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Tips for Shooting in Sh*tty Light: Mixed Color Temperatures

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Learn how to take charge of the light and photograph great images, even with multiple sources of unflattering light.
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A photographer, a model, and an assistant walk into a bar. It may sound like a bad joke, but it actually happens. What makes it a bad joke on the photographer is the mixed lighting that you’ll find in many cool locations. Any room with a lightbulb and a window suddenly thrusts you into a juggling match of mixed color temperatures.

Consider the challenges you may face: You walk into a room and find nasty fluorescent light. You read Chapter 3, you know what to do—but wait. Besides that overhead fluorescent light, there’s a big bank of windows letting in daylight. Now what? Your subject is half illuminated by light with a green tone (fluorescent) and half illuminated by light with a blue tone (daylight). Needless to say, the combination is not flattering for any portrait or event. What if a tungsten table lamp kicks some light into the scene? Now you are contending with blue, green, and orange light creating a big mess of your photo! So what do you do? How can you take charge of the light and make great images?

Survey the Scene

The very first thing you need to do when approaching a mixed lighting situation is to determine how many light sources you are contending with and where those light sources are located. Each type of light has a different color cast (or color temperature). Our eyes like to automatically white balance what we see, so look closely. In other words, when you walk into a fluorescent-lit room, you don’t just see everything all in bright green; your eye auto-corrects for you. This normally helpful biological feature makes it more difficult for you to analyze mixed lighting situations. This is something you’ll learn with practice and by careful examination.

Look around the room: Are there windows? What is the source of overhead light?

Does the room have any decorative lighting, table lamps, or other mixed light sources? Understanding the scene and light sources will help you better conquer them. Next, ask yourself: What is the dominant light source in the scene? Is the room lit predominantly by window light? How much is that tungsten light from overhead affecting the room? Is the room illuminated by fluorescent overhead lights? What is that small daylight window in the corner doing? Understand your scene, and you’ll be able to approach the problem with confidence. If you are having difficulty analyzing the mixed light in the scene, consider snapping a photograph and analyzing the image. This may make it easier to see! Once you know what you’re up against, you can choose an approach for handling mixed lighting situations.

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