Many photographers have a sort of irrational fear of working with artificial light, preferring to stick with what nature offers. This approach leaves you at the mercy of weather patterns and daylight hours, though, so you gain a lot of flexibility by working with other types of light. That doesn’t necessarily mean using flash, however (but it can.) Understanding how to work with the many different types of light in this world will help you differentiate from the pack and be prepared to get the job done regardless of the weather forecast.
What Is Artificial Light?
Simply put, artificial light doesn’t come from the sun. Artificial light includes things that are made explicitly for photography like strobes, LED lighting, and photography-specific fluorescent lighting products. But there’s a whole world of other light sources you can use - light bulbs, flashlights, neon signs, and street lights come to mind. If it illuminates enough for your camera’s sensor to see it with a reasonable ISO, for photographic purposes, it’s usable light.
How To Analyze Artificial Light
All light has qualities that you need to be aware of so that you know the best approach in a lighting scenario. Notice your light source’s direction, color, intensity, and quality - whether it’s hard or soft. If you’re using a lighting product made for photographic light, it will likely be daylight balanced, or close. That means the light’s temperature is very close to natural daylight. Having an artificial light that matches natural light is handy if you’re working in a mixed lighting scenario - more on that in a bit.
Working With Color Temperature
An example of artificial light that many photographers are already familiar with is tungsten lighting. Tungsten is the metal used in the filament of standard light bulbs and some photographic lighting. When you turn on the light, electricity passes through the metal filament and makes an electrical glow. The glow produced is much warmer than daylight, so you need to use a different white balance setting when shooting with tungsten lighting than you do if your light source is the sun.
If you think in terms of the Kelvin temperatures used to measure white balance, daylight is about 5500 degrees Kelvin while tungsten light is about 3000 degrees Kelvin. To understand why the lower temperature is warmer than the higher temperature, think of fire. Hotter flames burn blue, while orange flames are not as hot.
Tungsten is an easy one to correct for, but sometimes lights will have an extreme color cast. In those cases, be prepared to slide the white balance and temp sliders more than it feels like you should. You might find your sliders all the way at the ends from time to time when you get into some peculiar light.
Clean Artificial Light
It’s least challenging to work with artificial light when all the light in your photo is coming from the same light source. Whether it’s all it’s daylight colored or a funky-colored street light, you’ll have less trouble if you’ve only got to correct for one color temperature. If there are multiple colored light sources, if possible, choose which source you want to work with and turn off or block other sources to make your life easier.
A new set of challenges arises when there is more than one type of light source in the photo. Remember the daylight-balanced lighting example from earlier? Using a daylight-balanced artificial light with sunlight is easy - they’re the same color temperature, or very close. But what if you’re shooting indoors where there are both a window and tungsten lighting? If you can’t subtract one of the sources, you’ll need to correct for the errant colored light.
In some cases, you can do this in-camera. An example of this is using a colored gel on a flash. If you’re mixing a daylight-balanced flash and a tungsten light source, you can put a CTO gel on the flash. A gel is a piece of transparent colored material that alters light’s color as it passes through. “CTO” is an orange gel, and the initials stand for “change to orange” or “color temperature orange.” When you know that tungsten light is very warm and daylight is cool, you can see how putting an orange gel on your daylight balanced light can warm it up to match a warm tungsten light source.
If you can’t correct the lighting in-camera, you’ll have to do it in post. In Lightroom or Capture One, you can use the temperature and tint sliders to adjust to one light source or the other. For consistency’s sake, let’s stick with the daylight and tungsten example. If one source is clearly dominant and there are just traces of the other color, correct for the source that’s mainly illuminating the subject’s skin. Editing for skin tone is an excellent rule of thumb.
If the colors are very mixed, say, half of the subject’s face is half in tungsten light and half in daylight, you’ll have to split the difference. Use the temperature and tint sliders to find a middle ground. It’ll be a compromise - neither side will be quite right, but both will be better than if you’d only balanced for either tungsten or daylight. If all else fails, there’s always black and white.
Check the video to see Kirk’s editing examples using artificial light, and don’t forget to join our private Facebook community and show off your work!