How to use light balancing gels

A portable strobe with a piece of fluorescent-balacing gel attached. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

A portable strobe with a piece of fluorescent-balacing gel attached. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

Once you’ve gotten good at exposure with your portable strobe-both on and off-camera-you’re probably going to start looking at the quality of the light you’re producing. Getting the right color temperature match between your existing natural light and the light you’re adding with your strobe can go a long way towards improving your results.

In order to get this balance, you’re going to need light balancing gels. What gels are these? Well, start by remembering that your strobe is designed to always put out the equivalent of “high noon daylight” strobe light-the color of light in the middle of a bright, sunny day, about 5500 to 6000 degrees Kelvin. How often is that the light you’re trying to match when you shoot? If you’re like me, that’s not very much of the shooting situations I find myself in. Things are always some other color temperature-warmer or colder, or some other funky thing altogether, like maybe fluorescent. What to do? That’s where my basic kit of light balancing gels comes in.

These are the gels I carry in my camera bag at all times, from left: red, blue, fluorescent, Full C.T., and No-Color Straw. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

These are the gels I carry in my camera bag at all times, from left: red, blue, fluorescent, Full C.T., and No-Color Straw. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

In the flap of my camera bag I keep a wallet with gels cut to fit my portable strobe. The gels all have velcro strips permanently attached to match mating pieces of velcro attached to my strobe. The gels I use the most are made by the Lee company of England, although you could assemble a similar kit with Rosco gel material.

The colors I always keep on hand are:

No Color Straw(#159)-a very pale yellow. Perfect for warming up almost any Caucasian skin. I use this gel color all the time.

C.T. Tungsten(#204)-an amber/orange gel. “C.T.” refers to “Conversion to Tungsten”, and this gel takes you from 5500 degrees down to 3200 degrees, which is a tungsten bulb, similar to interior incandescent light. This gel material also come is 1/4 C.T.(#206), ½ C.T. (#206). All three of these are useful to have on hand.

Fluorescent Conversion(#219)-a greenish gel that roughly matches the wavelength of most fluorescent lighting. Although this is technically a tungsten-to-fluorescent gel, I find it does a great job of cleaning up an imbalance between daylight strobe and a fluorescent background.

Red gel-when I need a reddish cast to a photo, usually as a secondary light source in the background

Blue gel-ditto the red gel. I use this gel a lot, it’s a great background complementary color for a warmish foreground portrait

I buy my gel material from a New York supplier in the Photo District,  The Set Shop.  When you place your order, as them if they can send you a sampler gel pack, which will have small samples of every Lee gel and a description of what it does, useful for future ordering.

I use Velcro strips on my strobes and mating pieces on each cut gel to make attachment fast and easy.(Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

I use Velcro strips on my strobes and mating pieces on each cut gel to make attachment fast and easy.(Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

The gel comes in sheets, 21″ x 24″, which is a lot of gel material if you’re just getting set up for portable strobes. If you have a local photography group or club, you might want to go in together and place an order. Either way, the gels are not expensive, currently running $7.50 per sheet. You can place your order over the phone with a credit card and have a tube of gel material at your doorstep in a few days.

Cut your gel up, apply your velcro strips to your strobe and gels pieces, and you’re ready to light balance!

I’m going to explain how I would use this material in a couple of real-life situations.

Let’s say you’re going to be shooting a wedding reception in a room with a lot of incandescent can lighting. If you just use your on-camera strobe (or off-camera with a strobe cord) you’ll have a big discrepancy between your daylight-balanced foreground and your tungsten-balanced background. So, take out your full C.T. gel (conversion to tungsten) and velcro this to the front of your strobe unit. Change your camera’s White Balance setting to tungsten lighting. Now everything matches! Shoot a couple of test images to check. You may find that the ½ C.T. gel actually looks better, depending upon the room lighting.

Now say you’re at a party that’s in a fluorescently-lit reception hall. Again, if you put your strobe on with no gel, your foreground will be daylight and your background will go either a sickly green or green/yellow, depending on the overhead tubes. What to do?

Get out your fluorescent gel material and put it on. Put your camera’s White Balance setting on the fluorescent  balance. Shoot a test. You’ll find that the gelled strobe gives you a cleaner overall image with no foreground/background color change.

These are two examples of situations I run into all the time. The gels will dramatically improve your shooting results. Give them a try!

The left photo shows ungelled strobe on the foreground and  the camera's White Balance setting set to match on Daylight, with the background going yellow from the ambient fluorescent lighting. The right photo has fluorescent gel over the strobe light and the camera's White Balance setting on fluorescent. Everything in the photo cleans up nicely and the colors are far more accurate throughout the image. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

The left photo shows ungelled strobe on the foreground and the camera's White Balance setting set to match on Daylight, with the background going yellow from the ambient fluorescent lighting. The right photo has fluorescent gel over the strobe light and the camera's White Balance setting on fluorescent. Everything in the photo cleans up nicely and the colors are far more accurate throughout the image. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

selfport1aHi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog

Posted in: Lighting

About the Author:

Photographer, videographer and photo editor. Host and creator of The Discerning Photographer web site. Currently a Canon shooter.

14 Comments on "How to use light balancing gels"

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  1. Alx says:

    Good stuff, Andrew. Very informative and helpful. Thanks.
    Al

  2. Hyper Minor says:

    i can say it’s pretty cool creative and very useful

  3. Thank you. This is a great idea. The gels seam to do a fantastic job.

  4. Brad says:

    Thanks for the nice and simple explanation. I like the velcro idea although I also like using a StoFen diffuser when there’s not much to bounce off of so I discovered Phoxel. They’re pretty much identical to yours except cost $35 for a single set – but they stick on a lot like a 3M Yellow Sticky. I don’t know how many times the glue will work but probably a lot.

    Here’s a discovery! I can put a CT gel UNDER a white Sto-Fen diffuser and it doesn’t really change the 3200K color! I was surprised – I expected it to increase to 4500K. Even rubber banding a gel OVER the sto-fen looks the same.

    I used to just rubber band 3×10 strips of gel – leaving a couple of black hair bands on my flash for that purpose. That way I could gel over the Sto-Fen if I wanted. 3×10 is a big gel to carry around though – I’d fold them into my top zip pocket on my shoulder camera bag. Your method looks neater. Although; I think the $35 for Phoxes is probably worth it for someone with just 1 flash.

    Cheers.

  5. Chris says:

    GReat tips & great information

  6. james says:

    The date is now January2011, and this article is still solid information. I’m glad I “Stumbled ” on to it.

  7. Thanks James! Lighting information rarely goes out of date…

  8. Kent Ryan says:

    Can you combined 2 gels? Like red and green, I think it’ll create a night vision kind of color..

    Thanks for this very informative post… Do you have any updates about this? Your still using this?

    Great post.. Thanks, Keep me updated..

  9. Give it a try and see what you get. It might work!

  10. debbiep says:

    thanks for the post, I am still just starting out and learning. These are really helpful tips.

  11. Ellyn says:

    I LOVE this idea. What a low tech solution to create desired lighting effects. thank you, Ellyn Deuink

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