We’ve joined together with Adorama for the #CreateNoMatterWhat campaign, an initiative aimed at “reflecting and finding ways to create, learn, and think outside the box” while navigating these uncertain times. You can learn more about this series on Adorama’s YouTube Channel. Subscribe to see more of our videos on their channel and follow along as we work through our process for framing, lighting, and posing to create amazing portraits, despite the limitations imposed by the current climate. To watch this and our other series, check out our playlist!

Video: How to Use Gels | From Ordinary to Extraordinary

I want you all to channel your #CreateNoMatterWhat philosophy for this one. In this video/article, we’re going to cover simple flash gel techniques to transform a boring scene into a visually interesting backdrop for our final images.

All you need for this tutorial is minimal gear (listed below) and a simple room with a plain white or light-colored wall. This can be any room in your home, studio, or even outside. You can even use a concrete wall. Ideally, you’ll also be able to control the light, either by turning out the lights, closing the windows or via some other means.

See the gear list below:

Before and After

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The ambient light in the room (left) left plenty to be desired vs. the modified light setup (right); edited with Visual Flow Presets

Let’s start with the before shot (see image above). I snapped a quick picture of Jae using only the ambient light in our studio against the white wall. If you’re unable to turn off the room lights, then you can simply make in-camera adjustments to take the ambient light out of the photograph.

Use the C.A.M.P. Framework

Now, let’s walk through the setup using the acronym we devised for our Lighting 3 Workshop that’s going to help really dial in the vision for this image:

  • Composition: What do we want our scene to look like? Where do we want the camera to be? What’s the angle? What do we want our subjects to be doing?
  • Ambient Light Exposure: Choose the intention of the scene. Do we want a dramatic image (darkening the ambient light and using more flash) or do we want a softer image (brightening the ambient light and using a more natural power of flash)?
  • Modify/Add Light: Are your subjects visible in the frame or do they need to be chiseled out? Do you need to add an additional light source?
  • Pose & Photograph: Take your shot!

The reason why we created this was to try and establish the importance of thinking before doing. Before you even pick up your camera or touching your flashes, run through our C.A.M.P. framework and simplify your lighting process. Here’s how this shot broke down into 4 simple steps:

Step 1: Choose Your Composition

For composition, I decided to keep it simple and shoot standard portraits with a mix of wide angle and close up shots.

Step 2: Adjust the Ambient Light

To dial in the ambient light for this shot, I turned off the room lights and then made sure my ambient light exposure was dark enough so that I did not get any of the nasty light that kind of remains in the scene. I brought the aperture up to f/7, lowered the ISO down to 100, and called it good.

Step 3A: Modify the Light – One Light

From there, we’re going to get a very dark photograph, so we need to modify our light. We’re going to start simple and begin with a one-gel technique. Grab your first gel. I chose a red gel because Jay already has earth tone clothes on his maroon or dark brown jacket, not to mention his earth tone shirt and as well as the complexion of his skin. If red doesn’t work for your shoot, then you can choose any color you’d like.

Place the gel onto your flash. I’m using a Profoto flash, but please don’t let the brand interrupt or interfere with your learning of this technique. You can use whatever flash you have. Now, as a professional, I appreciate quality gear like Profoto because it’s simple and reliable. Yes, you pay a premium for that level of quality, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that you can do the exact same thing with whatever you have. Or, maybe hop on to Adorama and ask their staff to give you some recommendations.

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Image on the Right – Camera Settings: 1/200, f/7.1, ISO 100

Okay, after placing the colored gel on the flash, angle it towards the wall so that the bounce light fills the room a bit before tapering off from left to right. For this shot, I wanted the light to fall a little bit stronger to the left and kind of fade off to the right. Now, with that flash set up, and without any other lights going, I would estimate that we’re probably running the flash power at about half power. If you’re using a studio light with 250 to 500 watt seconds, you’re probably around 1/8th or 1/4 power. You can make further adjustments until you get everything dialed in.

If you’ve introduced too much red, or if it’s too bright, you’re going to need to darken it. You’ve added your single light source and now you’re going to continue to make adjustments to get to the desired look. Please remember that the C.A.M.P. framework suggests modifying or adding one light at a time, so don’t go crazy there. Start with one light and make sure you like the way it looks. The first flash alone looks cool, casting a red light across the background. From here, however, I want to chisel out the face a bit and I’m going to show you some fun techniques on how to do that.

Step 3B: Modify the Light – Two Lights

Now that you’ve set up one light, grab your second light (I’m using another Profoto b10 with a snoot, which behaves like a more intense version of a grid. Grids help control light from spilling everywhere when you fire the flash. A snoot works even more effectively than a grid, directing light exactly where you want it to go.

2 lights 1 gelled bts ordinary to extraordinary portraits

Next, I placed the snoot onto the flash and aimed it right at Jay’s face. One of the nice things about Profoto flashes is that they have a modeling light built in. If you have a studio flash, just turn on the modeling light. The purpose of the modeling light is to show you how the light is falling across your subject, so it kind of reduces the whole trial and error process of setting this up yourself and testing each shot. At any rate, turn on the modeling light get that light into position.

Take your next shot. After taking another test shot, I saw that I needed to make an adjustment because I didn’t want this much light on his face. Instead, I’m aiming more for that Rembrandt lighting pattern. To get that, I need to shift the light back more.

Step 4: Photograph Your Subject

After adjusting my second light and dialing in the settings, I’m ready to start taking pictures. This is where Jay starts to work his hands a little bit. I directed Jay to bring the hands up close to his head, almost touching his face. I love this shot (see image above), and I love the way that the hands and the shadow sort of plays against the background with the solid highlights. It almost feels like he’s a musician looking into his hand.

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Edited with Visual Flow Presets

If you’ve watched my other videos and read my other articles, you would know at this point that I’m going to tell you just because you got a nice shot doesn’t mean I want you to stop. Your lights are already set up. Make the most of that and simply switch onto a different lens, change your angle and shoot something different. For example, I went and grabbed an apple box; then, I had Jay sit on that apple box and I posed him in a way that would really extend the limbs and create shapes with the body that we can play with.

At this point, I want you to switch lenses and change your angle.

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Edited with Visual Flow Presets

Now let’s do another two gel technique. For this go-round, I angled the red flash into the camera just a bit.  You can kind of see it flaring in from the top left still the same red gelled flash. Then, I flipped the other flash to the other side and added a blue gel. It’s the same exact two-light setup, but the color change gives it a different look. When choosing colors, I recommend starting with colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel.

Edit Your Images

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I’m going to show you something else that’s really fun. In Lightroom, I’m going to select one of these images and jump into the HSL Panel to tweak the colors. We’re using such distinct colors here that if I select the little adjustment tool and I bring it over a color like red (see image above), I can shift that red into a purple hue and so on. I can turn the saturation up or down and do whatever I want to these colors. With a little bit of experimentation, we can really get to a completely different set of colors.

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You’d never know this portrait was originally lit with red and blue gels once it’s converted to a black & white image

If I press “B” to flip this to a black and white photo,  it looks like we used two regular strobes to light a normal portrait. It’s good to know that if at any point you don’t like the colors, you can convert the image to black and white. Check out the Dark Mode editing technique for more ideas on how to play with this.

Final Image

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Edited with Visual Flow Presets


This is one of those experiments that you guys can do at home with whatever gear you have as long as you have two flashes and a camera that can sync them. I really want to encourage you all to just go into a plain room in your home, grab some gels, and just have fun experimenting with light. You’ll be surprised what you get from it. You can learn more lighting techniques in our Flash Photography Training System and editing techniques in our Mastering Lightroom Workshop.

We hope you enjoyed this video and lesson on how to use gels to take your imagery from ordinary to extraordinary – catch our next episode of Master 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!