When I completed Strobist as a project in 2021, I promised to check back in when I had something worth sharing. Today, I’m announcing my new book, The Traveling Photographer’s Manifesto, which seeks to do for traveling photographers what Strobist always tried to do for lighting photographers.

Thanks for giving it a look—and for your comments and feedback.

SLC-1L-05: Living in the In-Between

Our eyes are wonderful devices. They are autofocus, auto-zoom, autoexposure, and (to a large degree) auto white balance. Our cameras, on the other hand, see things more objectively.

Today, how to finesse that difference when adding light.

It's Not Binary

Previously when shooting in an incandescent (AKA tungsten) environment, I have tended to shoot on either a daylight or a tungsten white balance. Do I let the ambient lights express their warmth, or do I bring them up to neutral? (And either way, I would correct for the flash by gelling if needed.)

But shooting with a mirrorless camera allows me to experiment on the fly. I can see the effect of my camera's white balance setting real-time. So I can use that information to calibrate the camera's setting to something that approximates the way my eye sees the scene. (You can do this with a DSLR, too. But it is slower and clunkier because you have to shoot-check-shoot-check.)

Take for instance this wide shot—shot available light—of pianist Jung-hoon Park during a recording session in a beautiful, wood-paneled concert hall.

If I shot it on daylight white balance, it'd be very warm. If I shot it on tungsten, technically it would be more neutral but also would lose a lot of life. After all, your eye is experiencing that color shift away from daylight in real life. And that shift, albeit partially corrected by your brain, is how we organically perceive color.

So these days before shooting I tend to wander up and down the "Kelvin" white balance scale on my camera to find the interpretation that feels closest to how my eye is experiencing the room. The Kelvin scale lets you explore the warm-cool gradient in small steps from tungsten to daylight and beyond.

For the record, in these situations I tend to end up in the 3800K to 4400K settings. But what's the right number? The right number is whatever feels best to your eye. There is no wrong answer. So don't sweat it.

Adding Flash to this Approach

But what do we do when we are lighting in a non-daylight environment, as with the portrait up top?

We can still apply these interim white balance settings. You just need to acknowledge your new relative starting point when you go to gel your flash. And it is a pretty straightforward, two-step process.

Let's say, for example, that you are going to split the difference between tungsten and daylight on the way you are seeing the room. In that case your white balance would be set to 4200K.

If you want to have your subject appear neutrally toned in that photo, a 1/2 CTO gel would do it, right?

But should your subject appear neutral? After all, he is in a warm environment. Shouldn't that environment be seen to be influencing him? Shouldn't he be a little warm? If you think he should, you might want to consider a 3/4 CTO for your flash.

Think about where that WB-shift-and-gel-combo puts you. The room, formerly full tungsten, now presents as half tungsten. (Because you shot it halfway between daylight and tungsten.) This is closer to the way your eye experiences the room than it would be on either a daylight or a tungsten setting.

And with your new white balance, the subject is presenting as warm, but not as fully warm as the room. With a 3/4 CTO in a split daylight/tungsten white balance, the subject looks about 1/4 CTO warm. In effect, we are splitting the difference with the subject after splitting the difference with the room.

Choose Your Flavor

The numbers cited above were just arbitrary examples. The bigger point is not about the absolute numbers, but rather that daylight vs. tungsten should be viewed as a continuum to be explored—both with ambient and with flash in that shfted environment.

Shooting ambient only, try exploring the gradient between the two settings to see what feels right to your eye.

When using flash in a tungsten environment, consider it a two-step process. First, find your best ambient white balance. Then start with that gel filter pack on your light, and adjust from there to get the relative warth (or coolness) of your subject within that environment.

FROM: Strobist Lighting Cookbook


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