Using gels is a great way to infuse vibrant colors into your images that can either dominate or introduce subtle tones that help to communicate a mood.
Gels can be beautiful and elegant, however, be sure that the color serves a visual role and try not to go overboard or appear too gimmicky. If the gels aren’t being used successfully to communicate a mood or purposeful color palette, it can look like it was simply used to make a boring photograph more interesting and miss the mark. Aim to have your gel become an important element of the scene without it looking random or used as an afterthought.
I don’t usually light my entire scene with gels, but instead I opt to use them when I want to fill the shadows and enhance the mood. Gels for mood work better when you have shadow areas of your photograph to work with. If you use a gelled light on an already high key image, the white light of the scene overpowers the gels. Instead, when you have shadow areas, the shadows devour the light from the gels and take on those color tones. Because shadow areas are not already lit, they will absorb whatever light hits them. When I plan to utilize gels, I light my scene to have shadow areas, and often pick light modifiers with a bit more contrast like a beauty dish, long throw, or other gridded light source.
Let’s take a look at a couple of examples.
In this editorial that appeared in Zink Magazine, there were minimal shadows created by the main light, which was a beauty dish. The beauty dish was above eye level and to the right of the frame, casting shadows beside the model’s arm, neck and jawline. On the left side of the frame I used a red gel. Notice how the shadow areas now absorb this red light. I used the red gel to make this an image about the color red—red hair, red lips, and red undertones.
Let’s go a bit more in-depth with another example.
I was asked by the Framed Network to shoot an online series called “The Concept” with my good friend and fine art photographer, Brooke Shaden (show launching late this fall). At the beginning of every episode we were given a theme or concept to shoot and could create any image we wanted in order to express our personal style. It was a brilliant project to show that there is no one right answer, but instead endless answers for any visual challenge. Brooke and I have drastically different styles, and thus drastically different solutions for each concept. Our brains are wired differently in many aspects, yet our passion for photography and image making unites us.
For one of the concepts we were given the theme “Back to the Future”. I asked my wardrobe stylist to get very structural and metallic clothing to emulate some of the vision of what I thought ‘futuristic’ clothing might look like. I worked closely with my makeup artist to produce a very pale and clean look, making the subject appear nearly cyborg-like.
Next, I wanted to create a scene that felt cool and sterile perhaps like a spacecraft of the future. I wanted to create a metallic room for the subject to stand within. Because I needed to work within a small budget, I decided to make this scene out of large pieces of foam core and metallic poster board. I purchased both of these materials from a craft shop in Brooklyn, allowing me to create a metallic room for less than $100 total. I used adhesive spray glue to attach the poster board to the foam core and then positioned the boards to make a corner. I then put an extra sheet of metallic poster beneath the model’s feet to make a complete room.
Once I had the model styled and scene created, I had to determine the lighting that would work best for my vision. When I envision futuristic, I think cool, sterile, and cyborg like, utilizing blues and teals. For this scene I used Broncolor Lighting and a light called a ‘long throw’ to the left of the frame to create Rembrandt lighting on the model’s face. Then I used a small silver reflector dish (5’’) with a teal-blue gel to the right side of the frame. This gel helped to fill in the color of the shadows, giving a blue-teal undertone to the scene and a bit of illumination and detail in the shadow area of the photo. Finally, I used a low angle (kneeling on the floor) to make the subject look even taller and more slender than in reality.
I selected a graphic pose and clean composition to help further enhance a cyborg-like appearance to this ‘back to the future’ challenge!
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