Creating the Perfect Gelled Background

Jun 29, 2016

Jake Hicks

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

Creating the Perfect Gelled Background

Jun 29, 2016

Jake Hicks

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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Getting clean, saturated  and even colour from edge to edge on your gelled background with a subtle vignette needn’t be a mystery. Simply remember Exposure, Modifier and Distance to get the perfect gelled background every time. *Image taken at my Gelled Lighting Workshop of the stunning Amber Tutton.

At first glance this seems like an easy thing to achieve, how hard can it be to get a great looking gelled background in your shot?

As anybody who has used gels in the past will tell you, there’s certainly a few key things to pay attention to if you want to avoid those flat, washed-out and uneven gelled backgrounds. If instead you want clear, saturated and brightly coloured backgrounds by using gels alone then simply read on.

First off, why even use coloured gels rather than a coloured backdrop or Colorama? There’s a couple of reasons but the most popular is usually just simply, variety. All you need is one white wall and you can quickly and easily shine 100’s of inexpensive gel colours up there and change the look in a matter of seconds. Gels also have the ability through lighting to add depth via hot-spots and vignetting whereas a Colorama is a fixed tone all over. Coloured backdrops are also crazy expensive especially if you want multiple colours and you’ll have spent hundreds long before you ever get more than a few different colours in your collection.

The biggest limitation of gels over the simple coloured Colorama’s is that you can’t light the model if she’s standing right next to the background, not without washing out the gels colour. Gels are also pretty tricky to shoot full body shots with, if you’re shooting full length fashion shots and you want the gel colour to cover the background and the floor under the models feet then yes, a seamless Colorama style backdrop is going to be the way to go.

If like me, you’re happy to never photograph another foot ever again then gels is your inexpensive, varied and simple to use coloured background of choice.

So let’s take a look at how to create that perfect gelled background. Firstly there’s a couple of options to consider in the finished look. On one hand you can go for an flat even colour and tone across the background of the image or you can go for a vignetted look that consists of a hotspot of colour that tapers out to shadows towards the edges and corners of the frame.

In the two images above we can see how the two different variations of a gelled background. The gel is shone against a white wall and depending on different factors you can either achieve a more even tone like the background on the left or a more vignetted background with hotspots and darker edges like the background on the right.
In the two images above we can see how the two different variations of a gelled background. The gel is shone against a white wall and depending on different factors you can either achieve a more even tone like the background on the left or a more vignetted background with hotspots and darker edges like the background on the right.

There’s no right or wrong version here, just personal preference but whichever version you’re trying to achieve there are three basic factors that you can control to achieve the look you want.

By taking control of the following three factors you can manipulate the look and effect your gel has on your backdrop.

  1. Exposure – This is the power of light you pass through your gel.
  2. Lighting Modifier – This is the type of lighting modifier you choose to use in conjunction with you gel.
  3. Gel Distance – This is the distance of the gel to the background you are trying to colour.

The following results and ideas are all based on shining a gel against a white wall or backdrop, yes you can shine them against different colours but that is a topic for another day.

Exposure

This one is the easiest to control but also has the most effect on the result. You cannot light meter a gel because a gel changes tone with more or less exposure, some gels like the richer colours of reds and blues will often look a lot better with less power passing through them whereas some lighter coloured gels like yellows will look muddy if they don’t receive enough light. As a result you cannot ‘correctly’ light meter the gel. Take a look at the tests I did with my gels below. You can clearly see that the colours change drastically with variations in exposure.

The above diagram shows you just how varied a gel colour can be by simply changing the amount of light that passes through them. When I was doing this test I set up my strobe with a medium power output and simply adjusted the aperture on my camera and took a shot at each aperture increment. The same results would have been obtained had I simply kept my camera set to a specific aperture and turned my strobe power up and down.
The above diagram shows you just how varied a gel colour can be by simply changing the amount of light that passes through them. When I was doing this test I set up my strobe with a medium power output and simply adjusted the aperture on my camera and took a shot at each aperture increment. The same results would have been obtained had I simply kept my camera set to a specific aperture and turned my strobe power up and down.

So in conclusion there is no ‘correct’ exposure, only the one that produces a colour and tone that you’re happy with. I’d personally recommend you doing a similar test with your gels to see just what colours you can produce at varying exposures.

Lighting Modifier

Lighting modifiers obviously play a big factor in how the gels will look on the background. In short though, soft light modifiers like softboxes will produce more of an even tone but will never have deep saturated colours as a result. It’s also a lot harder to get rich brighter hotspots with softboxes over harder lighting modifiers like grids and shoots.

The images above show the difference between modifiers when used in conjunction with gels. The image on the left is a small softbox with a blue gel, the colour is less vibrant and lacks in saturation from edge to edge plus there is little sign of a distinctive hotspot. On the right we have a gel attached to gridded reflector dish, the resulting light is a lot more saturated but has a significant hotspot that drops off dramatically. If you wanted a flat even toned gelled backdrop then the softbox is the way to go.
The images above show the difference between modifiers when used in conjunction with gels. The image on the left is a small softbox with a blue gel, the colour is less vibrant and lacks in saturation from edge to edge plus there is little sign of a distinctive hotspot. On the right we have a gel attached to gridded reflector dish, the resulting light is a lot more saturated but has a significant hotspot that drops off dramatically. If you wanted a flat even toned gelled backdrop then the softbox is the way to go.

Taking our modifier choices a step further we also have variations within the hard light modifiers as well. Some are more open/wider than others and the addition of a gridded modifier being the most directional and hardest modifier of them all.

So in the three sets of images above we can clearly see how variations in hard light modifiers affect the gel appearance. On the left we have the tightest spot with the grid on a 60 degree reflector. In the middle we have a bare 60 degree reflector that still has a relatively controlled but tight vignette and then on the right we have the open 65 degree maxilite reflector dish from Bowens which is my favourite mix of control and spread.
So in the three sets of images above we can clearly see how variations in hard light modifiers affect the gel appearance. On the left we have the tightest spot with the grid on a 60 degree reflector. In the middle we have a bare 60 degree reflector that still has a relatively controlled but tight vignette and then on the right we have the open 65 degree maxilite reflector dish from Bowens which is my favourite mix of control and spread.

Every modifier will clearly effect the gel spread and even without changing any other factor the modifier plays an important role in determining the look. For myself and what I do, I prefer a harder modifier over the softer ones as it offers more colour saturation and control and with the hard light modifiers themselves I prefer the open dish like the Bowens Maxilite 65 degree reflector dish. This modifier offers me the best balance of saturation, control and spread of colour.

Gel Distance

Gel distance technically refers to the distance of your gelled light and modifier from the backdrop. The closer the light to the backdrop the smaller and tighter the vignette of colour is going to be. Also if the exposure isn’t modified the brighter the hotspot at the centre will be too. Again this is personal  preference and it depends greatly on how far away you’ll be when shooting the model. For example if you’re quite close to the model and shooting on a 50mm lens the gelled effect on the background will look very different than if you’re a long way away but shooting at 200mm.

The two images above are drastically different but the only thing that has changed is the length of lens used. The image on the left is a 200mm lens that has compressed the background so you get a more even tone of gel exposure. The right hand image is shot on a 50mm lens and shows a far wider area of the background in shot which in turn shows the heavy vignetting present at the edges of the gel.
The two images above are drastically different but the only thing that has changed is the length of lens used. The image on the left is a 200mm lens that has compressed the background so you get a more even tone of gel exposure. The right hand image is shot on a 50mm lens and shows a far wider area of the background in shot which in turn shows the heavy vignetting present at the edges of the gel.

Playing with your preferred lens length and gel placement (distance to background) will be key to getting the right look for you. For example if you want to shoot at 50mm you can still get the 200mm background look, you simply have to move your gel further away from the backdrop to get a wider spread of colour.

Once you’re happy with the lens choice you need to fine-tune the look you’re after. Moving the gelled light closer to the backdrop will produce a stronger vignette of colour compared to moving it further away which will produce a smoother tone from centre to edge.

The following images below were actually taken on my Gelled Lighting Workshop to show attendees exactly what was going on. I’ve included a lighting setup diagram with each of the images to explain the setups visually here.

The image above was taken at my gelled lighting workshop but it shows what a gelled background looks like when the gelled light is placed quite close to the backdrop. The background has a very heavy vignette and you start to loose colour altogether at the top of the frame.
The image above was taken at my gelled lighting workshop but it shows what a gelled background looks like when the gelled light is placed quite close to the backdrop. The background has a very heavy vignette and you start to loose colour altogether at the top of the frame.
By bringing the gelled light further away from the background and hiding it just behind the model you get a far more even colour tone from centre to edge.
By bringing the gelled light further away from the background and hiding it just behind the model you get a far more even colour tone from centre to edge.

So bringing your gelled light further away creates a more even tone of colour across the background which is what I prefer but moving it closer will provide a similar look if you’re shooting on a longer lens.

In Conclusion

That’s it, keep those three things in mind, exposure, modifier and distance and adjust each of them to your taste. Lowering the exposure of a gel will often add saturation, using soft light modifiers will reduce saturation and moving your light further away will even out the tone and reduce vignetting.

REMEMBER – There’s no right or wrong, just personal preference so play with what suits your style.

perfect-gelled-background-09 perfect-gelled-background-11

Keep it Clean

There’s just one last thing and that’s how to actually maintain that richly saturated colour backdrop with a perfect vignette that you’ve just crafted.

I get sent gelled lighting shots all the time from people asking for a little advice, 9 times out of 10 it’s with a gelled background that looks washed out. When I respond with ‘your background colour looks a little washed out’ I tend to get the response ‘oh no, I was going for more of a pastel tone’. Uh huh, I believe you ;)

Joking aside, we’ve all done it and I spent years teaching in studios where washed out colours in the background is by far and away the biggest offender of ruined gelled lighting shots.

I’ve rambled on long enough for one article so in the follow up piece I’ll be going through ‘How to Keep Perfectly Lit Gelled Backgrounds’. I shall see you then :D

The image on the left is the result of our hard earned efforts to sculpt a perfectly lit gelled background. We've exposed the gel to get the tone we want, we've used the perfect modifier, we've placed it at the right distance from the wall and we've even chosen the right lens. But it's all been ruined in an instant with the addition of just one more light :'(
The image on the left is the result of our hard earned efforts to sculpt a perfectly lit gelled background. We’ve exposed the gel to get the tone we want, we’ve used the perfect modifier, we’ve placed it at the right distance from the wall and we’ve even chosen the right lens. But it’s all been ruined in an instant with the addition of just one more light :'(

Let me know your thoughts guys, is there anything I’ve missed here? Are there any modifiers that you swear by to get great results? Post a comment down below as I’d love to hear your experiences and as always, if you have any questions please feel free to sound off and I’ll try to answer them the best I can.

 

About The Author

Jake Hicks is an Editorial and Fashion photographer, an educator at Amersham Studios based in the UK, and the creator of the Jake Hicks Photography Gel Packs. You can see more of Jake’s work over on his webpage or training page, and interact with him over at FacebookInstagram, 500px, Twitter and flickr. This article was also published here and shared with permission.

Also if you’re interested in learning more about Jakes , he is an educator at Amersham Studios, and runs workshops on Gelled Lighting and his  entire Post Production Workflow.

 

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5 responses to “Creating the Perfect Gelled Background”

  1. Ludwig Oblin Avatar
    Ludwig Oblin

    As I love working with color gels, your advices are very useful !
    Can’t wait to read your next article :)

  2. Sandeep Avatar
    Sandeep

    Excellent detail, Jake. You may want to put that disclaimer up top about the fact that folks should try this out but expect the wash out unless they’re sticking to a silhouette or natural light. Or, till they read part two about the second light ;)

  3. Stereo Reverb Avatar
    Stereo Reverb

    Thank you so much for this great article! Always wanted to explore gels, but have always been intimidated about it.

  4. Positive Image Avatar
    Positive Image

    I find that I get more saturation from the gels shooting the gels against a black background.

  5. Michael Turcotte Avatar
    Michael Turcotte

    Reminds me of Dean Collin’s Chromazone system from the 1980s. Using a reflective meter and an incident meter you could pick any color/tone on any neutral background.

    AD – “I want Electric Blue..”
    Photog – “Here, pick it.”
    AD – “OOOOO”

    Too bad the videos aren’t online, now I have to go dig out my VHS system.