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.

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