How to use colored lighting for portrait photography (gels)

The popularity of colored lighting photography has been growing in the last couple of years to the extent that it’s now trending with professional portrait photographers. I imagine that shortly Instagram will be awash with colored lighting portraits.

What is colored lighting photography?

Instead of the usual white light produced by flash and LED lighting, colored lighting creates vibrant portraits with different colors.

Color gels are the key to creating colored lighting photography with off-camera flash and that’s what this tutorial is about – how to create a colored lighting portrait with gels.

Why use colored lighting for portrait photography?

Why photograph the world as you see it when you have the opportunity to create really exciting images with lighting? Well, colored lighting is a hugely creative use of light, it’s really exciting and will make your photography stand out against the crowd.

Digital cameras have become more and more advanced to the point that we can photograph at night using neon signs. So photographers have been experimenting with neon lighting, resulting in wonderfully colorful low light portraits.

Likewise, as LED lighting has become more popular and more advanced with the introduction of RGB lights we now see more colored light portraits. Not just for still photography either. It seems that every YouTuber uses RGB lighting for their talking head videos.

So I think that all these trends have brought studio photographers back to using gels more. I say back, because gels have been used in flash photography for decades. However, they were used mostly to color correct the color temperature of lighting. The current trend is a much more exciting creative use of gels.

Colored lighting portrait with three light setup with pink gels and white light

Although there’s only one color in the portrait, I used pink gels on two different lights – the hair light to camera right and a background light to camera left to skim along the background and spill onto the front of her shoulder. The main light is white light.

How can colored light enhance portraits?

For the portrait photographer whose style is more fashion photographer, colored lighting is ideal for a creative portrait. Colored light portraits feel vibrant and are just plain cool.

The intensity and color of light can create a dramatic effect or a subtle effect, depending on the colors used and lighting setup. So there are endless opportunities to experiment with different creative lighting ideas.

Plus, with colored lighting you can change an ordinary white background into any color you like.

The basics of colored lighting

The most important thing to remember is that your color gel must cover the whole of the light source. If white light sneaks out of any gaps it’ll ruin the special effect you’re trying to create.

Range of color gels for off camera flash photos

Three types of gels including my Profoto OCF gel kit and holder, Rosco gels (top right) and gels (bottom) that are so old that the writing on the label has faded, but I think they’re Bowens.

Types of colored lighting equipment

You’d be surprised how little extra equipment you need for color gel photography. In fact, all you need is a light and colored cellophanes. A gel in photography is a specialized sheet of cellophane fitted to the front of a light.

However, like with anything in photography, you can spend a fortune on all the gear, or you can start small and build up your equipment.

My strobe lights are by Profoto and they have a gel lighting kit, which is actually quite pricey for what it is. I bought one and now hardly ever use it, because I just tape gels to the front of my lights, which is much quicker and easier.

Here are 4 solutions in order of expense…

1. Absolute basic DIY equipment

Use the pop up flash on your camera with a cellophane candy wrapper wrapped over the flash and held in place with either tape or a rubber band.

2. Simple DIY gel lighting equipment

Use a speedlight with a gel wrapped over the front and held in place with a rubber band.

Nikon speedlight with Lumiquest FX gel kit and colored gels

I have a gel kit for my speedlight, but it’s just as easy, maybe easier, and effective to wrap a gel over it. And cheaper.

3. Simple gel lighting equipment

A speedlight with a gel kit, preferably used off camera.

4. Off camera flash gel lighting equipment

Studio strobes with a colored gel held in place with gaffer tape, or a gel kit, and mounted on a light stand.

Caring for photography gels

Despite being just cellophane, gels can last a very long time if looked after. They’re actually quite tough. I’ve had my oldest set of gels for about 11 years and have used them on four different brands of lighting equipment (Bowens, Elinchrom, Godox and Profoto), thanks to the wonder of gaffer tape.

However, one of the most important things to remember with gels is that they can melt. So when using gels with studio strobes it’s best not to have your modeling light on for long as it’ll melt the gel and make a mess of your strobe. Good quality modern gels are a lot more heat resistant than they used to be, but it’s not worth finding out the hard way.

Melted blue gel

I accidentally melted this gel on one of my old Bowens studio lights during a shoot when I forgot that I’d left the modeling light on. (I have no idea why I’ve still got it 11 years later!)

Using color theory and the color wheel for better photos

As colored lighting is all about color, it makes sense that you need to know the basics of color theory at least. While this sounds technical, it’s not really. All you need is a color wheel and a little bit of knowledge about color schemes. Here are three:

1. Complementary colors

Colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel are complementary and work well together for a dynamic image. Use two colors.

2. Analogous colors

Adjacent colors on the color wheel are analogous and are great for creating a harmonious effect. Use two to three colors.

3. Triadic colors

A set of three colors evenly spaced on the color wheel make up triadic colors. Think superhero colors – red, blue, yellow.

Portrait examples of a bad and good color gel lighting setups

I was playing with color gels and tried using a teal rim light and a yellow main light, but as you can see that color combination didn’t work. So I took the yellow gel off the main light to camera right, which looks much better.

How to mix and match color gel lighting for different effects

Once you’ve decided on a color scheme for your lights, you need to decide how to use them in your lighting setup. And there are an endless number of ways to combine colors!

For example, a few color gel photoshoot ideas:

  • Christmas photoshoot – you could use red and green color gels
  • Hot, dramatic feel use red, orange and yellow gels. Or orange, yellow and magenta gels
  • Cool feel – use a blue gel

Setting up your colored lighting equipment

Just because you decide on a color gel shoot, doesn’t mean that you can’t use white light, in other words a light with no gel on it. In fact, it works really well to use white light as the main light on your subject and then gel the rim light and hair light, or just the background light.

That’s why the creative possibilities of colored light portrait photography are endless!

Positioning your lights for the best results

Like with white light lighting techniques, when you use colored lighting you’ll get the best results if you set up your lights with portrait lighting patterns in mind. Namely:

The trick with combining colored light and white light is to remember that white light will wash out areas of colored light. So for maximum color saturation make sure to keep white light away from areas where you want intense colored light to show.

Plus, this is very important, colored light shows up in the shadows of the white light.

When using colored light only, try not to let different colors cross over on your subject’s face as this will muddy the effect and the colors won’t be as clean.

BTS of colored lighting photography setup

In this behind the scenes image you can see that I used three lights. The main light is a beauty dish with no gel. The fill light is near her feet shining up in a butterfly lighting setup and is fitted with a teal gel. The final light is behind her shining at the background and is fitted with a pink gel. You can see the final images further down in the article.

Using light modifiers to control color and intensity of light

The bigger the light modifier, the bigger the light source and therefore the softer the light will be, unless you have it far away from your subject.

For more contrast, and therefore a more saturated color in the dark areas, use a small light source for hard light.

The best light modifiers to use for a colored lighting portrait is a softbox or a beauty dish. Umbrellas tend to scatter the light everywhere, so you have less control over the light. However, they’re good for using as a fill light.

It’s also better to grid the light modifier for greater control of light spill to avoid colors mixing. Barn doors will also help you to control light spill.

The perfect colored lighting portrait

I’m not saying that color gel photography is easy, but it’s so much fun. With knowledge of camera settings and lighting setups and a bit of practice you’ll have an amazing photoshoot!

Plus, these days color gel lighting isn’t just for fashion photography, you can use it for great headshot lighting too, even if it’s just to light the background.

Choosing the right camera settings for colored lighting

Camera settings will depend on whether you’re photographing indoors or outdoors.

Camera settings for indoor color gel lighting:

Aperture – unlike outdoor photography, a blurred background isn’t needed in studio photography, so an aperture between F4 and F8 works well to ensure your subject’s features are sharp. If you’d like focus on the eyes with a narrow depth of field to blur out ears, use F2.8.

Shutter speed – your camera’s flash sync speed and the ambient light will determine the best shutter speed to use. On my Nikon the flash sync speed is 1/250th, so I tend to set it to 1/200 in a studio setting. This is usually enough to cut out ambient light where I shoot indoors.

ISO – use the native ISO of your camera. On my Nikon it’s 100.

White balance – you can get creative with color temperature when using gels (more on this in a moment), but if in doubt, set it to flash white balance. Don’t use auto white balance as it’s difficult to control. Plus, if you have your modeling lights on it’ll confuse your auto white balance.

Camera settings for outdoor color gel portraits

Outdoors natural light will dictate your camera settings, so I can’t give you exact settings to use other than to say first meter for the ambient light and then set your flash to expose your subject. Set your camera’s white balance to suit the ambient light.

You might need to use high speed sync if the light is bright and if your lighting has HSS capability.

Posing your subject for the best results

With colored lighting photography posing is very important to ensure the right light lands on your subject’s face. So your subject needs to be aware of where they can and can’t face for the best results, and it’s up to you to direct them.

Get creative with colored lighting photography

Lighten in photograph can be as complex or as simple as you like. It all depends on how many lights you have and the look you want to achieve. That said, some of the best portraits are created with just one light.

One light portrait setup with blue gel

For this one light setup I used a large Octabox to camera left with a blue gel taped over the light inside the softbox.

One light setup with one color gel

This is the easiest way to use colored lighting, because you don’t have to consider the impact of using other colors or white light.

One-light setup with two colors

Believe it or not, your white balance setting is still important with gel photography. But maybe not in the way that you might expect. It’s another way to add color to an image.

Usually we want to set the white balance to match the ambient light, but with color gel photography, you can use it creatively. For example, you can get two colors with a one light setup where the ambient light in the room is natural light.

So for a blue background and a saturated orange light on your subject:

Final image of portrait with pink main light and teal fill light

This was a two light setup. Above is the final image shot with a pink key light and a teal fill light. Below left is with just the main light on with a pink gel and on the right is with just the fill light on with a teal gel.

Portrait effects of pink gel on key light and teal gel on fill light

Two-light setup

A two-light gel setup is ideal for using complementary colors. I particularly like orange and teal or teal and magenta. In both cases I prefer to use teal as the main color on the subject with the other color on my second light to light the subject’s hair or as a colored rim light. However, I also like to mix it up from time to time.

Teal, turquoise and blue work with all skin tones so can be used on your main light or your fill light.

Yellow color gel on backlight used two ways in portraits

In these two examples of a two light color gel lighting setup I used a white light fitted with a gridded strip box as the main light to light the subject and fitted a yellow gel over the reflector of the backlight. The only difference between the two is the angle of the backlight. In the second image I swivelled it around a bit so that it would also light the gray paper backdrop.

Alternatively you could use a color gel to light the background and white light as a key light on your subject. It’s a really quick and easy way to change the background.

Three-light setup

A three or four-light setup is my favourite light setup for gel photography, because I can then use a white key light, a blue gel fill light and a pink or orange rim light.

With a four light setup I’d add a gelled background light.

Examples of three light set up with blue gel, magenta gel and yellow gels

Above are the final images with the below three light setup. I taped different color gels to the reflectors of the backlights and kept the main light ungelled for a white light. The only reason I used the reflectors was so that I could tape the gels on. With my Profoto lights I don’t need to as the bulb is behind a panel of glass, but on these Godox lights the bulb sticks out, making a reflector essential when using gels.

BTS of gel lighting setup

Best background color for gel lighting

While you can easily change the color of a white wall to any color you fancy with gels, a gray seamless paper backdrop is better for more saturated colors.

Examples of white background portrait and gray background portrait with colored light

The only difference to these images was that the first was taken against a white wall and for the second image I lowered a gray seamless backdrop. I changed her jacket, earrings and lipstick color with Lightroom masks in post production to suit the lighting.

Common colored light photography mistakes to avoid

The more lights you add to a photoshoot the more mistakes you can make, but here are the top three…

1. Flash settings

It can be difficult to get the balance right with color gels, because metering flash with an incident light meter isn’t as useful as with white light.

You have to rely on what you see on the back of the camera and make adjustments. Overexposing gelled flash light will result in less color in your image, sometimes to the point of no color at all.

The level of color saturation comes down to taste and the look you’re aiming to achieve.

2. Poor positioning of lights

Using gels is the fastest way to learn about correct light placement, because if your lights aren’t set correctly it shows up much more than with white light portrait photography.

Also, when using more than one colored light, keep an eye on the tip of your subject’s nose. It shouldn’t be a different color from the rest of their nose.

3. Ignoring the ambient light

If you don’t cut out the ambient light with your camera settings, your colors won’t be as saturated.

The best way to ensure that you’ve cut out the ambient light is to take a photo without flash and check to see if you can see anything. Keep adjusting your settings until you have a black photo, which indicates that no ambient light is being recorded.

However, keep an eye on your shutter speed to ensure that you stay within your camera’s flash sync speed, unless your flash has high speed sync capability.

Wrapping up colored lighting photos

Colored lighting in photography is very creative and can lead to amazing photos, so is well worth trying. You don’t need to spend a lot on equipment – try my absolute basic DIY equipment suggestion to see if you like it enough to buy a set of gels. Then take it from there.

Experiment with colored lighting for different looks to find what you like and then perfect it.

Leave a comment

If you have any questions about creative color gel photography, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my color gel lighting tips have helped you to understand colored lighting photography, share that too.

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