The Wonderful World Of Camera Flash, Flashlights, And Gel Filters

You’re going to have to humor me with this one, folks. I tend to get a little carried away with gel filters. There’s something about all those colors that makes me all tingly inside.

For those of you who just want the CliffsNotes version, here you go (Drew Eschbacher, this is for you):

  • Gel filter make photo better.
  • Rosco new Flash Packs good.
  • GelGrip™ filter holder good.
  • You use and improve photo. Promise.
  • If photo not improve, I give money back.

Well, now that that’s over with, let’s dive into the wonderful world of gel filters. But first, let me say that while this blog might seem like an advertorial, I’m not writing it just to try to sell you something. I use gel filters regularly in my night photography, and very often when shooting in the day. I’m not pushing anything that I don’t believe in and use myself.

Light Painted Pier At Twilight

I used the 3152 Urban Vapor gel filter to add some punch in the lighting under the pier. Using an LED flashlight, I light painted the structure during the 30-second exposure.

My buddy and photography mentor Marc Parsons introduced me to gel filters back in the mid-1980s and it has had a profound effect on my photography ever since. Marc gave me a Rosco swatchbook, which contained a small filter sample of every color imaginable. He said you could rip out the swatches and hold them in front of your camera flash to alter the color of the light. Back then, stepping outside of the box like this was unheard of, but Marc always was a visionary.

What are gel filters? They are paper-thin plastic sheets, generally composed of polycarbonate or polyester. Placed in front of a light source, they alter the color of light. You’ve probably seen them in use and didn’t know it. They have been used forever to change the color of stage lighting for live performances and in the motion picture industry.

Still photographers have been a little slow to catch on to the incredible benefits of using gel filters, but that has changed a lot within the past decade or so. Two people we can thank for this are David Hobby, of Strobist® fame, and Joe McNally, of just plain fame. These two guys have done more to get photographers to fall in love with their flashes than anyone else in the industry. And they introduced a whole new legion of photographers to gel filters in the process.

Waterfall with and without light painting

For the image on the left, I light painted the trees using 388 Gaslight Green, the waterfall with 372 Theatre Booster 2, and the rocks with 3443 Quarter Straw. The image on the right is without any light painting.

Problem is, a lot of these photographers don’t really understand the creative options when using gel filters. Adding a little warm light to portraits when using camera flash is just the beginning!

Let’s get one important bit of info out of the way. Gel filters are meant to mount in front of the light source illuminating the scene or parts of it, not in front of the camera. Most of them are not optical quality, so you wouldn’t want to put them in front of a lens. Even if they were, you wouldn’t want to do that, as it would just change the color of the overall scene. Rarely is that the intended effect; rather, you usually want to alter the lighting in parts of the scene, while leaving others unaffected. The idea is that you have all these different colored filters that you can place in front of your flash, flashlight, or most any other light source and you can control the color of the light as you wish. Think of the possibilities. I know I am.

A number of companies manufacture gel filters, but the industry leader has always been Rosco. Rosco’s veins run through the entire theatrical and photographic industry.

Waterfall with and without light painting

For the shot on the left, I used used a longer shutter speed and enhanced the yellow/orange color of the leaves with fill flash and 15 Deep Straw gel filter. The image on the right is with a shorter shutter speed and a small amount of fill flash with no gel filter.

Gel filters are available in different sizes. The standard filter size from Rosco is 20 x 24 inches. The swatchbooks have samples measuring about 1.5 x 3.25 inches. Rosco has traditionally offered these swatchbooks free, the rationale being that people would use them to decide which of the standard-size filters they wanted to buy. They couldn’t have possibly imagined that so many photographers would want to use the filters in the swatchbooks instead of buying the regular-sized filters.

Oregon Inlet Fishing Center At Twilight

To complement the existing warm lighting and fill in the shadows, I used fill flash and 3152 Urban Vapor gel filter.

About four years ago, I tried in vain to convince Rosco that they should sell me their swatchbooks so I could resale them to photographers for use in light painting. I didn’t even care if I made a profit. (I wouldn’t make a good Ferengi, would I?) I figured it would help me sell the GelGrip™ (more on that later) and it would introduce lot of photographers to the wonderful world of light painting. Rosco was not interested, to say the least. After I finally got to talk with someone who seemed genuinely interested in having a conversation with me, I learned that the Rosco swatchbooks had been a mixed blessing for the company. Rosco had been paying two full-time employees to do nothing but sit at a table all day long and assemble the swatchbooks. Even if they sold them for $10 a piece, they would still lose money! And with the growing number of photographers who were getting them free from photo dealers, they were losing money big time.

So there was no way they would let me sell the swatchbooks. My next thought was to develop a special line of filters chosen specifically for night photography. I’d been using the swatchbooks for decades, but I rarely used more than a couple dozen different colors. So I figured I would choose 30 or so of the best filters for night photography and see if Rosco would be interested in developing a Digital After Dark® filter kit. To my delight, they were very interested.

Rosco Flash Packs

Rosco's four new Flash Packs.

But the wheels of corporateness sometimes roll very slowly. Nearly three years later, I had given up hope that the Digital After Dark® Filter Kit would ever become a reality. Then, one day this past February, I got a call from a Rosco official in Denmark. Not only was Rosco moving forward with the Digital After Dark® kit, they were also developing a line of filters for other specialized applications as well. And not only that, they were going to offer these filters in a size not only to fit speedlights and flashlights, but also a larger 12” x 12” size to cover most any photographic application.

I hung up the phone, wiped my mouth, and changed my shirt. (The black shirt I was wearing does not look good when covered in drool.)

Digital After Dark Flash Pack

The brand new Digital After Dark Flash Pack.

Last week, I got my shipment of the brand new Digital After Dark® Flash Packs and the other new filter kits from Rosco. They are now available in my online store. There are four different Flash Packs and eight different Filter Kits. The Flash Packs have filters measuring 1.5 x 5.5 inches and are for use on speedlights and flashlights. The Filter Kits have filters measuring 12 x 12 inches and are for use on larger studio strobes and most any other type of lighting fixture. You can cut the larger ones to size as needed for special applications.

Why are these new kits so much better than the old swatchbooks and full-size sheets that I’ve been using for decades? Good question.

Light painted waterfall

The possibilities are unlimited with gel filters. Like purple waterfalls? You can have them!

The standard 20 x 24 size filter sheet works the same as a 12 x 12 sheet if you cut it down, but you had to buy the sheets individually. The Digital After Dark® Filter Kit (12 x 12 size) contains 27 different filters. If you bought those filters separately in the 20 x 24 size, you’d pay far more than the kit cost.

Campsite with Tent and Star Trails-Camper Drinking Wine

Here's a selfie. (The wine is a dead giveaway, I know.) To create the "candle" light inside the tent, I placed a 10 Medium Yellow gel filter on a camera flash.

The new Flash Packs have even more advantages over using filters from the old swatchbooks. There are three main problems with the swatchbook filters. First, they are a little too small to fit some speedlights. Second, you have to remove them from the swatchbook and make sure the hole in them isn’t placed over the light source. Finally, you only get one color each from the swatchbook. With the new Flash Packs, you get multiples of the most-used colors. It’s true that the swatchbooks contain a far great variety of colors, but as I mentioned above, no one ever uses all this colors. I’d pick a couple dozen and discard the rest.

To help you decide which of the new Flash Packs and Filter Kits are best for you, I’ve written two guides:

Choosing Rosco Flash Packs
Choosing Rosco Filter Kits

Most photographers reading this blog will want to start with one of the Flash Packs first, and of course, I’d recommend the Digital After Dark® Flash Pack. It has all the filters you need for night photography, as well as for most daytime subjects. I picked these filters myself and they are the ones I use regularly in my own photography.

But how the heck do you hold the filters on the flashlight and speedlight?

GelGrip gel filter holder

The GelGrip gel filter holder works on a flash or flashlight.

When I first started using the old swatchbook filters, I just attached them with tape or rubber bands. It didn’t take long for me to search for a better way, so I made a flimsy holder by bending Plexiglas. It worked much better, but it wasn’t very elegant and it kept breaking, forcing me to keep making new ones. A few years ago, I decided to come up with a permanent solution and the GelGrip™ was born.

If you use gel filters only occasionally, you can get by just fine by attaching them with rubber bands. In fact, the new Rosco Flash Packs come with two bands included. But I suspect it won’t take long before you become frustrated, just like I did. And if you use filters that you rip out of a swatchbook, they won’t be long enough to wrap around some flash heads for securing with a rubber band. The GelGrip™ is the answer.

And now the question becomes what to do if you already have a collection of the old swatchbook filters. Are they now obsolete? Of course not; they are the same filters, just in a smaller size. If they work for you now, they’ll continue working for you.

Waterfall with and without light painting

For the shot on the left, I light painted the waterfall using an LED flashlight with 3203 Three Quarter Blue filter. The shot on the right is without light painting.

This will be welcome news for the nearly 100,000 Strobists out there who purchased the old Strobist® Collection filter packs that Rosco offered for a few years. When David Hobby and Joe McNally started talking about using the swatchbooks, the Strobists overwhelmed Rosco with swatchbook requests. Rosco was giving them away and getting nothing in return (most Strobists aren’t interested in buying the standard-size filter sheets), so they decided to create a special Strobist® Collection of filters chosen by David and sell them at a nominal price. The phenomenal success of these filter kits was one reason why Rosco decided to develop the new line of Flash Packs.

Again, if you already have a swatchbook or an old Strobist® kit, the filters will work just fine for most applications. The disadvantages are that they are a smaller size and if you’re using the swatchbook, you only have one filter for each color.

I’ll be talking a lot more about these new Flash Packs and Filter Kits. I have lots of ideas for applying them to my night photography, as well as daytime subjects. I also have a few new products on the drawing board that are directly related to the filters. A hint: That hunk of metal in your driveway will soon become a powerful and colorful light-painting device.

Oh, one more thing. I know the first question I’m gonna get is how the heck do you carry the new filters in the field. The Filter Kit filters (12” x 12” size) come in a nice pocketed folder that works well, but the Flash Pack filters (1.5” x 5.5”) are a different story. Rosco packages them in a cardboard sleeve with dividers, but it isn’t practical for field use where you need to be able to see the colors all at once to make a decision on which one to pull out. With the old swatchbook filters, you could use a business card wallet to hold them for quick viewing and access, but the new Flash Pack filters are too large.

So what’s the solution? Stay tuned; I’m working on it. And it’s making me all tingly inside!

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