How To Use Colored Light Filters

Take your photos through rose colored lenses! Read how to use Colored Light Filters!

Off-camera flash can be a great way to spread your creative wings when taking photos. However, photographers can take their game to the next level by using colored light filters. Follow these tips to turn your photographic scenes into your  own coloring canvass.

What You’ll Need –

At least 2 Off-Camera Flash Guns

If you’re working with only one flash gun, you are severely limiting your creative freedom. Most colour changes to the scene can be made via White Balance, or even in post production on the computer. However, having more than one light source, each with a different color, is something that cannot be replicated in post production.

Many flash guns have a built in honeycomb filter that slides out and snaps down into position. These are perfect for holding a color gel filter in place. These particular filters have been cut to fit.

Triggers for each Flash Gun (Wireless works best)

Many flashguns can use a “slave mode,” that allow them to fire at the same moment other flashes go off, without the need for wireless or wired triggers. However, this is not recommended. Slave mode works perfectly in most situations, but when using color filters, “slave mode” can often fail to trigger the flash.

A Set of Color Gel Filters

Having a wide range of colors really helps! Check out your local retail photo shops. However, these can often be difficult to track down. A set of about 20 or 30 different colours can be found on eBay for usually around $20 USD. They most likely will need to be cut to shape to fit your flash guns!

Tripods or stands for the Flash Guns

Having a bit of experience with Off-Camera Flash Guns really helps. The sport of photography revolves around using light to create exposures. Without light, we cannot take photos. When we use off-camera flash, we have to be acutely aware of a few things!

Reducing or eliminating ambient light is key to controlling the tone and temperature of a scene or model.

First off, all scenes have Ambient Light. It is vital for a photographer to fully understand the nature of the Ambient Light in a scene. What temperature is the Ambient Light? Is it cold or warm? Is it soft or harsh? What direction is the light coming from?

For example, if a photographer is standing on a beach at noon on a sunny, cloudless day, then the Ambient Light is most likely to be warm and harsh. However, if the photographer is sitting in a dining room at mid day with a few windows open, the light might be soft and cold.

The ambient light here is soft, thanks to the diffusion from the clouds, and cold in temperature. There are no other point light sources.

The other type of light to keep track of is Point Light. A scene can have any number of Point Lights. Each Point Light has its own intensity, temperature, and direction. A Point Light can be anything from a light bulb to a flash gun.

Taken in a dining room at night, the ambient light was soft and cold. The only light source here is a red flash gun creating a warm, harsh lighting.

Now that we’ve fleshed out the different type of lights we’ll be working with, it is also vital to note that Point Lights will most likely have a different color temperature than the Ambient Light. This is typically a bad thing and makes scenes tough to control. This is where colored filters come in useful!

When using flash guns, the rule of thumb is that the weaker the ambient light is, the more control you have over the scene. Keep in mind that every source of light changes the color and shadows of your scene and subject. Colored Filters can be used to help flashguns compliment the existing ambient light, or to control the scene all together!

The Setup

In the photos following, we used a Duck and some fruit as models to demonstration the effect of colored light filters on the scene. For these demonstrations, we used a Primary Light, Fill Light, and Back Light. In the bottom right corner of each example, you will see a diagram depicting which lights are using which colored filters, if any. But first, here’s what our setup looked like.

The camera sits with a flash gun on either side.

A backlight is used to banish shadows away from the backdrop.


Tip #1 – Manage Your Colors

The use of multiple flash guns and colored filters allows for an exciting level of creative freedom

The greatest advantage of using multiple flash guns is being able to control the color of both the shadows and highlights of the scene.

Cool colors like blue, green and purple tend to push things into the background, and are best used as backlights and soft fill light. Warm colors such as red, yellow, and orange draw the viewer’s focus and pull subjects into the foreground. These colors are best used for highlights.

In the scene above, the primary and fill lights are yellow and pink respectively. They are warm colors. The backlight is a deep dark blue. This pushes the background out of focus, while yellow and pink pull the subject into focus. This is a good thing. It allows the photography to control the flow of the scene.This is a perfect example of a poorly managed scene. The subject is bathed in pale blue and mint green light. This pushes the subject out of focus in terms of what the view should be paying attention to. The backlight is yellow, which is a warmer color than the foreground lights. This makes the viewer pay more attention to the background instead of the subject. Warm colors in front, cold colors in back!

However, with more colors in the scene comes greater complexity, and an increases the chance of the viewer being confused by the flow and dynamic of the scene.

In this scene, we’ve left out the backlight, and moved the primary and fill lights in line with the subject. With neutral colored lights, the flow is easy to follow.

Here, we’ve used some color filters, but now the intensity of the light sources has changed. We must make sure to adjust to the various colors to control the flow of the scene. Blood red and dark blue offer an interesting contrast to each other, however, the scene feels a bit flat. What can we do about it?

Here, we’ve added yellow to the backlight to add more dimensionality to the subject. The backlight offers a golden rim light to the subjects, adding depth and complimenting the red and blue lights.

Tip #2 – Manage Your Intensity

One very unique aspect of using Colored Light Filters is that color has a specific level of light intensity. For example, using a green light filter would result in a photo with a much brighter level of light,  but a blue or purple light filter may result in a much dimmer light.

In the first version of this scene, we can see the back light is a bit dim due to the nature of the color filter

Compare this shot to the previous one. We’ve kicked the backlight up a notch, and the dynamic has changed along with it. The subject pops out a bit more thanks to increased contrast.

Keep in mind that each particular color may need to be adjusted in order to avoid overpowering the other light sources in the scene.

If a scene or model appears to be flat, try lowering the intensity of fill and backlight. Move primary lights closer to increase the harshness of the light and strengthen shadows. To achieve softer shadows, increase the intensity of the primary light and move it farther from the subject.

Tip # 3 – Use Complimenting Colors

Every single color has an opposite, complimenting color. When placed side by side, the effect is rather pleasing.

The next trick is take into account the color of the subject. If the subject is red, don’t use red and blue lights. Instead, use a yellow purple filters. If the subject is blue, don’t use blue and red lights. Instead, use yellow and green.

Tip #4 – Use Colors As Accents

Going all out and filling a scene with all the shades of the rainbow can be great fun, and vital to gaining a stronger understanding of color. However, most of the time, we want a scene that doesn’t look like a freshly opened pack of fruit flavored candy. Using colored filters in a wider range of scenes is possible when we use the colors as  “accents”.

In this scene, we start with all neutral lights. There are no colored filters in use here.

Here, we’ve put a light blue filter on the fill light. This subtle change in the lighting makes the temperature quite a bit colder, while the overall tone remains similar to the original.

Using a red filter on the fill light has warmed up the shadows of this scene. Coloring fill lights is an excellent way to control the temperature of a scene without dramatic change to the overal tonality of the scene.

Light sources being used as “accents” can achieve a unique and pleasing effect. Intensity of accent lights should be much lower than primary and fill lights. In this role, colored accent lights offer subtle yet empowering depth to a model or scene.

When working with models, the use of a colored light filter can really add a greater level of depth and character to the final product.

Practice regularly to discover new applications and gain a better understanding for your tools. Try to develop your own techniques, and as always, happy hunting!

For more tips, techniques, and hands on time with cool camera gear, check out the upcoming The Digital Show Expo in Melbourne, VIC!

Click to register for free entry!

Jerrel Dulay

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About idigitaldarwin

Helping people stay informed with the latest ground breaking technology and valuable photo-imaging and gadget tips. View all posts by idigitaldarwin

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