How To Carry Gel Filters For Quick Selection And Access

Q: What does every piece of photo gear you own have in common?

A: You gotta carry it in SOMETHING.

(Yes, I know. This is a 2,300-word article about how to carry little colored pieces of plastic. At least I have accepted that I have a problem. Maybe now I can get some help. Anyone want to start a support group with me?)

My requirements for carrying any photo gear are simple. The stuff needs full protection and I need quick access to it. You won’t see me digging through a camera pack looking for something. I can find everything in an instant, even in the dark. (A good thing, considering that I do so much photography at night.)

The need for a convenient carrying system for gel filters is even more critical. If you use only a half-dozen or so colors, you can get by with simply stuffing them in an envelope and digging them out as needed, but what do you do when you have 27 different filters to choose from, as I do in the Digital After Dark® kit?

Digital After Dark Flash Pack

The brand new Digital After Dark Flash Pack.

Three primary considerations when choosing a carrying method for gel filters.

1) Most important, you have to be able to see the color of the filter before you pull it out of the holder. If you have to take it out before you even know what you’re getting, you’re going to spend all your time choosing filters. Ideally, you’ll be able to see several different filters at once, so you can compare them before choosing, but at a minimum, you must be able to see them individually.

2) You have to be able to pull out a filter quickly and put it back in the same spot just as fast.

3) The carrying case must have enough slots to hold all the filters you use on a regularly basis and it must be compact enough to fit easily in your camera bag or vest pocket.

Sounds simple enough, right? But I’ve spent as much time wrestling with this as in choosing the best camera packs. And now that Rosco has created their new Flash Packs and Filter Kits, I’ve really had to get creative with carrying solutions.

A little history before we go any farther.

The traditional gel filter used for camera flash and flashlights has been a swatch pulled from a Rosco swatchbook. These swatches measure about 1.5 x 3.25 inches. For decades, photographers have ripped filters from these swatchbooks and used them to alter the color of the light coming from a camera flash, and more recently, light-painting flashlights.

The problem with the swatchbooks is that they contain only one filter of each of color and the size is a little small when you need to wrap it around some lighting devices. Also, you have to remove the pin that holds all of the swatches in the book and you end up with a few hundred loose filters that all have holes in them. And you still have to have a way to carry the ones you pick out to use.

Rosco, the industry leader in theatrical lighting, has addressed these issues with really cool new filter kits. They have 4 “Flash Packs”, which have filters measuring 1.5 x 5.5 inches and 8 “Filter Kits”, with filters measuring 12 x 12 inches. You’ll use filters in the Flash Packs for your camera flash and flashlights; those in the Filter Kits are for larger studio lights and for cutting down to size for special applications. The Flash Packs contain multiples of the most-used filters, while the Filter Kits contain one filter of each color.

(Oh, by the way, one of Rosco’s new kits is named Digital After Dark®, after…you guessed it…me! I worked with Rosco in developing this collection of filters—the ones I use every day and night in my own photography.

If you want more info about choosing and using gel filters, please read The Wonderful World Of Camera Flash, Flashlights, And Gel Filters.

Business card wallet used to hold gel filter swatches. Notice the thumb slots I cut to allow for easy filter removal.

Okay, so how do we carry all these filters?

If you’re using the smaller filters from a swatchbook, the best method for carrying them is a business card file. You can get them in all sorts of styles and sizes to suit your needs. The one I used to use has 26 pages, with 4 slots per page. It holds 208 business cards when you place them back-to-back, but with gel filters, you’ll probably only put one filter in each pocket, so it will hold 104 different filters.

I don’t need to carry 104 different filters, but I liked this case because it has 4 slots per page, which means I can instantly see 4 different filters at once and choose among them.

Oh, here would be a good time for a little tip. You need to be able to see the color of the filter you’re choosing, which means the filter must be set against a white background. Regardless of the carrying method you choose, you’ll want to slip a piece of paper or thin white cardboard behind the filters.

The business card file works very well for the smaller filters, but there are some things to be aware of. Some files use plastic that sticks to the filters, making them hard to slip out. You can minimize this problem by not exposing the case to high heat. In other words, don’t store it on the dash of your car!

Another issue is that the slots in a business card file are about the same length as the filters, which makes it hard to grasp the filter and slide it out. I solved this problem by cutting little finger slots into all of the pockets,

I also used a smaller card file for times when I didn’t want to carry around the big file, such as when backpacking or traveling by air.

4 x 6 photo album used to hold the new "Flash Pack" filters from Rosco.

But it won’t fit!

The business card file is the ideal method for carrying gel swatches, but it won’t work for the new Flash Pack filters that measure 5.5 inches. These filters come packaged in a neat little cardboard case that has dividers for the main categories and white tissue paper separating the filters. It’s a fine method for packaging the filters for sale, and if you only use the filters occasionally, you can get by with it for storage. However, for regular field work, it’s just not practical. You have to be able to see what you’re pulling out and get it back in the same place after you’re done. Not going to happen when all the filters are stacked together in a pile.

For the past several months, I’ve searched for a good method of carrying the new Flash Pack filters. Once I realized that the ideal solution did not exist, I decided to investigate the option of making it myself. (I did the same thing with the GelGrip™ and LensMuff™.) I designed a really cool filter case made from pack cloth, with clear vinyl for the slots and white mesh netting to keep the filters from sticking to the vinyl. Oh, you would have loved using this case!

The problem is that the cost of manufacturing is so high that it would have to sell for at least $40 retail. I have a love affair with gel filters, but I sure wouldn’t pay $40 for something to carry them around in!

Larger filters stored in the 4 x 6 photo album.

So, what’s the solution?

Even though it’s Plan B, it’s a pretty good solution. I use photo album books designed to hold 4 x 6 photos. My local Michaels (arts and craft store) sells little “Brag Books” that have 18 pages for displaying 36 photos. The cool thing about them is that they have a white cloth insert in each page, so you can use both sides of the page to insert filters. In other words, each album holds 36 different gel filters and you don’t have to use the white cardboard behind them.

Yes, 4 x 6 inches is quite a bit larger than the gel filter size of 1.5 x 5.5 inches, but the size actually works out well. I said you have to be able to see the color of the filter you’re choosing, which means it has to be set against a white background. Well, with Rosco’s new Flash Packs, you get multiples of some of the filters. If you stack them, you can’t see what they look like. So with the 4-inch width of the album pages, you can insert the filters side-by-side. One side is for a single filter, so you can see the color against the white cloth, and the other side is for any multiples you have. Fortunately, I’ve noticed that the filters stay in place pretty well and don’t slide onto one another. It works!

Another advantage is that the albums use very thin plastic for the pages, which makes it easy to slip your fingers in and grab a filter. This is important, considering that the pages are a little longer than the filters. Also, they cost next to nothing. I paid $2 at Michaels, but you can find them online for even less. You can get 4 x 6 albums in all sorts of styles and page counts, but the 18-page (36-slot) Brag Books are perfect for carrying Rosco’s Flash Pack filters.

Here’s another really cool thing about the 4 x 6 albums. Since the pages measure 4 x 6 inches, you can insert filters that measure up to…um…4 x 6 inches. So I bought extra albums just for carrying larger filters that I cut down from the 12 x 12 filters in the Filter Kits. I use these larger filters for various purposes, among them underwater light painting and light painting where I’m spelling out letters in front of the camera. In these cases, the filter needs to wrap totally around the flashlight head so that no white light can show, regardless of how much you move the flashlight around. So I cut the filters down to about 4 inches square and wrap them around the flashlight using a rubber band.

I replaced the cardboard cover in the 4 x 6 photo album with the cardboard packaging from the Flash Pack. Since I have several albums containing different Flash Packs, this lets me keep them straight.

How do you fit a 12-inch filter into a 4-inch hole?

The little Brag Books I use hold filters measuring up to 4 x 6 inches. Filters in Rosco’s Filter Kits measure 12 x 12 inches. Math is not my forte, but with a little trial and error, I figured out that this wouldn’t work. The solution? Michaels comes to the rescue again!

I bought a photo album that has 50 pages and holds 12 x 12 photos. The album came with black cards inserted into the pages to serve as a backdrop for the photos, so I also bought a pack of white 12 x 12 card stock to replace the black. I did leave the black cards in some of the pages where I store diffusion filters, as these need a black background in order to show up.

The system works extremely well for me, but admittedly, it’s probably more elaborate than most photographers need. The 12 x 12 filters come in cardboard case that stores and displays them pretty well, and for occasional use, it’s all you need. It’s much easier sorting through the 12 x 12 filters in the original packaging than it is the smaller Flash Pack size.

I have to admit, though, that I get a warm and fuzzy feeling when flipping through the album pages and seeing all those different colored filters. And since it holds up to 100 filters, I can store every filter I would ever use in it. My album is just the right size to hold all the filters from the Digital After Dark®, CalColor™, Beauty, and Diffusion kits.

I use a 12 x 12 photo album to store the new Rosco "Filter Kit" filters.

A final thought

For most of you, just being able to see the color of the filters so you can choose one is all you need. But for me, I want to be able to see not only the color of the filter I’m pulling, but also the name of it. If I’m using a #86 Pea Green filter to light paint foliage, I need to know that’s what I’m using so I can include that info with the photo caption. As an instructor, people want to know what I use to get the shot. And I want to know, as well, so that I have a reference for future work. If I want to duplicate something I’ve shot in the past, I need to know exactly how I got that shot. So I need to mark each filter in some manner in the carrying case.

With the old swatchbook filters in the business card files, I inserted the white info sheet that accompanied the filter in the swatchbook. This also served the purpose of separating any multiples I might have. I simply inserted the multiples under the white sheet, and left a single filter on top so I could see its color.

For the Flash Pack filters in the photo albums, I use little labels on the pages. I tried writing on the pages with a Sharpie, but that just smeared into a mess. For the 12 x 12 filters, I also attached labels to the pages. Those filters actually come with labels attached to the corner so you can tell them apart, but if you cut them down to size you could lose the label and if you pull more than one out at a time, you won’t know where to put them back without a label on the page itself.


Okay, I’m going to go get help now. But I’m gonna to take my filters with me. There’s a blue one and a green one and a pink one and they are so pretty and colorful and you can look at them and hold them up and pet them and show them to your friends and play with them and…

Where is that support group?

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