The Thorny Problem of Speedlight Gels

If you have ever read the Strobist blog, amongst other sources, you’re likely to be aware of the power of using gels on portable strobes. Having been an avid reader of Strobist, I’ve been using a set of speedlight gels for quite a few years. The cheap solution used to be getting the free Rosco sample packs, but I missed the boat on that one and since I had to pay for mine I ended up buying a set of Lee gels.

Quality-wise both have a good reputation, but the most significant difference appears to be the size. My Lee set are about 5” by 2″ (12.5cm by 5cm), which is plenty big enough to use on some of my larger (old) strobes. More recently I also got hold of a large set of the smaller sized Rosco gels (3.25″ by 1.5″ approximately).

While gels are a great solution to controlling and balancing the colour of your flash lighting, they do bring two problems of their own:

  1. How do you mount them in front of the speedlight?
  2. How do you store and carry them around in a way that allows you to quickly to identify and access the one you want?

I’ve put together a solution to address the first of these, which works fine for me. There are probably lots of alternatives for second and I’ve improvised, using one for the big gels and another for the smaller ones.

1. Gel Holders

As far as I’m concerned, I want a holder to keep the gels in place. It’s down to personal taste, but I’m not too happy with taping, velcroing (is that a word?) or attaching them to the speedlight with a rubber band. These are all likely to destroy the gels over time (not so good now they’re not free) as well as looking like a hack. What I’m looking for is some sort of holder that costs very little, folds flat when it’s not being used and lasts a reasonable length of time before it falls apart. Finally, when it’s in use it needs to maintain a small air gap between the gel and the front of the flash in case things get hot.

When I first got the Lee gel set I put together a simple solution using a sheet of folded plastic with a frosted finish. This attached to the speedlight using a DIY speed strap and worked pretty well. However, since building my water drop controller rig (see sepatate post) I’m aware that with the speedlights firing at almost minimum power I can’t afford to lose any light, so the frosting had to go.

For the new holders I’ve used clear acetate sheets, and it seemed like a good idea to put together a simple template for cutting them out reasonably accurately (download the Speedlight gel holder template) rather than just drawing the outline straight on to the plastic by hand. For completeness there are three pages in the template: the first page is for my Lee gels (5” by 2”), the second is for the original style Rosco Strobist gels (3.25” by 1.5”) and the last for the new wider Rosco Strobist gels (5.5″ by 1.5″).

Making the holder

If you want to use it, print out the template (making sure you use the “Actual Size” option) on white paper. Then attach a sheet of clear acetate on top and cut round the outline. The heavier line with the circles at the ends is the slot for the small tab to plug in to, so cut along this carefully.

To fold the holder I’ve found it’s best to push the tab into the slot without attempting to fold the plastic, them run it all under the hot water tap while gradually forming the fold. Do similar to form the right angled fold for the larger tab that attaches to the speedlight. Don’t use very hot or boiling water or the whole thing will become too soft to work with.

When it’s finished it should look like this:

Speedlight Gels

To hold it in place on the speedlight I just attach a speed strap (description for a cheap DIY version below) and push the large tab under it so that the pocket for the gel is a few millimeters away from the front of the strobe’s Fresnel lens. Depending on the shape of the speedlight, the tab has to go below the head (as on the Yongnuo directly below) or above (as pictured on the Canon strobe further down the post).

Speed Strap

My speed straps are very simple and are based on a description I saw online somewhere about six or seven years ago. To make them you need self-adhesive Velcro tape roughly ¾” (20mm) wide, both hook and loop types, and a craft foam sheet about 2mm thick. My original straps were about 14” (35cm) long. These were long enough to work with my old Canon 540Z units and a few of my other old strobes which are all quite big.

The straps I’ve made more recently are a bit shorter so they’re a better fit on my Yongnuo 568EX II and some of the smaller strobes. To make them cut a 12.25” (310mm) length of the hook-type (spiky) Velcro tape, a roughly 3.33” (85mm) length of the loop-type Velcro tape and an about 8.9” (225mm) by ¾” (20mm) – or whatever width the Velcro tape width is – strip of foam. Top tip on the foam: cutting a strip across the width of a sheet of nominally A4 foam of the type they sell in craft shops gives you 225mm – this is just about perfect for length and ensures the ends are square as they’re the sides of the sheet.

The Thorny Problem of Speedlight Gels

Stick the loop-type tape and the foam strip to the back of the hook-type tape end to end. That’s it! Wrap it round the flash head with the foam against the body and pull it reasonably tight before letting the Velcro overlap do its thing. I’ve made quite a few of these and have used them to hold various light modifiers on my strobes over the years. They work well, cost very little and last quite a while before the Velcro wears out or the foam tears.

The Thorny Problem of Speedlight Gels

2. Identification and Storage

Keeping gels organized and accessible for use on location can be a real pain, to the extent that I generally used to leave them bundled together at home and only use them for studio shots – missing the point here, surely! Even at home working with a stack of gels only identifiable by the IDs printed on the paper sheets between them wasn’t particularly quick and easy.

For the Lee gels my solution to the identification problem is simple: since they are way bigger than the heads of my strobes, labelling them at the side with white Dymo labels (the printed type rather than the embossed type) makes identification easy. This should also work with the new wide Rosco gels.

The Thorny Problem of Speedlight Gels

For storing the Lee gels I just use some cut down medal storage sheets in an equally cut down binder. Overall size is about 250mm by 150mm, which is small enough for carrying around, and I can fit 3 gels per sheet. Not exactly a Rolls Royce solution, but it does the trick when I need to use them away from home.

For the smaller Rosco gels I’ve gone for a combined identification/storage solution: the business card book. I bought a cheap one from Amazon that’s not too big and has a fastening strap so it’ll stay shut in my bag. Again it isn’t the perfect solution, as it’s only as good as my accuracy in putting the gels back into the right pockets and not losing the ID sheets. But it’s reasonably small and portable and doesn’t take up any of the gels’ limited surface real estate with labels.

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