How to Easily Use Gels to Create Virtually Any Color Background

Implementing gels into your photography is a really simple and effective way to make sure your images really stand out from the rest of the crowd. There are a ton of different ways to use gels to create some absolutely stunning imagery, but in this post I am just going to show you a few ways that you can use them to add color to your background to produce really dynamic portraits.

In my last post, I talked about how to get three different headshot looks with just two lights and one grey background. If you haven’t already seen that, check it out here. Today I want to expand on that concept a little bit by using gels to add color to the background which will virtually give you an infinite number of backgrounds to choose from. Instead of using two studio strobes like I did in the last tutorial, for this lesson I'm going to be using three speedlights. The reason I wanted to use speedlights rather than studio strobes is because I got a handful of questions about whether or not the 3 in1 headshot could be done with more basic gear. In order to lay those concerns to rest I wanted to get back to basics and use some of the least expensive gear on the market to prove that you can get some great images with very inexpensive gear.

Here’s a list of the gear I used (excluding the camera):

Savage Grey Seamless Background - $28

Speedlights - Yongnuo YN 560IV x 3 - $69 each

Flash Trigger - Yongnuo YN 560 TX - $40

Rosco Color Effects Filter Kit - $33

MagMod MagGrip and MagGel Holder (Optional to secure gels) - $100

Westcott Apollo Orb Kit - $150

Tether Tools Orange Tether Cable (Optional but recommended) - $49

Now that I've gone over the basic gear, let’s get started. Here’s the process in a nutshell.

Setup lights… Add color to lights… Take picture…

Ok so maybe it’s not that simple, but it really isn't all that difficult either.  

The first thing you’ll want to do is setup your background lights. It’s also important that you use a grey background (which I failed to mention in the above video) because that will translate the color from the gels better than any other background. You can probably get away with using white, but in my experience I have always had better results with grey. When I am adding color to my background I prefer to use two lights rather than just one because with two flashes I am able to control the color much better than I would be able to with just one flash. That being said, you can definitely use just one flash if that’s all you have but I have found that I get a much more consistent color across the entire frame if I have two lights angled in toward the background at about 45º. 

Once you have your background lights placed where you want them, go ahead and take a test shot without your key light on. Depending on where you have place your subject you might get some pretty bad color bleed onto the side of your subjects face.

There isn't too much bleed in this image, but if you run into that problem, here is how you eliminate it. You can either bring your subject forward so the light doesn't fall on their face anymore, or you can flag the light with a piece of black foam core. I chose to use the foam core because I will actually use it for something else a little bit later. To get my flags in the correct spot, I just clamped each piece of foam core to an extra light stand and made sure to place them in-between my background lights and my subject. When I’m shooting with just one color on my background I like to point my flags at the opposite edge of the background. This ensures that I get consistent color all the way across the background. If you don't feather the flag all the way to the edge, you’ll end up getting a line through your background that looks really bad.Now that the flags and lights are properly placed, you can get to shooting. Another thing to keep in mind is that the power of your flash will also alter the color of the background. In the first example my background lights were both set to 1/2 power which makes the background a vivid red. If you want to have a background that is slightly less saturated, all you need to do is decrease the power of your flash and the background color will change. In this next example I decreased the power of my background lights to 1/8th power and you can easily see a difference in the background color. The really cool thing about using gels to add color to your background, rather than using multiple colored backdrops is that once you setup your lights, you can just change out the gel to completely change your background in a matter of seconds.

In addition to creating solid colored backgrounds, one of my favorite ways to use gels on my background is to actually split it into two different colors. To achieve this, all you have to do is feather your flags back toward the middle of the backdrop. In some cases you may have to have your flag almost pointed directly at the backdrop at 90º. To properly dial in the placement of the flags, I found that its easiest to do one light at a time. I started with the flash to camera right, which in this case was red, and I turned off the light to camera left.  You’ll see that the background on the right side is lit up with read while the left side of the frame has fallen to a dark grey.  This is a really great example of how much control you can have over your light just by using a piece of foam core as a flag. I have to admit, even as a test shot this image looks pretty cool.Now to find the placement of the other flag we repeat the same process, only this time we’ll turn the left light on and turn off the light to the right. This will create the same effect as before only reversed.With both flags in their appropriate position, you can go ahead and turn on both lights to get a two toned split background. To take it one step further, you can also have one side of the background white while the other is lit with color.  You can achieve that look by removing one of the gels and increasing the power of that flash to bring the background to white. With these tips hopefully you can have some fun at your next studio session. I know I had a blast creating these images and playing around with different colors. Feel free to share your images you produce in the comments section below and if you have any questions don't hesitate to ask!

I'll leave you with a couple more images from this session.

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Previous comments
Rafal Wegiel's picture

Let me know if You have anything in mind... I live in Calgary so I am kind on the edge of the world... but I am sure there is something we could possibly do... seems like we have similar ideas for headshots so lets make some plans :)

Mateusz Antonowicz's picture

That's why I only buy white and black backdrops. And yeah, I know you can make white backdrop into black, but I'd rather have absorbing black color to begin with, less light spill. Great article, appreciate it.

Jeff Carpenter's picture

I own a grey backdrop, a white backdrop, and a green screen for the video (that I never use) but I never understood the need to purchase multiple colored backdrops.

Mateusz Antonowicz's picture

Yep, unless you need some texture, no other backdrops are needed. I might try out grey one, and see how it will perform, as in how much power would be needed vs white. Your comment only affirms my hypothesis, that people who think, spend less on stuff and more on how-to. It's good to see someone using brain, to cut costs like that!

Jeff Carpenter's picture

You're right, but if I need texture I would almost rather just find the texture I want on location somewhere are use the same technique to get the color I want. When I started out in photography I was broke beyond belief so I always try to do things as cheaply as possible. Although, I have used nice gear before and you definitely get what you pay for in most cases, but quality images can be made with very little money spent.

Mateusz Antonowicz's picture

For sure! I started with an old Nikon and 50mm lens, and only with tricks like this I was able to expand my assortment. Back here in Poland, photogs don't earn that much, and prices are the same, so I had to improvise :). But still, even if I had enormous amount of money, I would cut costs whenever I can. It's really impressive how much can one save using the brain. I appreciate your reply!

Jeff Carpenter's picture

I find that it's always best to use your brain haha! But seriously, its amazing how much money you can save by not always purchasing the newest gear and just understanding how to use what you have.

Mateusz Antonowicz's picture

Indeed. In my time I have used old manual lenses for Nikon, that were dirt cheap and did the work, this alone saved me thousands. And then AF was needed [like weddings] I bought bare necessity. I still like to use 105mm AIS when I am shooting couples in the field, not perfectly sharp like newest Sigma etc., but it works, so no point in buying new gear. I also got D600 for main work, quality it produces is really outstanding, and I don't see how any newer body would be better, well maybe D750, but it's minimal difference. Great thing is knowing when to stop buying, and start using. I frequently read about new gear, look at samples etc., and really there is nothing revolutionary nowadays. It's all the same, but sharper, less coma etc. But for me, resolving about 12MPX from D600 24MPX sensor is enough to present to a client. I am aware though that had I choose different path, be it product or wildlife, I would see a need for fastest, sharpest glass. But it's knowing what you need that saves you cash. I could argue that 35mm and 85mm lenses would be enough for 90% of the work people do. Great to see like-minded soul!

Jeff Carpenter's picture

Yeah I really have a hard time convincing myself to purchase new gear. I almost always purchase used gear. As for sensor size, I shot for 6 months exclusively with a micro 4/3 Lumix G85 just as a little experiment and none of my clients ever noticed. You can get some really great image quality out of a small sensor. There's a fine line between using your gear as a tool and using it as a crutch.

Mateusz Antonowicz's picture

Oh yeah. M43 came a long way, and with stabilisation and inconspicuous look, you can get pictures otherwise impossible/improbable. I was switching back and forth from crop to FF, and back, and the same thing, none of the clients noticed difference. I am glad that sensor tech have matured, and we have more and more tools to use, allowing to create your artistic vision. And your last statement is really valid nowadays, people buy heavy body/lenses/accessories only to leave it in hotel room, when they are on vacation or something. Smaller unit could be placed into pocket and it would produce images that are of great quality, without the added weight. That's what's important, think ahead, and always made educated purchases.

Jeff Carpenter's picture

Absolutely, I have a handful of different bodies I shoot with but I could honestly get away with shooting with my old Nikon D7000 and I don't think any client would be able to tell the difference. They being said, I do have a couple full frame bodies just in case.

Mateusz Antonowicz's picture

Tool will always be tool, it's you that are producing images that your clients love, and its perfect. You can do photography on budget, main thing is to have some creativity, then your gear will not be as limiting as initially seems.

Simon Anderson's picture

Awesome stuff, thank you

Jeff Carpenter's picture

Thanks for checking it out!

Great vid. What stands are you using for the flags? Wondering if it's anything lighter/more compact than a light stand.

Jeff Carpenter's picture

Thanks for checking it out! The stand I used were just some that I had laying around. For the video I wanted symmetry so I used two matching stands, bit you can definitely use any other stand. I just had a clamp holding the flags so any light stand will work. I personally love the manfrotto nano stands.

Sai Kiran's picture

Awesome!! Jeff
I've got a new trick to use!

Jeff Carpenter's picture

I'm glad you found this helpful! I would love to see some of your results when you get around to using this technique! Have a great week

Zanelli Caldas's picture

very nice, but i´m wondering if it´s possible to take shots of the full body trying to make the bg evenly lit...

Jeff Carpenter's picture

It might be a little harder to get an evenly lit background with a full body shot. If you have a lot more space to work with it wouldn't be that hard because you could pull your subject off the backdrop and move the lights further away allowing a more even spread.

Ben Sherman's picture

Hi, a very cool article. Please write the names of the flash brackets that you used for the rear flashes. I want to make a blue abstract background and if you added them it would help me a lot. Thank.

Micheal Anthony's picture

What is the power of the main light?