Colored Gel Tips for Studio Portrait Photography

Color gels are some of the most inexpensive and commonly used tools by editorial and fashion photographers. By simply attaching a translucent tinted film over a light source, it’s possible to completely change the ambiance of a scene.

It’s likely that at one point, you’ve played around a bit with gels filters. But did you know that gels have aesthetic value outside of their manufacturers’ intended use? Gavin Hoey explains how color filters can be warped, torn, and crinkled to create intriguing results:

Change the Gel’s Position

Traditionally, gels are placed directly in front of a light source. However, gels are equally effective at adding color to a scene when held further from a strobe, soft box, or speedlight. When Hoey, his model, or his assistant hovers a gel just above or to the side of the subject (but out of view of the camera’s frame), a harsh line is created between the model’s natural color and the color of the tinted gel. The closer the gel is to the model, the more defined the divide becomes. This technique does not affect the image’s background color, which means that gels can be used to create a dramatic color contrast between foreground and background elements.

dramatic color shadow

Use Distressed Material

A wrinkled, crumpled, or otherwise damaged color gel doesn’t have to go to waste. Instead, the imperfections can be used to create something entirely unique and full of depth. Rather than placing the gel over a light source, try placing the gel over the camera lens. The wrinkles within the gel can provide a patterned bokeh background and bring certain areas in and out of focus. To add a further element of surprise and break up the monochrome tint of the filter, you can punch holes through the gel to allow the natural colors of the subject and set into your image.

If you just can’t bring yourself to destroy an old filter, have no fear. Colored florist cellophane can accomplish the same effect (though it isn’t designed to withstand the heat of a studio light).

color filter over lens

Use the Gel as a Prop

Why not add a bright element to your image by directly bringing the gel into your composition as a prop? Photo gels and cellophane can be cut into shapes or left in long ribbons and prove to be an unexpected and exciting component in any photograph.

color gel as a prop

Sometimes as artists, it’s easy to get wrapped up in routine and only use tools in the ways that are most comfortable. Though it’s important to understand the mechanics and proper use of a tool, there’s also plenty of value in experimenting and playing around with the resources available. So get creative! There are infinite possibilities just waiting to be discovered.

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