Mixed Light Isn’t Always Bad

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I know we’ve covered the light color/temperature topic many times before and have presented you with some tips on how to best work with it using gels on your flashes and the white balance adjustments on your camera, er, digital cameras that is, sorry film people, you’ll have to gel your lenses, too.

Being in situations where you have different light sources that produce different color temperatures simultaneously usually present some unique and difficult challenges because you can typically only correct for (in most cases, gel your lights) one color temperature, usually the dominate color, and you have to deal with the rest of the light sources’ colors the best as you can. Sometimes you are forced to make some tough choices on which color temperature you’re going to tame and let the chips fall where they may with the other ones, but sometimes you can use it to your advantage.

For this post I’d like to show you an example image and how I was faced with just such a lighting environment where I had multiple light sources, each with it’s own color temperature.

I recently took my family on vacation to Punta Mita, Mexico and of course had my X-E2 slung around my shoulder most of the time to document our trip and try for some nice family photos. After a long day of travel from our home in Oregon, we finally arrived at our resort around dusk and were checking in and I wanted to get a few pictures of my family marking the beginning of the vacation. The Four Seasons resort where we were staying has an amazing lobby that opens up towards the ocean and the view is just the sort of thing you travel to Mexico to see, a palm tree laden picturesque coastline that is simply breathtaking. I was beginning to evaluate the scene and noticed the light in the foreground, inside the lobby, was tungsten which produces a very orange color that is easy enough to compensate for using your camera’s white balance settings. But the entire area outside of the lobby in my background was lit by the ambient light which was an entirely different color than my foreground color. If I were trying to light this scene with my speedlights I could have added a 1/2 CTO or more gel to the front of the flashes and set my white balance accordingly and try to bring up the the foreground light to minimize the background light. Or perhaps gel my speedlights to the same color as the background and try to overpower the foreground lights. But in this case, I was just taking snapshots of my family without any of my speedlights (gasp!) so all of that gel business wasn’t an option for me to leverage. I had to work with what I had and luckily, this is one of those times where the mixed lighting actually worked in my favor.

One thing worth mentioning is that when it comes to just about any aspect of photography, we all have our own ideas and philosophies about correcting or editing our images. This is art (which is giving myself quite a bit of latitude) so beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. We all like to “season to taste” if you will and you may or may not agree with my edits of this image, and admittedly it’s not a perfect photo by any stretch of the imagination (hell, it’s blurry for Pete’s sake), but it’s here as a teachable example. One legitimate way I could have finished this image would be to leave the white balance as shot. Aside from the “purist” point of view where you don’t touch images in post (which I don’t follow), it would have given a very interesting contrast between the “yellow” in the foreground and the “blue” in the background. That could work, and would have given the foreground a nice warm feel to it. But, I decided to adjust the white balance and correct for the foreground color. Why? Well, besides wanting them image to look more natural, like my wife’s white shirt to actually be white for example, I know that shifting the color temperature of the image globally would give me a very nice byproduct for this particular image. That byproduct is that the “blue” color of the background is going to be even more “blue” when I color correct for the foreground, which in my opinion, is going to create an even more interesting and dramatic photograph.

Let me explain. Allow me to present a very terse overview of how your camera or your post processing software “corrects” the white balance, or the “color” of your photograph. If you are shooting on a cloudy, overcast, snowy day, the light falling on your subject is going to have a very cool, blue hue to it. The snow in the image would look very unnatural unless you live in a place that actually get light blue snow. For the rest of us, we need to “fix” the color of the photograph by shifting the white balance of the image in the opposite direction of the color we want to de-emphasize. If you envision the color wheel, you’ll notice that blue and yellow are on the opposite sides of the wheel. So by moving the color of the entire image from blue to yellow, you’ll counteract the blue hue of the cool overcast light falling on the snow and return it’s color back to the natural looking white snow we’re all used to seeing. The same thing applies if you we shooting a subject in the park that was standing in the grass in the shadows of a tree. You would certainly see a green hue, especially in the shadow areas of your subject, since the light falling on your subject would be “contaminating” your image from all of the foliage around your subject. By adding a little magenta to the image (magenta is on the opposite side of the color wheel of green), you would lessen the green hue of the surrounding foliage and create a more natural looking photograph. Make sense? Sorry to drift off subject there, but I wanted to be sure you understand how shifting the white balance in a photograph affects the color.

So back to my snapshot and the mixed lighting of the area. Again, I decided to shift the white balance of my image to correct the color of the foreground from yellow (the tungsten light from the incandescent lights in the lobby) to white by adding some blue. Again, my whites now look white, but anything blue is now going to have more blue added to it as well. This global color shifting may have undesirable effects on some colors in some photos, but for this example, I actually want the blues to get more blue. It has the effect of creating a more dramatic background by essentially adding more blue to the already blue hue of the ambient background light. Cool, huh?

To see how dramatic the effect of the white balance shift is on this image, here is the same photograph juxtaposed with the “correct” white balance.

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Quite the difference, eh? It really is amazing what a little fore thought to color temperature and white balance can make to the resulting image, so I implore you to take a look around, at the light, the next you’re shooting to see what colors are going to influence your image and how you can correct for them or use them to your advantage. With a little practice, it will become second nature and you will start accounting for it without giving it much thought.

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