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Video: Our 3 Favorite Gels for Ambient Light Manipulation

We headed to one of our favorite locations, the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, to show you how to use colored gels to manipulate ambient light and shift the background colors in a scene.

If you missed the first two articles (part one & part two), we focused on the artistic components the exposure triangle to show you how to use it to get correct exposure in photography while also shooting creatively. This article expands on concepts covered in our Lighting 3 workshop, which is also part of our Flash Photography Training System.

We’ll use the CAMP framework (Composition, Ambient Exposure, Modify or Add Light, Pose & Photograph) to outline the steps we took to compose, light, and capture the final image.

(Please note: The photoshoots featured in this video were all filmed prior to COVID-19.)

Step 1. Compose the Shot

colored gels to modify ambient light compose the shot

If you’re familiar with the CAMP framework, you know that the first thing you should do when setting up for a photo is compose your shot, even before picking up your gear. Your backdrop will likely play a role in determining how you frame it.

For this session, we were fortunate enough to shoot in front of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, which lends itself equally well to wide environmental portraits as well as closeup intimate shots. This particular building features an iconic design and it beautifully reflects the sky. I decided to place the couple in the lower righthand side of the frame so that I could fill most of the frame with the building and the sky to demonstrate how the gels can shift the background colors in our scene.

Step 2. Dial in Your Ambient Exposure

colored gels to modify ambient light dial in exposure
28-70mm at 28mm, 1/200, f/2.8, ISO 100

I knew I wanted to use an external flash with color temperature gels to shift the colors in the sky, so the ambient exposure needed to fall on the darker side; Emperor Palpatin would be pleased. I recommend using live view whenever possible to dial in your ambient exposure so that you can see any adjustments you’re making in real time.

We already mentioned in parts one and two of this series to consider the artistic components of the exposure triangle and use them to get perfect exposure based on your creative vision for the shot. For this medium-wide shot, I wanted to keep some detail in the background, so I didn’t need to go wide open with the aperture. A shutter speed of 1/200 works with most any flash and is fast enough to avoid camera shake, even though we’re using a tripod to capture the shot. As the sky dimmed after sunset, I ended up slowing the shutter speed to 1/60 to capture more ambient light. Finally, lowering the ISO is a go-to when dialing in a darker ambient exposure, and an ISO of 100 worked for my purposes in this portrait.

[Related Reading: Drastically Change the Color of the Sky with 3 Colored Gels]

Step 3. Modify Your Light Source

Once you’ve set your ambient exposure, you can add and modify light (one at a time if using a multiple light setup). Here’s a breakdown of how we added light for this series of shots featuring various colored gels.

3a. Position the Light Source

colored gels to modify ambient light position light source

You’ll notice we placed the flash inside a MagMod MagBox. As the name implies, the softbox modifier softens the light falling on our subjects. We positioned the light between 5-10 feet from our subjects and angled it slightly upward to feather the light falling on the couple.

3b. Adjust Power Settings for Proper Exposure

colored gels to modify ambient light No CTO Addedcolored gels to modify ambient light No CTO Added Final

Image above: 28mm, 1/200, f/2.8, ISO 100, No gels, Edited with Visual Flow > Modern > Soft Light

Again, the final settings here will be based on your creative preferences. We initially set the power to 15-20 watt seconds of power on the Profoto B10 Plus, which translates to roughly 1/4-1/2 power on a standard flash unit. However, we noticed we lost a little bit light as a result of adding the gels, so we upped the power one stop of light.

3c. Add Color Gels to the Flash

colored gels to modify ambient light add gels

It’s amazing how we can use colored gels to modify light in-camera, requiring only quick white balance adjustments in post. There’s no need to spend time in Photoshop adding layer masks or other filters to change the background colors. Here are our three favorite gels to modify ambient light:

  • 1/2 Color Temperature Blue (CTB)
  • 1/2 Color Temperature Green (CTG)
  • Full Color Temperature Orange (CTO)

I favor these gels because the resulting images still look realistic. Some other gels produce a more surreal look, which is great if that’s what you’re going for. You can use the full version of these colors, among others, to achieve that look.

3d. Adjust White Balance In-Camera Based on Colored Gel Used for Modification

Each color gel is going to affect the white balance in your shot, so you’ll need to make adjustments. Here’s a quick breakdown of how we adjust our white balance based on the colored gel we’re using to modify the shot:

  • Full Color Temperature Orange: Because CTO gels tend to “warm up” the color temperature of an image, cool down the white balance to compensate for the gel. We set our white balance at 3200 Kelvin for the image we shot using the CTO gel.
  • 1/2 Color Temperature Blue: The CTB gel does the opposite of the CTO gel and cools down the color temperature, so we have to adjust our white balance in-camera and warm it back up.
  • 1/2 Color Temperature Green: The CTG gel is going to add a lot of green tones to the image, including on our subject’s skin, so we’ll need to adjust our white balance and tint (add magenta) to the image to compensate. We wound up around 6000 Kelvin and used the White Balance Color Shift feature in-camera to add magenta.

Step 4. Cue for Expressions & Capture the Shot

With our settings dialed in on our camera and external flash, we can now direct our subjects into a pose and cue for expressions before capturing the shot. Like always, it’s worth making micro-adjustments after each shot so that you come away from the session with a variety of looks and options. Simple adjustments include smiling vs. not smiling, eye direction (looking at each other, the first subject looking at the camera while the second subject looks at the first subject, etc.), chin direction, hand placement, kissing vs. not kissing, and so on.

Final Images

colored gels to modify ambient light CTO gel finalcolored gels to modify ambient light CTO

Image above: 28mm, 1/200, f/2.8, ISO 100, CTO Gel, Edited with Visual Flow > Modern > Soft Light

colored gels to modify ambient light CTBcolored gels to modify ambient light CTB Final

Image above: 28mm, 1/60, f/2.8, ISO 100, CTB Gel, Edited with Visual Flow > Modern > Soft Light

colored gels to modify ambient light CTGcolored gels to modify ambient light CTG Final

Image above: 28mm, 1/60, f/2.8, ISO 100, CTG Gel, Edited with Visual Flow > Modern > Soft Light

[Related Reading: 4 Ways to Incorporate More Color into Your Photography]

Conclusion

We hope you enjoyed this video and lesson (the third of a four-part series) on our three favorite gels for ambient light manipulation, based on concepts covered in our Flash Photography Training System. In the next article, we’ll conclude the series with more tips on getting the perfect exposure.

Be sure to catch our next episode of Mastering Your Craft on Adorama’s YouTube channel next week! If you want to catch up on all the episodes, make sure you check out our playlist!