In my childhood, I had a collection of Matchbox cars thanks to my mother. One of the cars I had was a beautiful green muscle car; it was almost a forest green but edging toward olive, with a million micro-sparkles that made the color pearlescent and shiny. I loved that car so much because of that specific color; it’s practically indescribable.  These days, when I see Jeep Wranglers with that almost same green color, it takes me right back to my childhood, back to that Matchbox car, and all the memories associated with it. The color anchored me to that memory.

Juggling Color

Like smell, color is often a strong trigger of memory, and emotions are connected to them. It’s no accident that we fall in love with colorful photographs, and have favorite colors. While smell is quite literally hardwired into the brain, color preferences are largely preferential and learned by cultural norms. When it comes time to pick out colors for a wardrobe, or a set, it’s a very subjective thing, not only because of our own preferences, but what we’ve learned from a young age.

Color Theory is a craft, based on the science of absorptive or transmissive properties of light. But color is also something that you have to play with to see how it works, and where it fits, and besides wardrobe, set design, or anything else, photographers love to use what are called “gels” to infuse color into a scene.

I want to show you a few ways I’ve used colored gels to create a different looks and moods. One way color comes into a photograph is by the light that is available as-is. Another way is to introduce extra light and color that we have more control over by changing how the camera sees that light, or by how we want that light to be portrayed. That’s done with flash, LEDs, and other light sources we add into a scene.

White Balance

Creative control over an image requires an understanding of the properties of light. Digital cameras make it easier to learn and for faster trial and error cycles. In the age of digital, changing the color of light is much easier than it was in the days of film, when you had to go through some acrobatics because of the way film saw light, and the way it responded to certain kinds of light. There was no such thing as white balance for film cameras.

With digital, however, you can change white balance, or the amount of red, green, blue, yellow, and magenta that the camera sees, and interprets onto the final image. Most digital cameras come with a a number of white balance settings: auto, daylight, tungsten, fluorescent, custom from a sample image, and ultra-custom via manual adjustments. I usually leave the white balance on auto unless I have a specific need, but you can purposely use the wrong white balance to create effects or cancel unwanted color casts.

I’m Gellin’

Back to gels. Gels are colored acetate, and come in a wide variety of colors. I have become a great fan of using colored gels in front of my light source to render mood, and give an otherwise drab image some pop.

Below are some examples of how added color can work in a photo. Let’s  walk through them.

Pink Silk Dress

Take this image of the young woman in the fuschia dress. She brought various pieces of wardrobe to her portrait session, and I chose this dress among the 3 or 4 she had. I love the bright color, I think it goes great with her fair skin, and it really calls attention to her as the subject. I thought that in order to do justice to the dress, which she confided was quite expensive, we needed to do something to help the viewer appreciate it, because she seemed particularly proud of owning it.

So I chose a purple background paper, the orange chair from the props I had access to, and we added a gel to produce a pink color using red acetate. It’s pointed the light at the background, and the red mixed with the purple to create a pink color, that perfectly matched her dress!  The smallest splash of that red, tuned just right to mesh with the purple works to finish the image, and gets it ready for final retouching.




This next young woman posed outside, beneath a highway overpass at Flushing Meadow Park in Queens. The outfit she is wearing is something that she designed herself, as she’s an aspiring fashion designer outside of her 9-to-5 day job.

My idea for the photo shoot was to create a “dystopian” theme, and the environment was chosen specifically to match that, after she emailed me photos of the outfits she was considering. Her outfit, the location, and the available light that I had were all enhanced by the strobe lights that I was using to light her and the background “correctly” with a wash of white. That straight image was acceptable, but after a few frames, I was not thrilled. The image I had in my head wasn’t coming to life in the camera. So I had an idea: let’s gel the lights!

I decided to throw gels on the two lights I had on either side of her, each with a different color. And that made all the difference! There is a little bit of color spill onto her face, and that’s ok for me. Others might want to work  at eliminating that color on the face with barn doors, or other light modifiers (see below), but in this case I wanted that color to spill onto her face and wardrobe just a little.


“It’s Up There Now!”

Lastly, here’s an image I’d been planning out in my head for some time, which I thought to execute about Halloween last year. The model is my daughter and she loves to play-act so I put her to task. The image is titled, “It’s up there now!” trying to invoke that creepy, suspenseful image we often see in Hollywood creature features.

As you can see she’s holding up a blue lantern in her right hand.  The blue blood dripping from her left hand, which mirrors the blue lantern for balance, is play slime that she got from a loot bag at a birthday party.


I know that the camera is set so that the candle should show up as orange. There’s a real candle in that lantern. I wasn’t planning on doing any digital enhancement initially, but I did add some color and glow in post-production through Lightroom. And because orange and blue are opposite colors on the color wheel, the color contrast would make for an interesting, and intense, image.

But when I shot the first few frames, I was starting to defeat the effect I was going for by lighting her with white light from a naked strobe.

In order for the image to be believed, her face must reflect the orange light of the lantern, or at least look like it’s the same light. In my first couple of attempts, her face was lit like it was pure daylight, and the orange glow of the candle was all but washed out, and nowhere near the intensity I imagined or wanted to make the shot work.

So … I gelled the flash with orange acetate and started to experiment.  I wanted the gel to do dual duty: it had to increase the intensity of the orange glow from the lantern; but I also wanted to that light to spill onto her face, and even a little on the background.  So I took a shot, looked at how the light fell on the whole scene, and adjusted as needed till I got what I wanted. Again, if the light from the lantern didn’t make her face orange, or at least look like it, the image fails.

But I didn’t want everything to be bathed in orange, I wanted to control where that orange light went. That was easy to do with a honeycomb grid and barn doors. These modifiers are indispensable because you always want to control where your light goes, and used appropriately, you can easily change the effect.

So there you have it. That’s just a few of my experiments with colored gels.

Are there any ideas you’d like to try?