UPDATE, JUNE 2024: Strobist was archived in 2021. Here is what I am up to now. -DH


Lighting 103: Introduction

Abstract: Our flashes are calibrated to produce white light. But in the real world, white light is a rarity.

Sara Lando (your mollusk portraitist from Lighting 102) gives a thumbs up while spending a week assisting for photographer Gregory Heisler (seen squinting through camera).

She was assisting Greg for a week of shooting and teaching at Gulf Photo Plus in Dubai. Sara learned a ton of stuff, duly reported on in a three-part series that to this day remains one of the most popular pieces ever written on this site.

Many of the things she learned while following Greg around had little to do with photography: his work ethic, thought process, etc. (Seriously, read the series.) But the week also changed the way Sara thought about light, her most important takeaway being this:

"White light is a lie."

These five words were an epiphany for me; the kind of moment that delineates your experience before and after. It's right up there with, "One light for shape, another for detail," which we covered in Lighting 102.

In real life, white light does actually exist, just not nearly as often as we think. White light happens with the sun is high in the sky on a sunny day. Which is to say, not very good light. The more interesting light is anything but white — and often a mixture of more than one light, more than one color, coming from more than one direction.

Walk with Me

Several times a year, I travel with a small group of adventurous photographers to an interesting city somewhere in the world. We spend a week together, growing both as photographers and travelers. Every day we have class, then we head out to photograph the city. On day one, our classroom subject is learning to be better at observing light.

Here's a brief excerpt from that day's discussion.

For our virtual purposes, let's say today that we are in Havana and that we are going to take a walk together. We'll start out at midday and walk through the afternoon into evening. And as we walk, let's observe the light.

Here we are at midday. Hot sun and short shadows. If our light is ever going to be white, it is gonna be white right about now.

Except it is not white, is it? It might be white up above the buildings. But by the time the light gets to street level it has been bouncing back and forth off of those buildings, which are acting as giant amber fill cards.

So if you were going to light someone into the shade area, a white flash would not feel connected to the scene. You'd need to warm it up — maybe a Rosco 08 straw warming gel — just to match the ambient "daylight." (Don't worry, we'll get to the gel taxonomy later.)

And daylight is in quotes for a reason, because 5600K daylight is only a starting point coming from the sun if it is high overhead.

Let's keep walking.

As we walk later into the afternoon, we come to a scene of pedestrians meeting at an intersection. Look at the warmth of the sunlight on the guy at right. That's not white.

But look also at the cool of the shadows enveloping the guy at left. The sun is lower, so the shade is being lit by the cooler light of the open sky. And that cool light is bouncing off of some cool-colored buildings. Which makes the shade cooler, still.

Again, not white. Our light, which starts at white, is being heavily influenced by the environment.

The light feels real because it is real. This is how ambient light is affected by our environment. Even in daytime, the colors can be all over the map.

It's getting close to sunset. Let's head over to the Malecón, Havana's iconic sea wall.

As we look back across the street from the Malecón, a lady watches the scene in the late afternoon sun. And this sun, now even nearer to the horizon, has to cut through a lot more of our atmosphere because it is coming in at such a hard angle.

Our atmosphere scatters much of the blue and violet light of our full-spectrum solar light source, allowing the warmer colors to more easily pass through.

Which gives us golden light. Or in this case, deep golden-red light. Seriously, if I wanted to duplicate that light with a "daylight" balanced flash, I'd need at least a 3/4-cut CTO tungsten conversion filter. Or maybe even a full-cut.

So even in the sun, the idea of white light is already proving to be a lie.

Now our sun has set and we are full into blue hour, the hour between sunset and nighttime. And as the name implies, we now are even further away from our reference white light.

Pushing into this blue, we see the spectrum of tungsten, fluorescent and sodium vapor artificial lights. The contrast is beautiful. And to duplicate this feel you'd need multiple lights — and some pretty strong warm and green gels.

For the base blue (assuming you were lighting a full scene with no ambient) that might be a double-cut CTB (color temperature blue, the opposite of the CTO warming filter in the photo above.) And you'll need a couple more lights with different warming and or green gel packs to match that palette in the interior of the frame. But our white light? Nowhere to be seen.

It's getting dark. Let's head back to the hotel.

Quantity-wise, there is not much light left. But the color palette is beautiful. And something you'd probably never think to create.

Look at these people walking home through an arcade along the Paseo de Marti at late dusk. Check out that deep blue sky at top left. What about the muddy sodium vapor street lighting, bathing the building.

There's not much light, but the color is very interesting — especially the flourescent light in the covered walkway. That's at least 30cc units of cyan, maybe more.

Who the hell would put a full 30cc cyan on a key light?

Answer: anyone who wanted to imitate the feel of this light. And the more I look at this, the more I begin to understand that creating light that looks and feels real is no job for the timid.

So we will have to learn to experiment, and be willing to go too far when in reality we are probably not going far enough.

Learning to See Color

Our first goal in Lighting 103 will be to grow more attuned to the color of light. And as we grow to be more observant of color, we'll hopefully learn to recreate it with our flashes. And ultimately, to make light that feels more real.

We'll try to understand the differences in how our eyes see light and how the camera records it. So we can recreate in our photos the feel of the complex ambient light that surrounds us.

And hopefully, we'll learn to create those unseen environments that are not visible in our photos, but are definitely influencing our subjects.


This week, your L103 assignment will be about learning to observe the color of light — both how you see it with your eye, and how your camera sees it.

Spend time observing light. This is something you can do at any time — or all of the time. Do this at different times of the day, evening and night.

Notice how the color of the sun shifts. Notice how it is affected by bounce surfaces. Notice the colors of different light sources, inside and out.

In addition to noticing the different colors of light, record them on your camera. Just set your camera on aperture priority and daylight white balance and snap the occasional frame.

FYI, this is also what I do before creating any light in a given environment: a quick look to see what the room's ambient light is offering me. Shoot it on daylight at full exposure. Then incrementally underexpose it and see how the color intensifies.

Note that it is very important for your camera to be set to daylight light balance, so your camera will record and process the light's color shifts relative to white light. If you put your camera on auto white balance you'd be screwing this up.

Finally, notice the way your eye and brain processes the scene, vs. the way your camera does.

Does your camera seem to record non-white light accurately, the way you see it? Or does it exaggerate the differences? And if your camera accentuates the color shifts, how could you compensate for this?

NEXT: Lighting 103: Prerequisites and Supplies


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