Lighting 103: How to Gel Big Lights

Abstract: How to economically gel umbrellas, beauty dishes and soft boxes

When using bigger lights (such as an Einstein e640, seen above) gelling gets a bit more complicated and expensive. Why? Big lights have protruding flash tubes and modeling lights, and potentially big modifiers.

But for each kind of modifier, there are workarounds that will allow you total gel coverage without having to buy large sheets of gels.

How to Gel Standard Reflectors

We're talking about the typical, ~8" reflector that frequently ships with your studio flash. And in this case, gelling is simple. Cut an ~8" square (not round) and tape the corners over the rim of the reflector, giving you full coverage.

Square is better because you can naturally get it to leave a nice air gap (to let the heat escape) by not pulling the corner taught. This is important when using modeling lights, which emit a lot of heat.

On Big Lights, Modeling Lights and Gels:

When using gels and modeling lights at the same time on big lights, there is not much concern of gels melting to the light as compared to small strobes. This is because the gels do not (and should not!) touch the modeling light.

However, heat can still build up in a gel mounting setup that does not allow for the free flow of air. And excessive heat buildup is bad for the flash unit itself. So keep an eye on your heat buildup — especially when using closed gel mounts with modeling lights and/or at high power settings.

How to Gel Umbrellas

The best way to gel an umbrella is by using a spill kill reflector, which is what you should be using with your umbrella anyway. They do exactly what the name implies—killing the overspray when adjusted correctly rather than shaping the light like a standard reflector.

Fortunately, they tend to be cheap. The Paul Buff one, pictured above, is $13. (They call it an umbrella reflector, but many people generically refer to them as spill kills.)

Seriously, if you have never used a black-backed, 60" umbrella (cheap) with a properly adjusted spill kill reflector, you are missing out on a wonderful and controllable light source.

To gel your umbrella and spill kill, tape it across the front as shown. You can see the air gap in the side view.

You'll need to punch a hole in the gel for the umbrella shaft to stick through. I often reinforce these holes by surrounding them with tramsparent tape, as they are natural points for tears to begin.

Next, adjust the position of the umbrella shaft in the flash mount until the fully gelled spill kill reflector does not permit any raw light to escape past the edges of the umbrella.

Umbrellas are inexpensive, if sometimes unwieldy, light modifiers. But with the right reflector they are easy to control — and to gel.

How to Gel a Beauty Dish

There are two ways to gel a beauty dish: the dumb way and the smart way. Let's look at the dumb way first.

Seen above is the dumb way, which I used for, oh, about 20 years. It takes a full 24x20" sheet of gel (less than $10, but still...) and a little surgery to make it fit a typical 22" beauty dish.

As you can see, you cut 2" off of the 24" side, and tape it to the reamining side. By centering it, you give yourself the width to cover the face of your 22" beauty dish.

Voila, the dumb way. Now here's the smart way:

Cut strips of gel material with a width a little wider than the depth of the gap between the base of your dish at the direct light baffle.

Tape them together to make a donut, using your dish as a measuring template. (Wrap it around the space, mark it, cut it, tape it into a loop.)

Install it thusly. This uses much less gel material and gets you total coverage. But, if using dark gels and or shooting rapidly and/or at high power, you should mind your heat buildup.

A good tip is to turn down the intensity of the modeling light. If you absolutely must use it at full blast, you'll get better heat control by using the full-face beauty dish gelling method seen above.

But as you can see, this internal method gives you perfect coverage, and does so with a lot less gel material.

How to Gel Your Soft Box

Confession time: I used to tape multiple sheets of gels together to make sheets big enough to cover the front of my soft boxes. In my defense, I was young and stupid.

But there's a better way. We are going to gel the mount itself, on the inside of the box. This way, we'll get perfect coverage with only a small amount of gel material.

Note: I'm using a Paul Buff mount as an example here, because that is the big light I most often use. You can adapt this technique to fit your own brand of light and soft box.

Here, again, is our bare Paul Buff Einstein e640. I have twi choices here: one, I can remove the glass dome and modeling light to improve the geometry of how I can gel the soft box and reduce the heat output. Or two, I can gel it further away from the flash tube and model lamp and use more gel material.

I'm going to lose the modeling lamp to make the soft box far more easy to gel. But you could do it the other way — especially is your lights have a flash tube that sticks further into the soft box mount.

Next we remove the modeling light. What? Are you addicted to your modeling light? Then be prepared to gel it further away from the tube and use more gel material. Life is a series of choices.

But if you can escape the bonds of your modeling light, you can gel your soft box perfectly with a small sheet of gel.

Now that we have no protruding, heat-generating modeling light, we can easily mount the soft box and fit a gel in just above the mount, like this:

Fun fact: Paul Buff's DigiBee monoblocs have recessed LED modeling lights. And they don't put out much heat, either. So you can easily gel your soft box and use your modeling lamp simultaneously, with a small piece of gel. This is also true with Elinchrom Quadras, or any other LED-based modling light system. The future is here.

Once the modeling light is gone, you can easily eyeball how to gel this PCB soft box mount with about a 6 3/4"-square piece of material. But here is a sketched template to make it easier for you:

And that's it. One 6 3/4" square piece of gel colors literally any size PCB soft box you want to use. The catch? You lose the modeling light, unless you have a DigiBee.

Or, you can buy a crap ton of gel material. Your choice.

NEXT: At Least Warm Your Key


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