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How to Change Your Background Color With Gels

In this post I will go over how to change your background color with gels. Gels are a fantastic way to enhance your photography by changing the color of your background, and I often get asked what the best background color is to use. this pose will break down the difference between white, black, and grey backgrounds. I'll also share my thoughts on which one is the most optimal choice for your photography needs.

It must be said, that you can acheive any desired look with any of the aforementioned backgrounds, but I will go over how each one reacts to different to the position of different lights. Alright, let's get into it!

White Background

One benefit of shooting with a white backgorund is that you can get a very deep saturation with a low powered light. Adversly, if you have your light power up too high, you will essentially turn that background into a giant light colored light, and may cause desaturation due to too much exposure. Something to watch out for with your power output when shooting with a white background is "fringing" around edge of your subject. This will be very noticable around the hair, as seen in the photo below.

You can also use the higher power to create a gradient effect that can be used creatively. See the BTS image to see the proximity between the lights and the background.

When using a white background with gels, you may notice that the color tends to appear lighter and less saturated. This is because the white background acts like a giant light source, reflecting the light and creating a softer color effect. While you can still achieve a saturated look with a white background by adjusting the power of your light, it may not provide the deep saturation you desire. This can be a benefit if you're using lights that don't have much power output, like a speedlight or small strobe.

Desaturated Background

One common problem a lot of people run into when gelling their background is retaining saturation after they add the key light. What usually happens is the background looks great when it's just the background light, but once a main light source is added in, the background becomes muddy and desaturated. The reason this happens is because the key light is exposing the background and causing the color to become less saturated.

Example of the key light causing desaturation on a white background.

Think of it like this... If you take some blue paint, and mix it with white paint, the end result will be a much less saturated blue. The same thing happens when you're using a colored light and mixing it with a neutral colored light.

This is where understanding the inverse square law really comes in handy. As long as your key light isn't effecting the background, you'll be able to get a deep saturation. Another option is to shoot on a darker background. Another option is to change your light pattern or add a grid to your key light.

Grey Background

Switching to a grey background can offer a balanced approach between white and black. Gray backgrounds absorb some light while reflecting some back, resulting in a moderate level of saturation. Gray backgrounds are versatile as they can be easily darkened or lightened to achieve the desired effect. This makes them a great option for photographers working with limited space.

Grey background (no key vs with key). Still some desaturaiton, but mych less than with the white background.

Black Background

You might never have thought about using a back background with gels, but it actually works really well in a lot of cases. It is however important to note that darker backgrounds require more powerful lights to achieve the desired saturation. If you're using speed lights or lower-powered lighting equipment, you may struggle to illuminate a dark or black background effectively. In such cases, opting for a gray background can provide a good balance between richness of color and light output.

Black background (no key vs with key). There is virtually no difference in the background saturation

Power Output Vs Distance

As I mentioned before, there are a few different ways that you can alter the saturation of your background. Rather than just trying to explain it with words, I thought it would be best if I just showed you a couple videos of different power output (from 500ws down to 2ws) on all three backgrounds. The first video, the background light is 6ft away from the background, and in the second video, it was 12ft away.

BG Light 6ft from BG

BG Light 12ft from BG


Choosing the right background color when using gels can significantly impact the final look of your photographs. While white backgrounds offer a softer appearance and black backgrounds provide deep saturation, gray backgrounds strike a balance between the two. Consider your space constraints and lighting equipment when selecting the best background color for your photography projects.

Final Thoughts

Experimenting with different background colors and gels can lead to unique and visually stunning results in your photography. Don't be afraid to mix and match colors to create dynamic and vibrant images that stand out. Remember, the background color you choose can enhance the mood and tone of your photos, so choose wisely and have fun with your creative process!


Take your lighting to the NEXT LEVEL at my "Creative Lighting Workshop" this summer!

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This was SO incredibly helpful! Thank you so much!

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I’m so glad it was helpful!

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