope to fit to 580exii. Also i saw some on amazon but i dodnt know the quality

I had a set of a handful of tiny little color gels for my Canon 580 that I bought on ebay or amazon - it was cheap and came with a holder. It wasn't bad, but I still ended up just wrapping pieces of my colored cellophane on them :)

can you suggest me to buy some ?

Wow. Thank you Julia.

This is easily one of the most informative article regarding color gels i've seen in the net. It's short, but precise and in-depth explanation. Wow.

Thank you again!

Thank you Adi! It's my pleasure!

Thanks a lot Julia for the great post!! I really enjoyed your book and was wondering how some of the lighting setups were done. You answered my wish. Happy to see you part of the FS team. Looking forward to more posts like this.


Thank you for your kind words, Mo! I have some post ideas I hope a lot of photographers will enjoy. Sharing is caring :)

Julia is really an amazing creative artist and photographer. I want to see more stuff from her. :)

Thank you Tobias! :)

nice article

You're unstoppable, Julia !

Thank you for a great write-up and congrats on joining F-stoppers.
It's been a monumental year for you so far, and it's far from over yet !


Thank you so much :) And I am so looking forward to my trip to London in the beginning of 2014. Hope to see you there!

Thank fo the post Julia! I am inspired to start using gels again!

Bravo Julia! Love your work.

Love you Julia, glad you see you on FS!!!!

Just the kick I needed for an upcoming shoot this evening. Been working with color gels before but here are some new ideas. Thanks.

Beautiful , Thanks for sharing this with us :)

Excellent. It's great to see the positioning of your lights. Started using coloured gels thanks to being influenced by your work. Love it.

Julia, I have a question for you; when you say softbox or beauty dish wrapped in '____', do you mean that the entire face of the box / dish is wrapped?

Hi Michelle, yeah, I usually just duct tape it to cover the entire face of the beauty dish/softbox, so that the entire light source is of the color I want in the picture. I should have taken a picture of that - I'll look around for one, or maybe a BTS video where it shows.

Here: - you will see the green color gel on the back light around 1:18 - 1:20 min, this one was clipped to the metal reflector, but I usually duct tape it in the same manner.

Ee! Thank you so much! :D

Great post, the only time I've tried this I failed because I was using to high of an output therefor washing out the color. Gotta get back on the wagon! Thanks Jules.

I did this while playing with the Ice Lights, it made for a more interesting image imo. Hope you like the results ;)

Awesome colors, Krysalis! Love the lighting effect in the very last shot too!

Thank you Julia. Looking at your colour combinations I have been inspired to use gels again ;)

That's great! Don't forget to share the results with us :)

Oh God ur amazing Julia!

Really detailed and informative post Julia. Including the lighting diagrams helps a lot.
Love your work.

Awesome post. I just got a new project!

Here is one of my images using Gels.

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