Color Temperature is broken, and here is the fix

On location, color temperature is an issue that needs to be dealt with in a better way.

Photo by Stine Schjodt Osmo

I believe a tool for location lighting needs to have adjustable color temperature. Not only that, it should be able to adjust its color temperature automatically (or manually). It should be able to match the color temperature of any ambient light, be it a candle light dinner, inside an industrial building, a skate park at night, on stage at a ventriloquist convention, in a church, in an office. This is a core feature of the next generation of photographic lights as far as I’m concerned.


Many photographers stick to only shooting existing light because this simplifies life. It is safe. Using additional light would often give better results, but it is also one more thing to master, one more thing that can go wrong.

Your ability to achieve consistent good results depends on how many external factors you can control. One strategy is to avoid the problems by minimising the unknowns; choose lighting conditions that are uncomplicated and safe. You do the same thing every time, drag the subject outside on the north side of the building, or over by the window, or into a corner; and you take the same picture over and over.

A different strategy is to master the lighting conditions. That gives you creative freedom. You need knowledge, and you need the right tools. I think the current generation of lights for location shooting are way too limited. Better tools are needed.

Lights are simple

Let’s face it. Speedlights, small portable lights for stills photography, are basically minor variations over the same xenon strobe theme. The expensive ones are reliable and built to last. The inexpensive ones are flimsy and unreliable, but when they work, they do exactly the same job as their big brothers. The light they put out is pretty much identical.

Video lights comes in more forms and shapes, but they are also a lot simpler. While speedlights have electronics that give them some intelligence, like TTL metering, most portable video lights are simply an overpriced light bulb with an on-off switch.

Overpowering the sun

When photogs discuss purchasing lights the main questions are typically “How much power” and “Can I use my existing batteries”.

I get the battery issue, but do you really need a lot of light? I’m not sure this is asking the right question. Sure, some situations require you bring out Big Lights, but most do not:
– Camera sensors are much less noisy that they used to be and you can shoot at higher ISO without any problems.
– Is you lighting strategy the old-school way? Block out all existing light and build it all up from black? Or do you work in concert with the existing light, using ambient as one of your light sources?

Lumens are not enough, you need Kelvins as well

Instead of asking about power, maybe the question should be “How well will this light help me master the lighting conditions I encounter?”

In daylight, your 5600 K ‘daylight balanced’ lights will serve you fine. In all other settings, the ambient light will most certainly be anything but the color temperature of the lights in your bag. You may already enjoy that “dance between ambient and speedlights“, but you probably don’t enjoy the hassle of compensating for mismatched color temperature.

Which brings me to my point. Why can’t the color temperature of your lights be adjusted? Yes, I know the technical reason why xenon, halogen, fluorescent etc. have a fixed color temperature. But photographic lights should be able to emit light of any color temperature. With sensors so they can act intelligently according to their environment. That is what we are going to build!

Sorry about the odd title, but I’ve been reading up on SEO lately 🙂

3 Responses to “Color Temperature is broken, and here is the fix”

  1. At the same time color rendition is something to be considered. Even at matched color temperatures metamerism can give you more or less subtle deviations. Basically tristimulus works for the receptors in our eyes, but not all pigments play by those rules for color mixing.

    • That is true. For light that enters the eye, or the camera sensor, basic tristimulus is rock solid. But when light is reflected, shifts can happen and you may see differences between a boadband light and a RGB light source. I’m not sure what kind of surface would show a visible difference however subtle?
      In theory, a material that can shift the wavelengths, like a phoshor, should be able to show this effect.

  2. Brilliant. As a professional photographer, I understand the importance of mastering your equipment and being able to control lighting situations. Especially in ambient lit scenarios with challenging color temperatures. This technology is exciting and thought provoking. Glad to be along for the ride!

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