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All Photos Courtesy of Zach Sutton

Often, when trying to shoot on colored backgrounds, photographers will start by trying to find a cost effective way to create the look they’d like. Certainly buying a roll of colored seamless paper isn’t the cheapest option, especially if it’s a color that they don’t plan on using often. Because of this, gels will often be used, with little success to create the image. I’m going to go through and explain why by all accounts, the colored seamless paper option is the best option, and how using those alongside gels can create an interesting image.

Basics of Color Balance

Using gels is a really great and effective way to create images with certain color palettes. Though when using gels, you do run into some significant problems with color bounce and balance. If you’re familiar with shooting in the studio, you’ve probably worked with white backgrounds before, and know how difficult they can be to get solid white, without affecting the edges of your subject. This becomes an even larger problem when working with colored lights, because not only are you affecting the brightness scale of the light, but you’re also affecting the color values, making it extremely difficult to fix in post-production. So when gelling a background, you’re often left with colored edges on your subject, from the bounce of the light on the background.

Additionally, unless you’re a master at light spread (and have a significantly large studio), you’re also going to get uneven color spread on the background. When shooting with strobes, the light spreads unevenly, giving a hot spot in the center, with falloff on the edges. This creates uneven color patterns on your background, which will be difficult to fix.

So for this reason, I greatly prefer shooting on colored backgrounds, and then use gels to help compliment the subject with various color tones. When using paper, you’re able to get consistent color values from edge to edge, and can then use the gels on your subject to separate them from the background. Below are some images I created using a combination of gels and colored papers in the studio.

using gels with seamless paper zach sutton

using gels with seamless paper zach sutton

Perhaps the biggest tip I can give someone when it comes to using gels alongside colored paper in the studio is to make sure you have plenty of space. When shooting, especially on colored backgrounds, it’s important to make sure your gels don’t interfere with the background color, or otherwise your colors will come off as muddy and not as crisp. The easiest way to prevent this is to ensure there is plenty of space between your subject and the background, so that they can be lit independently.

See more: Using Gels to Create Unique Backgrounds

Secondly, I often will use gels that match the background color as a rim light, to add some ambiance to the image, and soften the edges in the photo. Often, people will attempt to Photoshop colored backgrounds into the image, giving the subject a “cut out” effect. Because this is common, I will rim light my subject with a similar (or complementary color) to help give the full effect of shooting on colored paper with gels. For this image below, I added a subtle purple rim light, matching the background.

using gels with seamless paper zach sutton

using gels with seamless paper zach suttonFeaturing: NEW Plum Seamless Paper

Finally, I also try to use colors that are either Complementary of each other, or Triads of each other. By no means am I knowledgeable to start teaching color theory here in this post, so I’ll just send you to a handy tool I’ve used in the past to help select my color palettes. Adobe has made an incredible tool called “Adobe Color” that helps you select Triads and Complementary colors for your images. I’ve found this to be extremely handy when working with gels and colored backgrounds. And while the colors don’t need to be exact, using this tool and mimicking the colors chosen, will help with the overall color balance of your images, giving you better results overall.

using gels with seamless paper zach sutton

using gels with seamless paper zach sutton

Using these techniques, you’re able to mix gels with colored papers to create an interesting and unique style to your images. By combining gels along with colored seamless, you’re able to play with multiple color palettes, and create bold and engaging images. If you’ve done this yourself, be sure to show off some of your work in the comments below.

Zach Sutton

Zach Sutton is an award-winning and internationally published commercial and headshot photographer based out of Los Angeles, CA. His work highlights environmental portraiture, blending landscapes and scenes with portrait photography. His work and writings have been featured on Fstoppers, SLR Lounge, Profoto Blog, DSLR Photography Magazine, Phototuts+, Photofocus, Resource Magazine, and more. When not shooting, Zach often dedicates his time to help with education in the field of photography and videography. He often teaches workshops and gives lectures all over North America, as well as contributing to various publications in the field of photography when he has time. You can see some of his work on his website.

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