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Tips & Tricks

A Simple Way to Change the Color of the Sky in Camera

By Trevor Dayley on April 23rd 2014

Have you ever been excited to photograph someone around sunset only to discover that Mother Nature wasn’t playing nice? Instead of a beautiful sunset, you were dealt a grey, drab sky as your backdrop. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to quickly change up or enhance the color of the sky in camera? There is a way and it’s actually quite simple to pull off.

Enhancing-the-color-of-the-sky-using-gels

You Need Just a Few Things

This technique requires just a couple a things. First off, you’ll want to learn how to adjust your camera’s white balance. If you are shooting in RAW,  you could of course adjust afterwards in post production, but why not get it right in camera? It saves you time and time is a valuable commodity these days. Second, you need a flash and last, you need some gels to put on the flash. The most commonly used gels for this technique are the CTO (Color Temperature Orange) and CTB (Color Temperature Blue).

Using Gels To Change the Color of the Sky

The Concept is Simple

If you want to turn your sky orange, all you need to do is dial in your white balance on your camera to something near Kelvin temperature 9000K. If you shoot a photo, you’ll hopefully notice everything is quite warm. Now to balance out your subject in the photo just hit them with a flash that has a CTB (blue) gel on it. Your subject will be lit with the “blue” light coming from the flash, thereby balancing out the warm skin tones they had previously.

[REWIND: UNDERSTANDING WHITE BALANCE & COLOR TEMPERATURES IN 8 STEPS]

Using Gels to Change the Sky Color Orange
Gel-Strobe-CTB-by-Trevor-Dayley

Now let’s say we want to make our sky a gorgeous blue. You’ll want to do just the opposite this time. Dial in your camera’s white balance to a Kelvin temperature around 2900K. If you shoot a test shot, you’ll see everything at this point is blue. Now just place a CTO (orange) gel on your flash and point it towards your subject. The “orange” light you are now firing at them will balance out the blue skin tones they had while the background remains that gorgeous blue tone. It is a great color contrast and really makes your images pop.

Using Gels to Change the Sky Color Blue
Gel-Strobe-CTO-by-Trevor-Dayley

Gear Used

Camera: Canon 5D Mark III
Lens: Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM
Settings: f3.5, 1/200 sec, ISO 400
Lights: (2) Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite Flash with gels

A Couple Things to Keep in Mind

This technique works best during civil twilight, often referred to as dusk. It’s a few minutes after the sun has set, but before it is completely dark. You will usually have about 25 minutes of dusk to work with before the sky is too dark. Once the sky gets too dark, you will not be able to see the effect quite as much. You can still change it to be a richer blue using a CTO Gel on your subject, but the trying to turn it orange will have little effect or make it more of a muddy brown.

You’ll want to keep your flash fairly close to your subjects and your subjects quite a distance from anything else that might be lit by the flash. Just keep in mind that whatever the flash hits will be properly color balanced.

Using Gels to Change the Sky Color Orange at Sunset

Using Gels to Change the Sky Color Blue at Sunset

Stepping Up Your Flash Work with Gels

Buying a set of gels for your flash work is cheap. The sets typically run from just a few dollars up to $20 for a full set that even includes color correction gels. Gels are something most studio photographers use daily to create a gradient colored backdrop or interesting rim light effect. Now, you know how to use them to enhance or even color those backdrops Mother Nature gives you.

Interested in learning more about how to work with couples? Check out the SLR Lounge Natural Light Workshop for Couples Digital Download. It includes nearly 9-hours of amazing educational content for just $99.

Trevor Dayley is a full-time wedding photographer based out of Arizona. He has six kids and has been married for 15 years. When he is not shooting weddings, he loves helping the photo industry. He has written hundreds of articles and shared countless tutorials. In 2014, he was named one of the Top 30 Most Influential Photographers in the Industry and one of the Top 100 Wedding Photographers by BrandSmash.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Alexander Europa

    Love the CTB look, especially for fall portraits. I think it can be especially catching if you have your subjects wear teal/blue tones for a very appealing complimentary colors theme.

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  2. Tyler Brown

    You guys forgot to mention using a tough green gel for magenta skys

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  3. Andi Watson

    Wow Trevor – great post! Shooting in Scotland all I seem to get is grey skies – this could be a game changer! Thanks for sharing.

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  4. Reggie

    Nice way to use your gear to make it happen on location. I’ll have to try this one

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  5. Rick

    Another thing to do (which I learned recently) is reverse gelling and using custom white balance.

    So if you want to simulate sunlight, you illuminate your subject with a flash that is gelled with CTB. Set WB to Daylight, then shoot a neutral gray card. Use that image as custom white balance. Here, the flash that is illuminating your subject will be now neutral and areas being lit by ambient light will all be warmer.

    The amount of warmth will depend on the strength of the CTB (e.g. full cut, half, etc.)

    One really cool thing I learned with this technique is when using other flashes for rim lights, etc. Those lights need not be gelled. Because of the shift the camera is doing to counteract the CTB, those lights will now be closer to tungsten, so you can get some nice warm highlights. Or, you could gell those flashes with lower strength CTB or CTO to decrease and increase the warmth respectively.

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  6. ROMAN

    Hey Trevor
    Thank you for this cool information. I follow you on facebook and i think i can learn a lot of your nightshots.

    Best regards
    ROMAN

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  7. Sajid

    I tried learning this of a video watching it repeatedly without being able to grasp it. I only had to read this once !!
    Thank you for sparing us the jargon and making it possible for me!!!
    Thank you thank you!
    :)

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  8. Elizabeth Fox

    Great tips Trevor! Thank you so much. I need to try this!

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  9. Dana Thompson

    Love this! Been looking for a genius idea to do both of these quickly with my Mag Mod gels. Thanks!

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  10. Alexandra Reilly

    This is perfect!!! Thank you for sharing Trevor…you rock!!

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  11. JB

    Great and easy tip! Thanks Trevor!

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  12. Dianna

    Thanks for posting! I need to get out and try this… Sky is looking grey right now! :)

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  13. wjp

    Fstoppers’ “So You Want to be a Super Dooper Wedding Photographer in a Professional Way So You Don’t Look Like a Total Noob” (not the real title, but I love their overly long titles) has a segment on using gels to change the background color temperature while maintaining proper white balance. This technique has been around for a really long time (going back before many of us picked up a camera), but it is easy to forget the simple things. Thank you for highlighting the fact that everything your flash touches will be properly white balanced.

    In the last two example photos, the ground and that cement block were properly white balanced. The light from the flash could have been feathered to prevent that from happening with a little black card on the bottom of the flash. A simple addition to this article could bring in the use of other simple light modifiers (Yes gels ARE modifiers) to control light spillage.

    Thanks for the excellent explanation and the examples.

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