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Using Gels to Change Background Color

Updated on February 23, 2016
LuisEGonzalez profile image

I enjoy photography and have been doing so professionally and independently for over 30 years.

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For those that consistently shoot in a studio there is nothing more annoying that using the same background over and over again to the point where every single image looks the same. If you like doing portraits like I do, specially when doing cosplay or fantasy themes, there is an advantage to using different backdrops.

But this can get expensive and time consuming plus you need a large enough space to keep storing the canvas, paper rolls or even solid surfaces like a rustic looking wood fence.

If you count with a least on light source, with a flash being the better alternative, that you can dedicate to illuminate the backdrop and another one for the main subject then all you really need is some colored gels.

There are many similar materials that can be used in place of photographic gels like plastic paper protectors usually found in office supplies stores.

The drawback is that you need at least three at a time to get a strong enough color to show in the backdrop. It is always better to get original gels designed for photography. They are not that expensive and one gel insert is enough to get the desired tint to show in your images.

By using this simple technique you can literally shoot multiple scenes with each being different from the others just by simply changing to a new color each time and utilizing the same backdrop.

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One of the best sets is the Rogue Grid Gels Combo. It brings 20 colored gels and although meant to fit a dedicated flash, they can be adjusted to fit many other dedicated slave flash units. The price is rather modest at around $27.00 and you can really get creative with these.

Not only can you shed a different color onto a background each time but you can also use them to illuminate your main subject too. Keep in mind that if using the gel insert to also shed light unto the model you should also adjust the color balance on your camera to compensate.

The best starting backdrop is usually a plain white surface since white will "acquire" a different color better than most any other tone. A simple white sheet, white roll paper, a painter's muslim tarp or a white painted wall should suffice for most uses.

One thing to keep in mind when working with colored gels is to separate your models from the background. About 5 to 6 feet is more than enough.

The light holding the gel insert should also be low to the ground, away from view as well as close to the background. 2 to 3 feet is fine. Keep in mind that the closer this light is to the backdrop the stronger the color but the smaller the spread.

To illuminate the model a separate light should be aimed at close range to the model. If you separate it too much from the model you run the risk of "washing" or diluting the color reflected on the backdrop.

A photographic snoot works quite well for this purpose and the best things is that many can be DIY projects at little or no cost in many cases. I use a Solo cup which I have painted with black paint on the outside while leaving its interior white.

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For a much more striking effect you can add fog with the aid of an artificial fog machine. They are not really that expensive if you want to own your own, you can rent them or even use dry ice.

The "fog" will hold the color hue better that will a plain white backdrop and it also adds a sense of mystery, intrigue and interest to any shot. You can even use them outdoors since you will not have to depend so much on a plain solid backdrop. Instead the fog will serve as the background and will reflect the colored light as well as a solid surface would.

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© 2015 Luis E Gonzalez

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