Home Lighting Portrait Tutorial with Gel Filters

If you’ve ever wanted an easy way to add color to your portrait lighting, using gel filters might just be for you. They’re easy to set up and make for some great effects. Here to walk you through the process is editorial photographer Jake Hicks:

Unless you’ve worked a lot in theater or television, you’re probably not aware that there’s a whole world of color filters out there that allow you to do just about everything with light. These filters (usually called gels) are made from a transparent colored material that, when added to a light, change the color and/or quality of the light. You can buy them to fit onto your camera or, as Hicks does in this video, add them onto your studio lights for great color effects.

In this video, Hicks uses two colored gels on his hair lights and then adds an additional filter to the front of his camera from Lee’s soft set series. This adds a flare that would be truly challenging to recreate in post-processing.

Using Lee filters for color effects

These particular soft set filters diffuse the light almost entirely independently of your aperture or focal length. That means that, depending on what strength of filter you use, you can keep much of your image sharp. (Obviously, the stronger the filter, the greater the degree of softening.) They’re most often bought in a set of five, and each step up offers an increasing but subtle degree of diffusion. Hicks is using the second one in the series here.

For the two hair lights, Hicks makes sure to use complementary colors–a warm color to one side and a cool to the other. The most common combination tends to be somewhere on the blue/orange scale, but which pairing will look the best depends on the wardrobe and skin of your models. (Check out scenes from your favorite movie–you’ll be sure to see the blue/orange color pairing there–especially in the use of split toning.)

Choose complimentary colors

One of the cool things about Hicks’ setup is that it’s small enough to be set up in the home. He has a homemade dark background, a 22” beauty dish for his key light, a small 16” x 16” softbox for his fill, and two hair lights set well above and behind the model and pointing down. (You can’t see the fill light in this photo because he attaches it to the same light stand as his key. It’s set almost down to the floor level.)

Adding lee filters to the hair lights

Sure, Hicks is using a lot of lights in this setup, but there are still many, many ways you can use color filters on a 3- or even 2-light setup. And the soft set gels work for landscapes as well. So if you haven’t yet already, try them out. They’re not terribly expensive and they definitely can create some stellar effects. And compared to what they had to do in Shakespearean days (shine light through wine), using them is a walk in the park.

Like This Article?

Don't Miss The Next One!

Join over 100,000 photographers of all experience levels who receive our free photography tips and articles to stay current:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

New! Want more photography tips? We now offer a free newsletter for photographers:

No, my photos are the best, close this forever