Gels are an inexpensive way to turn a boring set into a space filled with ambiance. Three Speedlites, two gels, a random mirror, and a mini softbox enabled me to turn a small, unfinished cellar (above left) into the colorful set for a model’s portfolio shoot (above right).

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to gelling flash for dramatic effect. Most of the time, I start working towards an idea that I have in my head and then explore new opportunities as they appear along the way. So, I’ll walk you through the shoot I did for my friend Arian — one of my favorite workshop models here in Paso Robles — as a tour of my approach to creative gelling.

^ The entire shoot spanned 74 shots over 25 minutes. My hero shot happened at frame 69 — bottom row, second from left. As you’ll see, there were many turns in my visual journey.

My camera gear was my trusty Canon 5D Mark II with the Canon EF17-40mm f/4L lens, parked on my Gitzo tripod. Even though I can handhold 1/30″, I often lock my camera down in this type of shoot so that I maintain consistency of framing from shot to shot — which enables me to concentrate on the changes that I’m making to the light.

I fired three Speedlites — all Canon 580EX IIs — one in the hotshoe as the wireless master and two as off-camera slaves. You’ll find the details about my gel kit at the end of the article. I softened the blue-gelled Speedlite with the Lastolite Ezybox Speed-Lite mini softbox. The camera and flash were both run in manual mode for consistency from frame to frame. In fact, you’ll see that the only camera setting I change is the ISO.

^ Let’s head through the details of ten frames so that you can see the progression of my thoughts. (Tip: click through on any of the pix in this article to see a higher-res version.)

^ The tiny, unfinished cellar as we found it — lit by a single CFL clamped to a post. For reasons unknown, we also found a convex mirror in the left corner. Look closely. You’ll see that I dropped a gelled Speedlite in front of the mirror to throw red light across the back wall. (1/30″, f/4, ISO 400)

^ Throughout the shoot, I futzed with the angle of the mirror to change the throw of the red light. Its convex shape helped spread the light in a wide arc. The small flash of orange-yellow at the center is the direct blast from the center of the mirror. Sometimes accidents, like this bit of over-exposure, can create a cool effect. By changing the angle of the mirror, the position of the Speedlite, the zoom of its flashtube, and the power level, I explored several different options for this space-filling light. (1/30″, f/4, ISO 400)

^ My initial idea was to have Arian hold the CFL — as if he was trying to see someone in the dark space. I worked this idea for a few frames, but it quickly seemed too contrived. In this shot, I have a blue-gelled Speedlite on a stand to camera-right. Both the blue and the red Speedlites are controlled from the master Speedlite in the camera’s hotshoe. It’s set as a disabled master — which means that it flashes instructions to the slaves during the pre-flash and then goes dark when the shutter actually opens. (1/30″, f/4, ISO 400)

^ Still working towards my basic set-up, I moved a wooden stepladder into the shot, pulled the camera back, and zoomed the lens a bit wider. Moving the stepladder in gave me a spot to park the CFL, which I still wanted in the frame. I think it’s important to have some light source that is attributable in the shot. The ladder also filled a bit of the empty background and gave Arian a prop to play off of. You also can see that I dialed the power of the blue Speedlite way down — in fact, it’s too far down to make any real contribution to the lighting. (1/30″, f/4, ISO 400)

^ Enabling the on-camera master Speedlite — meaning that it sent the instructions to the slaves during the pre-flash and also fired when the shutter was open —  killed the shot by stripping away the mystery. This is the look of over-powered, on-camera flash. Since the light hits both sides of Arian equally, the on-camera flash flattens the light by stripping away the shadows. You can barely tell in this shot, but I moved the blue Speedlite from camera-right to camera-left. The Manfrotto 5001B compact light stand is now sitting on the concrete shelf at left. The Speedlite is angled at about 45-degrees towards Arian. (1/30″, f/4, ISO 400)

^ ISO is a global change that affects ambient and flash equally. Here, I’ve dialed the ISO up from 400 to 800 — a change of one-stop. Shutter, aperture, and flash power remained the same as before. I also disabled the master again. For some, this could be a usable image. For me, it’s too bright. (1/30″, f/4, ISO 800)

^ I’m all for exploring far-ranging options along the way. Here, I’ve dialed the blue Speedlite on camera-left down almost to zero. This one change allows the CFL to play a greater role in the shot. (1/30″, f/4, ISO 800)

^ It’s important to step back and take a look at what your ambient exposure looks like without flash. Here I’ve shut the master Speedlite off — which kept the slaved Speedlites from firing as well. Dialing the ISO from 800 down to 200 (a 2-stop change) also makes the CFL appear more dim. I’m now at the exposure that I’ll use for the brief remainder of the shoot. (1/30″, f/4, ISO 200)

^ My hero shot happened at frame 69. I like the intense blue on Arian’s face and how it contrasts boldly with the warm light in the background. Look at the wall near the right edge. You can see that I’ve feathered (angled) the blue Speedlite so that most of the light flies in front of Arian and then bounces onto him. (1/30″, f/4, ISO 200)

^ With a shot I really liked in hand, I explored a new option — turning the red Speedlite off. I like the feel of the blue-only light as well. As I said at the top, there are no hard and fast rules when gelling for dramatic effect — just loads of options that pop up along the way. (1/30″, f/4, ISO 200)


 How I Gel Speedlites


I think that I’ve tried every option for gelling Speedlites. For me the two most important criteria are that the gel go on and off in just a second and that I have lots of room to be sloppy in how I place the gel — meaning no gaps that allow white light to fly out. My need for speed with gels comes from the fact that when the sun is crashing and I need to jump from a Half-CTO to a Full-CTO on my fill flash, I don’t want to take 30-seconds to make sure that the gel is aligned with precision. I want to make the change in 2-seconds and keep shooting.

My go-to gel system is the fuzzy Honl Speedstrap and the Honl Color Effects and Color Correction gels (which Honl calls “filters”). The two gels used for this shoot came from the Color Effects kit. Unlike other gel systems, the Honl gels are over-sized. So, I can literally slap it on or rip it off thanks to the Velcro on the Speedstrap and the gels. I carry my gels in an accordion-fold coupon box. Honl also makes a durable roll-up case for their gels.

Syl Arena gel kit

Want to know more of the details about how I light with gels? Check out Chapter 20 in my Speedliter’s Handbook.


13 Responses to Anatomy of a Shoot: Creating Dramatic Color With Gelled Speedlites

  1. J.C. says:

    solid post – lots of great info in the always easy to read Syl Style

  2. Tana Gandhi says:

    This is so helpful! I'm working on lighting for a few upcoming photo shoots and this is a nice technique/effect to consider.

  3. Robin Browne says:

    Thanks for the great information and as always well presented. It made me get off my butt and order the Honl gels. Thanks again.

  4. bronsond says:

    Thanks Syl. You always teach me something new.

  5. Wikus says:

    Very nice to see how you layer each light to get to the final image. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Adam says:

    Great post! I just got my new speed strap and gels the other day. I ordered them after reading your book. Thanks for taking the time to post this for us.

  7. Will says:

    Great image from an very informative post as always. You always inspire me to do more with my speedliting than I already am…my new years resolution is to start using gels this year.

  8. Ivan Boden says:

    This is great. I always enjoy seeing the process of how a shot was built. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Altug says:

    Thanks for the inspiring post and giving the time to explain each steps that you took..

  10. christian says:

    What was the power on the Speedlite?

  11. Doug Ford says:

    Nice idea, the plastic coupon box. Thanks!

  12. Jeremy M says:

    Thanks Syl! As an amateur strobist just starting out posts like these are incredibly helpful. BTW, love your book – probably the single-best resource I’ve found on Speedliting and speedlights in general.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *