Lighting gels… the best in VFM?

Almost all photographers spend money on accessories, gizmos, gadgets and photo-related odds and sods. Sometimes we waste our money but I wanted to put in a brief plug for the things that constantly amaze me by the amount of “bang for the buck” I get from them. I’m talking about lighting gels. They cost a few pounds each and they last for years if you look after them even reasonably well.

Screen grab from Swatch App

Screen grab from Swatch App

The reason that I am writing this today is that last week I was shooting a job and was slightly embarrassed that the pieces of gel in my lighting kit were looking a bit tatty. I realised that some of them were bought as shared sheets (ie I only had half of a 52 x 61 cm sheet of each) when I was at college in the mid 1980s. I might have added a few more colours and strengths since then but even the newest gel in my bag is five years old. The beauty is that you don’t need to look after them that well really – even a scrunched and screwed up gel is still the same colour and will work. Of course they don’t like extreme heat and they aren’t partial to liquid damage either but at under the boiling point of water and kept dry they are very durable.

When I decided that I needed some new gels I phoned The Flash Centre and they arranged for Rosco to send me some. I have been playing with the iPhone Swatch app for about eighteen months now and it made ordering the new gels rather easy. They arrived rapidly in a strong cardboard tube and all I had to do was cut them down into the right sized pieces to fit into a pocket in my Think Tank rolling case.

This time around I ordered various grades of CTS – that’s Colour Temperature Straw, the gel that changes the light coming out of my flash units to varying degrees of Tungsten right up to the Full CTS which does a very good job of making the Elinchrom Ranger Quadra flash tube into a Tungsten light that very closely matches the Tungsten setting on a Canon EOS DSLR. I also got some ND (Neutral Density) gels and a sheet of a diffuser called ‘tough spun’. I didn’t need to get any effects gels – the purple, orange, red, blue and green gels that I have in the case are fine even if they are old enough to buy alcohol by now.

Comparing the cost of this big batch of new gels to some of the money that I have literally thrown away on rubbish gizmos over the last 30 years I feel very smug. I know that after one single use I will have justified the (tiny) expense and that after the 50th use it will get embarrassing how smug I feel about the VFM (value for money) that you get from quality lighting gels.

Mad sky, madder lighting…

Even though it was well over 12 years ago I can still remember standing on a pavement outside a rather dull new building on the University of Southampton campus which wasn’t actually open or even finished and thinking “how am I going to pull this one off?” Normally with architecture news jobs you can rely on having somebody walking past or an interesting view from inside out but on this one… nothing.

©Neil Turner/TSL, October 1999

I messed about for half an hour trying to get an angle on the structure that didn’t show cranes, builders doing the finishing touches or plastic barriers. Miserable failure. There was one redeeming feature though – the sky was a beautiful deep and even blue. I’m no great fan of polarising filters but this was calling out for that kind of treatment so I grabbed my flash gear from the car and decided to underexpose the sky and get as much light into the foreground as I could. That meant giving full power up into the street lamp that helped the composition which also meant that I could underexpose the sky nicely.

©Neil Turner/TSL, October 1999

After that my mind started racing and I decided to go for something so over the top that even I would have bet the Picture Editor would have laughed as she put it into the dustbin.

The red in the street lamp was achieved by using a red narrow cut colour effects lighting gel over the flash, which was on full power and raised as high as I could get it so that the red would balance against the saturated and underexposed sky.

This was the first time that I had tried anything like this and the great thing is that I was wrong. They used the mad picture…