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Color Balance & Gels

Lesson 12 from: Introduction to Outdoor Flash Photography

Mike Hagen

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Lesson Info

12. Color Balance & Gels

Lesson Info

Color Balance & Gels

All of the photos we've taken up to this point were just bare flashes. In other words, I didn't color the flash in any way whatsoever. The more you do flash photography the more you realize it's important to make sure your portraits of people are warm and inviting. Cool photos, as in blue photos, don't always look that great. It's okay to have a blue background, but you don't ever really want the subject to be cool, unless they're an ice princess in a movie. Then that's okay. But for most of the photography that we do, even macro photography, bugs and flowers, you want to warm that subject up. And so that's what I want to talk about now, using gels. So let's talk about color, color balance specifically. When it's cloudy out, a lot of times the colors of the ambient light is very blue. It's a very cool look, not cool as in awesome but more cool as in blue. And what we like to do a lot of times, especially when we're doing portraiture, is to warm the subject up. And the way that we do th...

at is we use a gel. I have some gels here that I want to show. These are colored gels. And they go in between the flash and the subject. Typically when we're shooting portraits we like using a tungsten gel or an amber gel or another term for it is oftentimes a CTO, color temperature orange. And if I look up here at the flash, I've already put a gel into the flash. Let me just show you how this works. Basically you just need to find a way to attach the gel to the flash itself. You can use gaff tape if you want. In this case it just conveniently fits underneath this diffusion panel, and then I drop the diffusion panel down, and you can see it hides there right behind the diffusion panel. Then when you rotate it through like this, rotate it through the soft box, it sends out orange colored light or a warm colored light onto the subject. I've had some people ask me, well, is going through the white diffusion in front, won't it come out as white light? And the answer is no. Basically it's coming out orange and then the white light doesn't change the color of the gel at all. So you'll see in this next image that we take, this next portrait, it's going to warm up the scene quite significantly. And it just helps your subject look tan, warm, comfortable, good looking, all of those good superlatives. Alright, you ready for this? Yes, I am. Alright, cool. I'm gonna have you bring your shoulder in just a little bit. And he's a little bit taller, so I'm gonna bring up the soft box a little higher. Alright, so I raised up the light stand just a little bit more. I've got a nice city skyline behind him. I'm using, I'll go through the settings, show you where I'm at. I want to shoot this at F28. And my shutter speed's around a 1000th of a second. My ISO's at ISO 100. And if you remember, I'm shooting the high speed sync, so because my shutter speed's above 250th of a second, I'm utilizing that high speed sync feature. I'm gonna take my first photo with no flash, so we can see what that looks like. So I'll turn that off, take a quick sample shot here. You ready? Alright, here we go. One, two, three. Excellent. And we take that shot, looks pretty good. I like the brightness of the light behind him. Then of course if we look underneath his eyes we need to fill that in with flash. Let's do that. I'll turn that on. And we got green, ready to take the shot. So this is the first shot with the gel. One, two, three. And I'll take a vertical picture here. One, two, three. There you see the results. Oh, fantastic. Man, brought the photo into the realm of not looking pale. You look like you're from southern California. Great look to the image. It might be a little bit too warm. I purposely use a very heavy orange filter, just to show the effect here on camera. But if I was doing this maybe for my own portrait work I would use a half cut of that rather than a full cut. The full cut's a little bit too strong, especially as it blends with the sky. The sky is very blue and this is very warm. It's obvious that we're using a gel. But at least you see the effect and the impact of using a gel. So, gels are very useful. And I would recommend that everybody get yourself a small little gel filter pack, gel pack is what they're called. Nikon and Canon have their own setups that just work with the flashes. So here we've got on the left, we've got a tungsten flash. And really what that's designed to do, a tungsten gel, is it's designed to make the flash put out the same color light as an incandescent or a tungsten light bulb. And in this one here, the filter on the right is an amber gel. And it's just a warming gel, it warms it up. For the photo, I think on the photo I used in the video there, I used a tungsten gel. You can see how strong that is. It's a very strong color. It might be too much. A little bit of amber is good, it goes a long way. There's another term for this, it's called the CTO, color temperature orange. CTO. So in the photo world, we say, "Give me a full cut, a full CTO, a full cut or CTO. Or give me a half cut, give me a quarter cut." Basically what that means is it uses this really strong CTO, but then it's halved into the, or quartered into, there's just different shades of warming filters. Gels, sorry, gotta use the right term. So this little packet here is a Nikon product. You actually can buy it, it's called the SJ1 gel pack. And then some flashes that you buy from Nikon and Canon come with a little polycarbonate or plastic gel. So here we've got, these two came from Nikon. You've got a fluorescent colored and an incandescent colored. Again the idea with these is to match the color of flash with the ambient light in the room. If I was outdoors I would use this amber gel. Let me show you how that mounts on the flash. So this is an SB9-10. And this literally just snaps into place. Just like that, okay? And that will go into your umbrella, it will go into your soft box. And you could even use your diffusion dome like this over top of it, inside of your umbrella or inside of your soft box. So it's designed to work together as a system. There's one other thing I wanna point out here, and that is that these actually have, let's see if you can see this, there's a barcode on the bottom of here. White, black, white, black. Compared to this green one, which is white, black, black, black. And so they're barcoded so that you can set your camera for auto white balance and the camera will understand what type of gel it's using and give you the right color cast. So that's another reason why these flashes cost so much money, $500 for the Nikon and Canon flashes, 'cause they've got all these systems in place to help you create, or to help you get your colors just so. So let's say you don't want to spend the money for a Nikon or Canon gel pack. Well, there's these types of things, and these are called filters. I'm using the term filter and gel interchangeably. Really the technical term is gels, but Lee, this company Lee, sells this filter pack, okay? So this is the Lee filter pack. And this is just a demo pack. There's another company out there called Rosco, R-O-S-C-O. Rosco Lux actually. And these companies make these types of gels for stage lighting and play production. So you get these big sheets, like these two-foot by two-foot sheets, and they actually go in front of the spotlights, right? Well, you don't need a two-foot by two-foot sheet for your little flash here. So you could go to the store and buy a big old two-foot by two-foot sheet and then cut out pieces and gaff tape it, but I recommend just going to the store, buy one of these sample packs. They used to give them away for free until all of us instructors started saying, hey, go to your store and get it for free. So now they make you buy them. But they're probably only less than five bucks, and you got all of these different gels. Literally just tear it out, get some tape, doesn't matter what type of tape, I like using gaff tape or gaffer tape, and just tape it on the side, put it right in front of the flash, and now you're gellin'. (chuckles) So there we go. Now the Nikon, these gels also work, they're designed to go right underneath the diffusion panel. Then that diffusion panel drops down and holds it there into place. Gels. Questions? Kenna? Yeah, we've got some questions from at home. So you mentioned that some of those gels help you with knowing what white balance to put on, like the ones you showed us. But the question that come in from Peter Gumin, "When using a gel, what do you set your white balance on the camera?" If you don't have those particular ones. Great. Peter, great question. Really it's a fantastic question. And so to answer it we have to think, what is the desired intent with using the gel? What is our purpose for using the gel? Well, the purpose is to make the photo look warmer, or actually to make the subject look warmer. Okay, so let's say you use the gel and then you set the camera for auto white balance. Hmm, what's the camera trying to do with auto white balance? Trying to neutralize the color cast. So by throwing a gel on there and setting the camera to auto white balance it just neutralized the gel. It's kind of a pointless activity. So really what you want to do is you want the gel to influence the photo, so you set your white balance for flash. And that's kind of a bluish type of white balance. Or it neutralizes the blue color from the flash. Then when you add the gel on there, the camera doesn't neutralize it, it basically allows the orange from the gel and gives you the warm subjects. So keep your white balance set for, I would say, sunny, keep it set for flash, something like that, and then that allows the gel to do what it's supposed to do, warm the scene. Alright, one more from Bast Creative, "Do the gels cause the flash to lose strength, and if so about how much?" Yeah, they do. Great question again. When you buy these... Yeah, this one has it. I don't know if we're gonna be able to see it on the camera, I'll hold it real steady here. This gel actually says tungsten, and then it says something like plus, it's in front of my face here, but it's like plus one EV. So it's tungsten plus one EV. So what that means is that this gel actually takes away one stop of light. So practically speaking, if you're already maxed out with your flash power, so let's say you're outside and you're already at one over one flash power and you're like, I got nothing else to give, and then you put a gel on there, well, you've just reduced the amount of power going to your subject by half. So yeah, they do absorb light. Very rarely do we use a full cut, almost always we're using a half or a quarter. So we talked about CTO, what that means. Anything like a tungsten gel or an incandescent gel or a CTO, they all have about the same effect. And I've already shown you a variety of different densities, but if you go to the store and you're like, I need a warming gel, and all they have is tungsten and you heard Mike say, you need a CTO, well, just get the tungsten. It's probably gonna be okay. So those are in general common terms, including a warming gel. And then the goal is to give the flash a warmer color than the ambient light. That's the overall approach. There are lots of other colored gels. And so just because I'm telling you to make the photo look warmer doesn't mean you have to. If you want red, you know, maybe it's Halloween and you want some blood color photos or I don't know, maybe you want yellows or oranges or browns or blues. There's all these different options. You don't have to just warm photos up. That's the great thing about off camera flash photography and location photography, you can mix and match. In fact one of the things I love to do is use like a blue gel off the shoulders, so I'll set up like a hard flash for the background, and that'll give me a blue rim, and then a warming gel in the front, and that mix of colors is actually quite compelling. So don't overdo it. Don't be like, fluorescent blue and fluorescent orange. Be subtle with it. But yeah, in general with portraiture, the goal is to warm it up. Well, here's a photo. Here's just a processed photo. I think what I did is I took a little bit of the saturation out on this one, but you can tell, you can obviously tell that there's a warming gel. In fact if you look on this side of the body, you can see the warmth. And then over here it's cool, more blue. So I think this one's a little bit over the top. And then here's a vertical portrait. Same type of thing. And I just wanted to call this out, MoveFree. These guys, in a little bit we're gonna see them doing some outdoor stuff. This is the studio that they work at, or the club they work out at. So you're gonna see some moves that they made later on when we do the parkour and the athletic events. It's pretty fun, and I think I use the warming gel for those photographs as well. Once you get this nailed you can use it for all of your portraits.

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with Purchase

Introduction to Outdoor Flash Keynote PDF
Lighting Diagrams

Ratings and Reviews

Brandon Couch

This is the second class I've taken with Mike and it was amazing! So easy to understand even when you get into the "tech" side of how flashes work but especially when using them outside and how easy it is. I would totally recommend this class to anyone wanting to take amazing images outside with one flash. He even makes bare bulb flash look awesome. Such a great course!


Mike Hagen has become one of favorite instructors. His instruction and question answers are clear and concise and he has a real world approach. He has a friendly and approachable personality. Best of all during this course he works by himself which makes you feel you too can accomplish the shoot on your own. Mike demonstrates a practical approach with affordable equipment as he is aware many photographers starting off do not have a huge budget. In his other course on using your first flash he also had several gear set suggestions based on budget which was so thoughtful and helpful. I hope Mike does some more advanced courses as well and I will keep watch for his name on the course schedule. A definite thumbs up for photographers starting off using flash.

Laura K.

I have watched a couple of Mike Hagen's classes, and hope Creative Live will bring him back to teach more. He is a fantastic, thorough, easy-to-understand instructor. He doesn't assume viewers already know certain things. He is humble and diligent and truly wants students to understand and learn the things he is teaching. He breaks things down and explains things better than most, and he doesn't hold back on details. Mike also provides helpful handouts/written materials to supplement his videos. I really like his classes and teaching style, and hope to be seeing more from him in the future.

Student Work