How to Use Gels to Manipulate Mood in Portraits

Photographers make their art through the contortion of light. Most will agree that a mysterious shadow or a well placed highlight not only enhances an image but can change its meaning entirely. However, many photographers remain entirely unaware of the critical role color plays into setting the scene of a photograph. A warm yellow can mimic the feel of an autumnal sunset, while a deep blue might leave a viewer feeling cold and uneasy in the correct context. Adding a splash of color to your photographs is both simple and inexpensive. Here, photographer Jay P. Morgan demonstrates the proper use of gel filters in conjunction with a strobe setup:

Choosing the correct gel for your shoot can often be the most challenging and time consuming task in utilizing a color filter. Gels are often sold in large packs with hundreds of different options in a number of different stops. For guidance, take a close look at the background you’re utilizing. Is there an existing palette in place for you to work with? Find a gel that matches the colors already in the scene.

Feel free to be indecisive and experiment. Testing out a color gel is incredibly easy. Just pull the desired gel out of the pack it came in and hold it over your desired light source by hand. Immediately after taking a test shot, you’ll have an accurate idea of what sort effect that color will have on your overall image. If your desired color is coming in a bit too strong, see if there’s a shade of it in the pack with a higher opacity. Often, multiple stops of the same color will be included and can be used to create a stronger or more subtle tone.

Testing out a gel filter

The key to effectively using a color gel? Avoid your key light. The results of placing a colored filter over the main source of light will almost certainly be a discolored subject. Instead, opt to place your gel on a supplementary background light or rim light. This will keep your subject properly hued while still creating a drama in the surrounding atmosphere.

To supplement the colored rim light, Morgan also employed a haze machine. The added layer of diffusion between the subject and the backdrop is incredibly successful and incorporates the color into the scene even more so.

As one of the most budget friendly tools any photographer can keep on hand, there’s no reason not to give gel filters a try. Almost instantly, you’ll be sure to see the huge impact they can leave on any image.

For further training: The Art of Portrait Photography

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