flash gels

Off-camera flash – love it. Having a flash-lit subject that’s looks unnatural and washed out – not loving it. But there is a solution! Gels. No, not hair gel. (But, just like hair gel, remember not to overdo it).

A flash emits pure, white, pretty light – great for when you’re shooting outdoors. But what about when you’re taking a picture indoors with overhead lighting? Incandescent light (found in most homes) is yellow.  Tungsten light is orange while fluorescent light is an ugly green.

Why should you care?

Let’s say you’re taking pictures at a wedding reception in a room with fluorescent light. You use flash to perfectly light the bride and groom. You pull the picture up on your computer. The couple looks good but the scene all around them is a hideous green – the color temperature of the ambient light. That makes your the flash look unnatural and the scene just plain ugly. If you just had put a green gel over your flash, and set your white balance to fluorescent light, the color from your flash would have looked natural and the color in the scene would not be off-balance.

So here’s the run down on gels:

  • If you’re shooting in a room with incandescent light (found in most homes) you should use a yellow gel over your flash.
  • Shooting in a room with fluorescent lights, you need a green gel.
  • Under tungsten light, use a CTO (Color Temperature Orange) gel; this one is also useful when shooting portraits of people outdoors to give the skin a more natural-looking warm color.
  • In all cases, make sure to set your white balance for the ambient light.

Honestly, I don’t find the yellow light to be as much of an issue because it’s closer to white than green or orange. But the green color of fluorescent lights and the orange of tungsten (often used in lamps) really do need correction. If I had to choose only two gels, I’d get green and CTO (orange).

What if you have different types of light in the same room?

Decide which one is the most powerful and go with that color gel. It will get you closer than you would have been otherwise. If there’s window light, and enough of it, turn off other light sources and don’t worry about using a gel.

Gels are offered in several forms and there are multiple methods for attaching them to your flash. I bought a set of cut gels that included a holder to go on my flash. I just slip them in. I’ve heard that other photographers tape them on or use Velcro. Check out B&H, Adorama, and Amazon: lots of options.