Coping With Mixed Lighting As a Photographer

Mixed lighting refers to an environment that is lit by multiple light sources that have a different color temperature. It could be fluorescent and incandescent, incandescent and flash, natural light with incandescent or any other combination of lighting, and if you’re really unlucky there could be three or more color temperatures in one place. It can be one of the biggest challenges in photography and mishandled, it can ruin a photo that is great in every other way.

While there’s no definitive answer to this problem, there are some guidelines that can help. Here are some things to keep in mind, which I’ve ordered by my usual priority list from most preferred to last option.

Don’t Do It

Often you can avoid mixed lighting from even being an issue by turning the more offensive lighting off or using a preferred light that is so much more powerful than the other lights that they become insignificant. Generally fluorescent lights are the least preferred, followed by incandescent, while daylight and strobes have a much nicer color to them. Studio strobes are so much more powerful than continuous lighting that in almost all cases any other light sources become insignificant. This is proven by a simple test – set your camera to your strobe (say ISO 200 1/250s f/11) and then take a shot without triggering the flash – you’ll likely get a completely black frame, but if you get anything more than that it will be subtle hints of an image. Eliminating the significance of mixed lighting should always be your first option.

Match The Color

If you must deal with mixed lighting, alter the color balance of your light sources to match or at least be close. This is generally done by putting a gel between one or more of the lights and the subject. The first thought should always be to alter the most offensive light. If you can’t turn a fluorescent light off, can you put an orange gel over it to warm it up? If you’re in an environment where that isn’t possible – for example a wedding reception with a bunch of dim orange incandescent lights where you have to use an on-camera flash, put an orange gel on your flash to warm it up to the color of the room.

Set your white balance to the room and your photos will come out perfect. Another option is to mix the lights before they fall on the subject. How does one do that? Aim your flash at the conflicting light source, and they will mix as the flash bounces off it. This last tip comes from suggestions in Light, Science and Magic. This image could have been saved by this simple technique:

Compromise

This is by far the least attractive option, but sometimes it has to be done: set a custom white balance to the preferred or dominant light or choose a color temperature that’s somewhere between them. If you opt for this choice you’ll probably end up throwing a lot of images away and editing the others heavily. Only do this if you really have no choice. I will talk about post-production editing to save such images in a future post. The below image is an example close enough to save later.

Capitalize On It

While the preferred choice is not to take a shot with mixed lighting and when that’s not possible you can nearly always match the color, once in a while you’ll run into a situation where neither option is possible. Other times you’ll have a creative reason to do it on purpose. If you know that this is the case and you work with it carefully, you can actually make it add to the photo instead of letting it take away from it. This generally requires careful planning of a scene.

Glamour photographer Chas Ray Krider makes great use of this, for example lighting the model with a yellow lamp to contrast the blue light of a TV (NSFW Link).

I’ve used it on purpose with two musicians – I put a blue light on the background musician and color balanced for the lead, drawing attention where I wanted it. This was a case where I created mixed lighting on purpose.

An example where I found a solution to an unavoidable mixed lighting situation was a beach shot for a kite-boarding company. It was dusk on the beach and there was no way to get the shot without using a flash, particularly because I wanted to show the background people in silhouette.

Using the flash as is would look obviously fake, and even color balancing it to the dusk light would look wrong to the eye if the people in the background were in silhouette. Instead, I put them in front of a campfire and put an orange gel on the flash so that it looked like they were illuminated by the flames. Even though the fire wasn’t nearly strong enough to illuminate them that brightly, it’s convincing enough for the viewer to believe, so it works. In the following image the fire was actually cropped out, but even here the viewer is inclined to believe it.

A word of caution – do not use this technique until you have mastered fixing and avoiding the problems or it will come off as a mistake instead of a calculated decision.

Summary

I’ve provided four options for dealing with mixed lighting. Three of them at times require using gels – usually orange but sometimes blue and occasionally another color. If there’s a chance you’ll find yourself in a situation where you have to cope with mixed lighting, make sure you keep gels in your bag. The Lumiquest FX Five filter Gel set with holder is always in my bag if my flash is. For more precision try the Rosco 55 piece gel set. Also as I’ve suggested before, many of these techniques can be mastered by studying Light, Science and Magic.

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