How often do you consider using gels on your main key lights: Not just to correct or balance for color temperature, but to to create a certain mood for your photographs? One of the often overlooked elements of light is its color. (The other three elements being the intensity, angle and quality of the light).

If you ever find yourself primarily shooting white balanced, neutral light, this article will show you how using colored gels can add emotion to your photographs.


Recently, my company released a training video with the theme of lighting a scene like a cinematographer. The video takes a look at techniques that are used in the production of movies, and how they can be applied to photography. The lighting setup featured in this post was a “deleted scene” from the video, but it still offered some great tips and techniques to share with the photography community.

Let’s take a look at how we used green gels to express a feeling and emotion in these test shots from The Searcher scene from How to Light Like a Cinematographer – Volume 1.

Alternate night setup featured on How to Light Like a Cinematographer

Think of an Emotion

Before you begin placing a single light in your scene, ask yourself what feeling your photography should reflect. Depending on your answer, think about what color could help express that emotion.

In our scene, we wanted to convey a sense of loneliness and isolation. Blue gels could have been used, but green felt a little more serious and slightly more dismal.

The color of green we decided to use was Rosco Cinegel #3315 Filter – 1/2 Tough Plusgreen (Notice it is only half green). The half green added a subtle tint, but still let some of the warm tones in the scene to show through.

1/2 green gel tints the scene while allowing warm tones to still show through - Final shot with added light shining through bookcase
1/2 green gel tints the scene while allowing warm tones to still show through – Final shot with added light shining through bookcase

Subtle Changes in Color Temperature Can Create Dramatic Results

I do not know about you, but when I first started using gels, I would use very bright and bold colors – vivid hues such as royal blues and nuclear oranges.

While you sometimes see this in motion pictures — take for instance Dick Tracy by Vittorio Storaro or City of Ember by Xavier Pérez Grobet — it tends to create more of a stylized, theatrical look.

If your photograph errs on the side of theatrical, then bold colors should be used. However, if you are wanting something more realistic subtle color temperature shifts — such as our Rosco 1/2 Plusgreen — can create equally spectacular results.

Start With a Clean Slate

When adding gels to your lights, it is important to white balance your camera before adding the gels. The exception to this rule is if you are using gels to color correct lights with different temperatures. If your camera is not correctly white balanced to your lights, then the true color of the gel will not be captured – it could appear warmer or cooler.

The Lighting Setup

Our main key light was a 60″ white shoot through umbrella that was boomed over our scene using a 10′ boom arm and then pointed straight down. The light was just out of frame about 8-9 feet in the air. The umbrella acted like a large “Chinese Lantern,” casting 360 degrees of light all around the scene. (I recommend the Impact 60″ Convertible Umbrella which is a great, inexpensive umbrella.)

Since our boom was extended so far, we decided to use a hot shoe flash with an umbrella mounting bracket, to cut down on the weight. The  1/2 green gel was attached to the front of the flash using a few pieces of gaffer tape. The angle of the light also played a large role in establishing the mood of the scene. By having the light come in from above, shadows were created in the subject’s eye sockets, adding to the sense of despair and isolation.

Overhead light creates brooding shadows in eye sockets while an eye light adds a subtle glint/reflection in the eyes
Overhead light creates brooding shadows in eye sockets while an eye light adds a subtle glint/reflection in the eyes

The deep shadows in the eye sockets added to the mood, but we still wanted some sort of catch light in the eyes. To achieve this, another small hot shoe flash was added, dialed way down and placed far enough back to reflect in the eyes, but not effect the exposure of the scene.

One Light for Both Key and Fill

Since the umbrella was a large round diffused source, it threw light everywhere, which was great because it could pull double-duty by lighting the subject and the foreground at the same time. To accomplish this, we rolled our light stand and boom towards the front of our scene to where the center of the umbrella was in line with the front of the desk.

Without flagging the umbrella - spill on the back wall
Without flagging the umbrella – spill on the back wall

Flagging the Light for Excess Spill

The fact that a large diffused source casts light everywhere can be both a blessing and a curse. As recently stated, we were able to light both the subject and front of the set with the umbrella light, but there was a lot of spill that was also hitting the back brick wall, which was making the scene go flat.

One of the great things about convertible umbrellas is that they come with a removable black backing. By attaching half of the black backing to the umbrella to where only the front side of the umbrella was exposed, we drastically reduced the light spilling on our back wall. Killing the spill helped separate the foreground from the background and allowed our dappled moonlight patterns and practical lamps to pop more (As seen in the final shot towards the top of this post).

With flagging the umbrella - Less spill on the back wall
With flagging the umbrella – Less spill on the back wall

This is just one example of how green light can be used to express a certain emotion in your photographs. If you want to see some great examples of the use of green in a movie be sure to watch A Little Princess, shot by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.

Did you like this tutorial? If so, then be sure to check out the training series entitled How to Light Like a Cinematographer. This video delves deeper into lighting tips and techniques that will help you create your own cinematic photographs. 

About the Guest Contributor

Joel Dryer is a professional commercial photographer, cinematographer, producer and the founder of Digital Beret Studios. The goal of Digital Beret Studios is to provide easy to understand, in-depth training that helps photographers create images that look like cinematic movies. Discover more at