Add Drama to Your Photos with Colored Gels

Often in my work as a photographer, I am challenged with settings that are less than exciting. My client wants a dramatic photo to illustrate a story for a magazine article, or for use in an annual report — and I am left to figure out how to make this happen in mundane surroundings.

One way I’ve found to achieve this is through the use of colored gels.  In the days of film, photographers had to think about the color temperatures of lights and how they affected an image.  But in the digital era, photographers often forget about this. It’s too bad, because the creative use of color can really paint a scene.

Technical Purple

Scientific American Magazine once hired me through Black Star to produce a photo of a flying robot that was being developed by researchers at Vanderbilt University. The lab was not very exciting — just lots of shiny, flat surfaces.

How to communicate the excitement of the researchers’ innovation?

I took the standard photos of the researchers working and looking over the mockup of the robot, which looked like a dragonfly. Then, I decided to pull out the stops and get creative with the lighting. I got out my colored gels.

I asked the guys in the lab their opinions on what color would be best. One of them said something funny that has come to mind every time I’ve worked with gels since: “Use the purple; it’s a technical color.”

It sounded good to me, so I lit the table with a strobe gelled with purple. I then hit the dragonfly with a grid spot daylight-balanced strobe. The resulting shot (below) was a featured image in the magazine.


Country Blues

On another assignment, I was hired by Country Weekly to photograph an artist, Amy Dalley, depicting a song she had written. The song was about a woman catching her husband cheating on her.

We posed Amy at the end of a bed and positioned a male model in the background.  I wanted to light the scene dramatically, so I set a strobe on the floor and gelled it with two full plus blue color cinegels. I then set my camera color balance to tungsten and lit the subject with a 20 degree grid spot gelled with a full CTO gel plus a 1/4 CTO gel to add warmth to the light.

I underexposed the blue-lit room by two stops to give a cold, moody feel to the image. We positioned the model so that the light gelled blue hit him from a low angle. Using two full plus blue gels and setting the white balance to tungsten gave a net effect of using three blue filters on the lights.

The effect (below) was dramatic — far exceeding the photo editor’s expectations for the shoot.

mcclary photo

If you know and understand color, you can use colored gels to greatly enhance your images. Do not think of light as a custom white balance solution; think of it as a way of adding depth to your images.

One Response to “Add Drama to Your Photos with Colored Gels”

  1. Harrison,

    This is great! You have been so generous with us nubies and really do help create a greater vision of what photography can be.

    Thanks for taking the time to do these type of extras.


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