How to create lighting gradients in your shots with coloured gels

Jan 14, 2021

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.

How to create lighting gradients in your shots with coloured gels

Jan 14, 2021

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.

Join the Discussion

Share on:

Using coloured gels can be a little unforgiving, especially if you’re new to using strobes. But one of the biggest reasons using gels can be tricky, is due to how hard it can be to use multiple coloured gels in the same setup. Coloured lights do not play well together and unlike paint, where you can create new and wonderful colours by mixing them, mixing coloured light often results in dull, washed-out colours. Coloured gels do not mix and consequently must ordinarily be kept separate in your shot at all times.

Thankfully though, in today’s setup, I will be showing you how to mix coloured gels with incredible ease, in fact, it’s so easy, we’ll only be using one light to do it!

Note: I’ve merely brushed up against the extensive issues of mixing coloured lights, but it’s actually a fairly complex topic. If you’re interested in learning more about it, I do go over it in a LOT more detail in this article: How to Avoid Colour Banding when using Coloured Gels – This is a monster article that really gets into the weeds of colour theory, but remember, you don’t need to meet the cow to enjoy the burger! You have been warned.

The Magic Modifier

So if we’re only using one light, you’re probably assuming that we need a specialist lighting modifier, right? Well kind of, as we’ll be using the good ol’ Optical Snoot for this one.

I personally don’t see the Optical Snoot a specialist lighting modifier any more and I really do believe this is a must-have modifier for any strobist at this point. Sure, get your softbox and your beauty dish first, but then get yourself an optical snoot. I guarantee you won’t regret it and once you have one, you’ll end up using it way more than you thought you would.

The optical snoot is among my absolute must-have modifiers and although I didn’t think I needed it, as soon as I started to see what it could do, I loved it!

For regular folks who’ve followed my work for a while, you’ll already know that I’ve spoken about the optical snoot a lot already, but if you’re unaware of what this magic modifier does, you can see my full review on it here: Optical Snoot Review.

The optical snoot has a very specific quality to it thanks to its ability to create incredibly hard light resulting in the modifier producing very strong shadows and highlights. Its other core feature is that it can shine very defined highlight and shadow shapes thanks to its focusing lens at the front. The shapes that it shines are often referred to as gobos and they are metal disks with patterns cut into them that sit in the modifier itself. You don’t have to use the gobos though and I often just use the optical snoot as a very hard light source and that’s what I’ll be doing again here in the following lighting setup.

Gelled Colour Gradients

As I mentioned above, if we place gobos into the modifier itself, we can focus the shadowy shapes with razor sharp edges thanks to the lens on the end of the modifier. However, if we place something in front of the optical snoot and not inside it, the resulting shape will be very blurred and out of focus. It’s this feature that we’ll be using to our advantage in this setup.

To create our gelled gradients, all we need do is simply place two coloured gels together in front of our optical snoot. The resulting effect is so blurred that it actually appears to be a colour gradient when it’s shone onto a white wall. Take a look below to see what I mean.

By placing the gel combo on the front of the optical snoot, the resulting image on the wall is a blurred gradient of colour.

As you saw in the images above, on the left you have the gel in strips taped together, and on the right you have the resulting image on the wall when placed in front, not inside the optical snoot.

Colour Options

In reality, there are any number of colour combos we can create here and you can place any two gels together that you like. In fact, you don’t even need to stop at just two gels and I even created 3 strips of colour for a couple of setups, but more on that later.

The gel gradient really isn’t anything fancy, it’s just two off-cuts of gels taped together…. with CLEAR tape!

As this was an initial test, I just played around with a few off-cuts of gels I had lying around in the bottoms of drawers in the studio. In the image I’ve shared here, you can see a 4” (10cm) square of two gels taped together.

In hindsight, I realised that I didn’t even need to cut up old gels at all. If I just wanted two gel colours together, I could simply tape any two gels side by side and then remove the tape afterwards. It doesn’t matter if you’re using full-size gels or small gel off-cuts, as long as it covers the front of the optical snoot, any size will be fine.

NOTE: Just be sure to tape them together with CLEAR tape!

It’s worth noting that you don’t even need to cut up your old gels either,. You can still use full-size gels as you’ll only be shining light through the centre section.

Tip: Choose similar density gel colours

One piece of advice I will offer is that when choosing gels to tape together, be sure to consider the gel density of the two gels you’re using. For example, try to combine two gels that appear to let the same amount of light through them. For example, my pink and teal gels from my Definitive Gel Pack are fairly similar in density, but you couldn’t really use the navy blue gel and yellow gel together from that pack as the difference in exposure needed to make these work is simply too great.

Always try to choose two gel colours that are similar in density. That way they will both let the same amount of flash power through them.

The Setup

The good news here is that there’s not too much to explain. Get your optical snoot and hold or otherwise secure your gel combo to the front of it…. Yup, that’s it, you’re good to go!

My advice for the placement of the optical snoot is to always keep it up nice and high. In doing so, the hard shadows cast by this very hard-light modifier are always cast down behind the subject. To this end, it’s advisable to keep the optical snoot almost inline with the camera too, and again this helps to hide those very dark shadows behind the subject, rather than having them cast across the wall. Take a look at the image below to see what I mean.

Place your optical snoot up high and directly behind you, that way you’ll hide most of the shadows behind the subject.

If you’re after a super-simple one light setup to play with, that is both creative and adds some colour to your shots, then this one is a great place to start. As I said, all you have to do is place that light up nice and high directly behind you to manage those shadows on the wall and you’re good to go.

If you’re after a little more refinement and depth to this though, read on.

Taking things further…

Of course, no lighting setup article from JHP would be complete without a few more advanced setups to test your patience and sanity. So if you’re after taking things further with some more advanced setups, here are some extra elements to try.

Multi-Light Setups

The simplest next steps to try will be adding some hair lights and even trying to introduce those as lights on the subject too. In the diagram below, you’ll see that I’ve added one white light with a grid to camera left. This again is positioned up high and angled down. It’s also positioned in such a way that it is not shining onto the wall behind the model. If this happens, it will ruin the colour gradient as it will overpower the colours.

Adding an additional white lgiht here will help to not only add some dimension to the model, but it’ll also bring some attention to the subjects face.

I’ll say this again as it’s very important, but you must ensure that the new light you’ve just added does not shine onto the wall behind the model. If that happens, it will likely ruin any colour you have back there. Also, the grid that is on that new light is controlling the light from spilling around the room. You could also use a snoot here or even barn doors, the important thing is that you control the light to only be on the model.

Take a look at some of the example images below.

PLEASE NOTE: To allow this article to be shared on social media etc. I have now gone back and quickly censored the ever-offensive nipples. So if some of the colours don’t match up in certain areas, that’s why.

In one of the shots above, you’ll notice that I’ve gotten the model to look over towards the side where I have the white light. With her looking that way, the white light is allowed to spill onto the front of her face and that, in turn, overpowers the colour that is already there. Using this technique can be a powerful way to draw attention and focus where you want it and in this instance, that’s towards the subjects face.

Just one step EVEN further?!

As much as I love using the optical snoot as a modifier, one of its biggest drawbacks for me is its extremely dark shadows. These very dark areas of an image can be very distracting and as I explained above, I often simply try to hide these heavy areas of shadow behind the model. But there are things that we can do to lean into these shadows and use them to our advantage. Next, I’ll show you how to colour those shadows with an additional light.

First of all, though, I’m actually going to add a lot more shadow to my shot by adjusting my gradient gel. Instead of having two gels creating a gradient on my optical snoot, I’m going to use just a single gel and a shadow on my optical snoot. I appreciate that sounds confusing, but let me explain. I mentioned earlier that placing gels in front of the optical snoot makes them appear very blurred, well this time I’m going to place a gel and a piece of thick card in front of my optical snoot. Take a look below to see what I mean.

Just when you thought it couldn’t possibly get any more lo-fi, I used a simple piece of card to create a gelled shadow-grad.

When this gel/card combo is placed in front of my optical snoot, the resulting image is a band of pink that graduates off into heavy shadow. Take a look at the setup below and how it looks in-camera.

In this shot, you’ll see what the optical snoot with card plus single gel in front is producing.

You can easily see in the image above that the card creating the shadow is so out of focus when placed in front of the optical snoot, that it results in a graduated shadow into the rich pink colour. It’s this heavy shadow that we can now use to add some more colour to via an additional light. To do this, we can use any large softbox and by placing that behind us and adding a coloured gel to it, any shadows in the image will now be coloured. Take a look at the setup below to see it in more detail.

Once we add the large gelled softbox, you start to see how the colour gradient is achieved once again.

You may be wondering… ‘Why bother adding a gelled softbox to colour the shadow gradient, when you could just as easily use a pink and blue gradient gel on the optical snoot instead?’

The reason we do it in this way is to ensure that all the shadows in the image are coloured. If we simply use the pink-to-blue gel gradient, then the shadows of the model on the background caused by the optical snoot itself will not be coloured, but when we use this more advanced technique, you should see that all the shadows on the background are now coloured and this results in a far cleaner looking image. Take a look below to see the results.

If you’re still not sure what you’re supposed to be looking at, try comparing these shots to the original setup images above in this article. See how the stool and model cast a distinct shadow on the wall behind them? Now compare it to these shots again, see how the colour on the front of the model is now exactly the same colour as the shadow on the wall? As I mentioned above, this simply results in a cleaner looking final image, although it does require a little more practice to get there and make it look as clean as these shots do.

Advanced Colour Manipulation with Colour Balancing Gels

I wasn’t sure whether to include this or not but seeing as I shot it, I thought I’d share the images here and if any of you find it interesting or useful, then this is a clever little technique to play with.

Essentially this is exactly the same technique that I’ve been using throughout this article and once again I’m going to be cutting up and splicing together coloured gels. Only this time, the gels are actually colour balancing gels, AKA CTO and CTB gels (colour temperature orange and colour temperature blue). Shameless Plug Alert: If you’re interested in getting these colour balancing gels, they can be found in my Utility Gel Pack.

For this first experiment, I spliced a strip of CTO between two strips of CTBs. Take a look below at the gel I made.

I’m still using the same basic principle of splicing gels, but here I’m using CTOs and CTBs to create a unique effect.

I then placed this new spliced gel in front of my optical snot so that the strips of gel appeared vertically. I then shone that onto the model. The setup couldn’t be simpler as it’s only one light, but the trick comes from adjusting your cameras white balance or Kelvin setting when you take the shot.

In this image I want you to not only look at the setup placement, but also the Kelvin value of the shot. I’ve circled the Kelvin in the top right.
Now look at the same setup and shot, but now I’ve adjusted the Kelvin to reduce the orange on the models face. Again, I’ve circled the white balance value at the top right.

The key point I want you to look at in the images above is the Kelvin value. I’ve circled it in the top right of each image, but when you shoot the CTB/CTO splice ordinarily, it comes out very visually warm in the middle where the CTO gel is. But if we adjust the white balance/Kelvin on our cameras, we can correct that warm colour and thereby remove the orange looking subject.

Take a look at the resulting image below, and remember, this final image has a Kelvin value of 3,400!

Click to enlarge: Above we have a model photographed against a white wall, yet the wall is now blue and she is the right colour. This is all done with a single light!

The really impressive part about this setup is its simplicity and it really is only one light, yet we have both a coloured white background and a beautifully lit and correctly coloured model all in the same frame.

But can you do the opposite?

So I know someone will ask this, but yes, technically you could do the opposite to what I’ve done above and alternatively place a CTB between two CTO gels. Yes it kinda does work, but I personally feel like the look is less desirable, but you can certainly play around with it if you have the gels to spare.

Here is a shot of that setup below. This image was taken with one light and it has a CTB gel spliced between two CTO gels. This images Kelvin is 4800.

Here we adapt the same principle of manipulating Kelvin values, but this time we used two CTOs either side of a CTB!

Bonus Tip…

Don’t forget that you can take any of these principles that I’ve mentioned above and build upon them to create any number of gel-grads and shadow combos. Below are a couple more gel-splices that I played with and I look forward to seeing what other combos will work in the future too. If you test some out yourself and find some cool combos, be sure to let me know in the comments below.

You can almost splice any number or combo of gels together, and although some will always work better than others, especially where skin and portraits is involved, be sure to let me know of any interesting combos you find.

Still not got an Optical Snoot?!

If you still haven’t gotten yourself an Optical Snoot yet, firstly you’re crazy, and secondly here’s a link to the one I use – Optical Snoot at Essential Photo (US Equivalent)

Plus, I think my Pixapro discount code still works on their site too. Use code HICK5-OFF at checkout, and yes, if you use that code I will get a free beer for your troubles!

For more info and alternatives to this modifier, check out my article on them here Optical Snoot Review

Need more gels?

Obviously, you wouldn’t personally wound me by visiting my website without already owning a pack of my coloured gels. So if you need any MORE, here’s the link to take a look at what’s on offer – Jake Hicks Photography Gel Packs.

Closing comments

In principle, these setups are actually very simple. After all, we’re only using one light in some cases…. and anybody can place one light right? ;) But whenever we use a VERY hard light source like an optical snoot we need to be extremely careful with where we place it due to those unflattering shadows. Plus, we also need to be mindful of what colours we’re combining too. Always use some basic colour theory, but don’t forget to consider the density of the gels too. So before you pull out the tape and scissors and begin splicing old gels, here are some points to remember.

Points to Remember!

  1. Place the hard light up high and behind you to hide those shadows.
  2. Consider using similar density gels together E.g. teal and pink, not dark blue and light yellow.
  3. Add a white light to the mix to burn away some colour on the subject’s face and focus the viewer’s attention.
  4. Do not allow any white light to fall on the background.
  5. Shadows can be filled in with a softbox and gel. Experiment with variations on how you incorporate these shadows as a result.

Featured Model: Remi Curtice

Thanks for checking out this article and spending a little bit of your day with me here. I hope you found it useful and that you left with a little more knowledge than when you arrived. If you did, then this was worth it. As always, if you have any questions or comments about the setups or if something doesn’t make sense, then, by all means, fire away in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer what I can. Thanks again and I’ll see you in the next one.

About the Author

Jake Hicks is an editorial and fashion photographer who specializes in keeping the skill in the camera, not just on the screen. For more of his work and tutorials, check out his website. Don’t forget to like his Facebook page and follow him on Instagram, too. You can also sign up to the Jake Hicks Photography newsletter to receive Jake’s free Top Ten Studio Lighting Tips and Techniques PDF and be sure to download his brand new, free 50-page studio lighting book. This article was also published here and shared with permission.

Find this interesting? Share it with your friends!


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.

Join the Discussion

DIYP Comment Policy
Be nice, be on-topic, no personal information or flames.

Leave a Reply

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