Gelling a lens is one of my favorite toy photography tricks. It’s easy to pull off, and adds a dramatic, glow-like, color effect to any scene scene. I’ve used this trick countless times in my photos whenever I wanted to push my colors a bit further.

When I say ‘gels’, I’m not talking about pouring sticky liquids on your gear. I am referring to photography gels which are transparent materials used in front of light sources in order to change the color of the light. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors, and can be found at Amazon, B&H, and most camera shops. You can also find similar transparent materials at craft stores, or get creative and dig up items around your house to try out.

While photography gels are intended to be placed in front of light sources, this trick is accomplished by placing them in front of your lens instead. The way this technique works, is to exposure your subject, then, place a gel in front of your lens and keep it there during the remainder of your exposure. This will apply the color of the gel to all the remaining light in your scene. The final image is a combination of your normally exposed subject along with your ‘abnormally’ exposed scene.

(5.0 seconds, F/10, ISO 100)

Getting Started

In order to pull this off, you’re going to need a couple of things:

  • A camera that allows you to control your shutter speed
  • A light source (two or more would be preferable)
  • Colored gels
  • Three Hands*
    *Ok, so ‘three hands’ is optional, though depending of the amount and types of light sources you are using, some sleight of hand may be required.

For this technique to be effective, you’ll want to arrange your scene in a way that you’ll be using a primary light on your subject, and secondary light or lights on everything else. In my example, I’m using a Yongnuo 560 IV flash with a softbox as my primary light, and two Manfrotto Lumimuse lights as my secondary light sources. My flash is positioned directly above Benny in the foreground. Behind him, my secondary lights are angled in a way, where they are illuminating the Pink, Yellow and Green spacemen.

setting up your secondary lighting

Here is how the photo would look without using a gel on my lens (the softbox on my flash made a sneak appearance in the top of the frame. Oops).

(2.5 seconds, F/10, ISO 100)

The Shoot

Now that I have my primary and secondary lighting setup I am ready to shoot. Immediately after my flash fires on Benny, I’m going to place the gel right in front of my lens. Be careful not to bump your camera as you hold the gel in front of your lens.

My shutter speed is set to 2.5 seconds, which means I’ll have around 2 seconds of the exposure with just the gel in front of my lens and the secondary lights. The shutter speed will vary depending on your setup, but you’ll want a minimum of .5 seconds in order to pull this trick off. Don’t be afraid to make your shutter speed longer, the gel will drop your exposure a stop or two depending on the color.

(2.5 seconds, F/10, ISO 100)

Here is the results when using a blue gel. As you can see, Benny retained his proper colors, but anywhere the secondary lights were now have a blue tinted glow.

(2.5 seconds, F/10, ISO 100)

Here is the shot again, this time using  a purple gel. It takes a bit of trial and error to get the shot right. You may need to adjust your exposure settings, lighting positions. Also, experiment with the distance between your gel and your lens to increase/decrease the glow effect.

Additional Images

Here are a couple more variations of this technique with Benny’s spaceship squad.

(2.5 seconds, F/10, ISO 100) Standard shot

(2.5 seconds, F/10, ISO 100) With green gel

(1 second, F/10, ISO 100) Standard shot

(2.0 seconds, F/10, ISO 100) With orange gel

(2.0 seconds, F/10, ISO 100) Standard shot

(2.0 seconds, F/10, ISO 100) With purple gel

I hope you enjoyed this tutorial, and I hope it inspired you to start playing around with this technique. Gelling your lens allows you to pull off all sorts of neat tricks, and this post only scratches the surface. Give it a try and be sure to tag your results with #toyphotographers on Instagram for us to check out. Thanks for reading and happy snapping

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