Gel Shifting (Flash Photography 101)

In Portrait by Jim Harmer9 Comments

DSC_2568

“Gel shifting” means shifting the color palette of a photo by using a gelled flash to change the lighting on the subject and changing the white balance to change the background colors.  The term “gel shifting” isn't known by the vast majority of professional photographers.  Usually this is referred to in photographer circles as “that thing where you use a gel on your flash and then change the white balance.”

The photo above is an example of gel shifting.  This photo was taken using an orange gel on the flash, and changing my white balance to “incandescent” or about 2500k.

The photo below is the exact same picture as the one above, just that the white balance on the camera is set to neutral outdoor lighting.  You can see in this photo that the orange gel on the flash makes the athlete look orange.  With the white balance changed on the camera to make orange look white (setting the white balance to incandescent), the orange athlete looks neutral, but the background clouds which are too far away from the flash to be affected turn to blue because of the white balance change.

DSC_2568-2

This is the same picture as above, but without the white balance set to incandescent. You can see the effect of the orange flash on the athlete.

 

gel-shiftingCamera settings for this picture

  • 1/250 – I shot this photo using two cheap YN-560 III speed lights, which have a flash sync speed of about 1/200.  I cheated slightly.  Even though I was panning with the subject, there is still some blur on the athlete in this shot.  It's personal preference, but I kind of don't mind it since it adds a sense of action to the shot.
  • f/18 – Since I had such a slow shutter speed, I had to block out quite a bit of light or the picture would be overexposed.
  • ISO 500 – Whoops!  I really should have reduced my ISO to 100 and dropped down my aperture, but I goofed.  A lower ISO would have given me very slightly less noise in the shot.
  • Nikon D810
  • Nikkor 16-35mm f/4 lens at 19mm
  • White balance: incandescent
This is the amazing Dave Black's flash setup for shooting sports.  He uses high speed sync so he can completely freeze the action.  You can see the orange CTO gels on his flashes.  If you ever have the chance to do a workshop with Dave--TAKE IT!!!

This is the amazing Dave Black's flash setup for shooting sports. He uses high speed sync so he can completely freeze the action. You can see the orange CTO gels on his flashes. If you ever have the chance to do a workshop with Dave–TAKE IT!!!

If you're ready to learn flash photography, I highly recommend you read my free “Flash Photography Crash Course” series.  In those articles I take you through what it takes most photographer a year or so of flash photography to learn, and condense it down into a short series of articles.  It's definitely worth a read.


About the Author

Jim Harmer

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Jim Harmer is the founder of Improve Photography, and host of the popular Improve Photography Podcast. More than a million photographers follow him on social media, and he has been listed at #35 in rankings of the most popular photographers in the world. He blogs about how to start an internet business on IncomeSchool.com..

Comments

  1. So if you’re shooting in RAW is there any benefit to doing this rather than just adjusting the WB in post production?

    1. Author

      There’s no benefit to changing the white balance in camera rather than in post, but either way you have to gel your flash, so you’re still gel shifting.

    2. Sure it’s different. By using a colored gel on the flash, he is affecting the subject differently than the background. The subject had orange cast, but compensated by the white balance for orange. That leaves the background out of white balance – causing it to be blue.

  2. I think what tien means is that you can selectively adjust WB in LR, through the use of a brush, radial tool, etc… However, it would be very difficult to accomplish that task to get the same effect of mixing ambient and flash. Harmer’s method here is really the preferred one.

  3. You gave us almost all the settings, but what was the power of the flash. I am not seeing it.

    1. Hi Peter,
      the amount of light that is getting on the object depends on the flash power as well as on the flash distance and diffusing. So – we should know all these conditions.

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