Lighting 103: Takeaways

Abstract: Some parting thoughts as we wrap up Lighting 103.

Hopefully, you have enjoyed our discussion of color and light in Lighting 103 v1.0—or at least found it useful as you explore your own lighting.

Coming next will be a whole new section: The Strobist Lighting Cookbook. (More info here.)

But for now, here are some takeaways as we wrap up our module on color.

1. White Light is Surprisingly Uncommon in Real Life

The world around us is awash in many different colors of light—even when the light source is the sun. To constantly use the white light of an ungelled flash is a major tell that your photo was artificially lit.

And the viewer does not at all have to be visually sophisticated to sense this incongruity. They just know something doesn't look real.

2. If in Doubt What Color to Gel Your Flash, Try Something; Try Anything

That's right. Just take a stab at it.

Once you understand that white is probably the wrong color, just trying something [not]white is better than using a bare flash. You'll screw it up at first. I sure did. And do.

But you'll quickly start to zero in on a look that feels more real.

3. Take Your Color Cues from Logic

Instead of asking yourself, "What color should this light be?" try asking yourself, "What color would it be?"

There is a logic to the color structure of light. If you give it even a little thought, color ideas will come to you.

Example: just like in nature, a main source that is closer to the horizon can (and probably should) be warmer. This echoes the color temperature of the sun as it approaches sunset or sunrise. That's a starting point for you.

Or say you're out shooting someone at night on the street. That high key light you are about to place would far more likley be a sickly green-orange sodium vapor color than it would be the white sun of midday. That's a starting point, too. Try it. See what happens. Adjust.

4. Go Ahead and Warm That Key

Not only is a warmer key more flattering, it is more logical. If your key light is not directly overhead, it is likely in a position that would create a warmer sunlit color temperature.

For most subjects, you can safely start with a Rosco 08 (pale straw) or 1/8 CTO and improve their skin tone. With a gel this weak, you really don't even notice that it is there. You only that their skin looks better than if lit in the cold, electronic blue of a 5600K bare strobe.

5. You Know What's Cool? A Shadow

You know this already. That's why your "shade" white balance is set to correct a cooler source of light than is your "daylight" white balance. For example...

6. Create Color Contrast in Your Shadows

If shadows are cooler than highlights, we can use this knowledge to express our shadows with color and not just relative exposure values (AKA "fill levels.") This can lead to a richer, more vibrant and more realistic palette.

Think of it this way: say you want deep shadows. You can knock them down, say, three stops and get that effect. But you will also lose both legibility and realism in a shadow that is very dark and neutrally lit.

Try knocking your shadows down, say, two stops and cool the color of the shadows down as well. The likely result: aided by the connotation of the cooler light, your shadows will look more like real shadows while retaining more legibility and detail. It is as if your camera were now seeing the scene the way your eye does, with a wide contrast gamut and chromatically appropriate light.

That's because you are creating the cues that your eye and brain need to say, "Oh, those are shadows. And I can see into them—just like in real life—but my brain still knows they are shadows."

7. Auto White Balance is a Crime Against Nature

Think about it: if we are trying to explore—and reproduce—the color of the light that surrounds us, AWB makes no sense.

This is a setting on your camera that is explicitly designed to strip out all of the color and interstingness from your scene. AWB will "correct" your photos by sucking the life out of your photos.

8. Daylight White Balance is Your Friend

Your eye is always compensating for variances in light color. Your camera, on daylight balance, is not. Let your camera interpret for your eyes.

Always, always look at your scene on daylight white balance first. Just make a photo and look at your display screen. Let your camera show you the real color of the light as it truly exists. Then decide if you want to tame it, enhance it or leave it as is.

9. You Can Compress the Color Range

Just as you use fill light to compress the tonal contrast range, you can use partial color correction filters to blend your subjects into non-white existing light. This is especially useful, for example, when placing a subject into a tungsten environment.

Try keylighting them with a 1/2 CTO. This can preserve the vibrancy of your tungsten background, and marry your subject into it in a pleasing way.

10. Color is its own Environment

In a pinch for an interesting portrait? Stuck with a white or gray background? Gels to the rescue. You can create interest with color. Similarly, you can connote an out-of-frame environment that does not actually exist, all with color.

You can create a shadow environment with one color, then pop your subject with another. We can highlight what we want the viewer to see with color just as effectively as we can do it with realative exposure value.

11. Learn from the Pros

Watching TV? Out at the movies? Take the time to consciously study how they are drawing you in—and manipulating you—with the palette of their lighting.

This is especially true with night scenes. Remember, they have to project the idea of night, but retain detail and separation while they do it. (So if there is a night woods scene, call me crazy, but I am forecasting a foggy night.)

The people who light movies are very, very good at what they do. And the biggest tell is when you don't even notice that they are doing it.

Remember that real nighttime looks horrible when captured directly on film. They have to fix this. There is much to be learned if you watch closely.

12. Be Brave and Be Bold

This is one of the biggest lessons I am learning as I explore color. If you are taking your cues from the real world—warm light, cool light, fluorescents mixed in—you have to be willing to go all-in.

Our gels are literally calibrated to match what exists in nature. A full CTO gel is the color of a tungsten bulb. Don't be scared try a full-cut correction gel if that is the real-life look you are trying to hit.

Think of it this way: if you want it to be noticeable and feel real, use the full color quantity. If you want it to be subtle and less obvious, maybe try a half-cut gel like a 1/2 CTO or 1/2 CTB. (But trust me: increasingly, you'll be willing to use the whole thing to get your effect.)

Conversely, if you want the scene to look unnatural and artificially lit, feel free to use white!


In fact, that last point is my biggest regret in my first 20 years as a lighting photographer. For many years I thought of gels as something you use to create a splash; an effect.

In reality, it's not thinking about the color of the light that creates the effect. And the effect it creates is not a good one.

White light is a missed opportunity. White light is a tell. It's a barrier between your viewer and the organic quality you are trying to create with your light.

And once you see this, you'll never be able to unsee it.

This concludes Strobist's Lighting 103 module. Next up is the Strobist Lighting Cookbook, which is ongoing now. If you would like to be notified when new lessons drop, please sign up here.


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