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Addressing Color Casts from Warm Tone LED Bulbs

Published: 12/08/2019

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Andrew, from Northampton, MA, writes:

“I have an issue that may be of interest to some of your readers. I find that LED warm tone bulbs are increasingly prevalent in houses. In my RAW files, they often give a persistent and unpleasant orange cast to a room. But unlike incandescent bulbs, the cast is very hard to correct in post. Is that because they are missing parts of the spectrum? I know that bringing in flashes and lights can cure most of these problems, but are there some clever methods of dealing with warm LEDs that don't involve bringing in external light?”

It’s a very interesting question, Andrew. Yes, as LED lighting is becoming increasingly and quickly adopted in North America to replace less efficient incandescent bulbs, the fact remains that like any other light source, they will cause a color cast in our photos. So, let me begin by saying that I’m not a color theory expert so I can’t answer your question about what is or isn’t in the color spectrum from a warm LED light bulb. It’s my guess though, that light is light and that fixing a cast from such a bulb ought to be correctable with the proper use of flash and color conversion gels. Given the heavy volume of shooting that I do every day, I just don’t have the time to use gels. So, I’m hoping that folks in our community who use gels frequently to navigate color temperature differences can give a thoughtful answer to this question.

In terms of your second question, Andrew, I can tell you that prior to outsourcing my editing, one of the things I used to do to handle pesky color casts, was to use the "select color range" tool. It allowed me to simply select the color I wanted to reduce/eliminate. Once selected, I'd open a Hue/Saturation layer and desaturate only that selected color. To find this tool, go to 'Select > Color Range' in Photoshop's main navigation menu; or better yet, here is a brief video from the great Aaron Nace at on how to use this particular method.

So, have you noticed this same concern in your work when shooting rooms that have “warm” LED bulbs?

Brandon Cooper

8 comments on “Addressing Color Casts from Warm Tone LED Bulbs”

  1. From my previous experience shooting weddings, I believe you hit the nail on the head when it comes to spectrum. When I began shooting weddings, LEDs hadn't completely taken over the DJs toolkit and many of them still had gelled par cans (with incandescent bulbs). The spectrum of those tends to be a smooth curve (whether you are gelling blue or pink or orange or whatever.) Then along came the LEDs. All the DJ lights were RGB and the colors were made by varying the intensity of those very specific wavelengths. Instead of smooth dropoff, you end up with a peak around one (or two or three) wavelengths and very sharp dropoff.
    I think LED bulbs used in homes work much the same way (though I have seen some expensive "full-spectrum" bulbs that have higher CRI and approximate white better than most of the bulbs found at the store. For the soft white, they are mixing a little yellow and a little red/rose color to get the approximation of incandescent light. What sucks, even more, is that each manufacturer has different formulas and techniques for creating the look and warmth of incandescent light, so as owners buy whatever bulb is on sale, their bathroom fixture may end up with several different colors of "soft white" in one fixture.
    That being said, I recently began gelling flash for all my rooms that have "incandescent" bulbs because I have found it much easier to correct the daylight coming in from any windows than it is to correct the unnatural yellow cast coming from these LEDs

  2. When I have too much incandescent pollution I take a flash frame with the lights off, ambient with the lights off, and flash with the lights on. That way I can mask in just the lit light fixture without also dealing with the casts. It sounds cumbersome, but I really only do it every so often. Usually I can get away with just desaturating the ceiling.

  3. LED lamps used in homes are generally pretty low quality. A LED with a high Color Rendering Index (CRI) is expensive in comparison which is why highly rated video/film lighting is so expensive. Our eyes are much more forgiving when it comes to light sources with a choppy spectrum but cameras are not.

    Another problem I deal with all of the time is that lamps aren't all replaced at the same time so I am dealing with tungsten, CFL and LED all in the same frame as well as sunlight. Even tungsten lamps aren't all the same color. The "long life" 130v tungsten bulbs are often much warmer.

    I don't believe that you are going to find any technique in post production that's going to conquer competing color temps that doesn't involve a huge amount of work.

    My approach is to make photos with the lights off and make one frame with the lights on that I can layer into the composition in post production with a luminosity layer if I need to show the scene with the lights on. Sometimes I make a flash layer to control the color. Other times an ambient frame will be the color layer. I never rely on the installed lighting. I've made that mistake before. I'd rather have everything done in camera which is far easier using ambient and flash. I'm mostly a lights off shooter unless the fixture is fancy and needs to be lit to show it off. If it's just bog standard can lights or common fixtures, the lights stay off.

  4. Sometimes I'm amazed by the extraordinary lengths people (with all due and an extra layer of respect, not dissing anyone here) go through to get the perfect lighting in the room that is not there to begin with. there is some lighting that has come out that is so bad that in the EVF you can see waves of lighting shift before your eyes when the frequency of different power phases in the home begin to clash. Thought I was on LSD but I don't do drugs.

    As for my experience many times, not sometimes, I just scream. Then I just say "I'm not being paid to correct on site conditions that are there but not my fault." I move on. There was once a home that had such a bad blue green cast in all the rooms, due to cheap LED bulbs everywhere, it looked like one of those homes from a horror movie! I just made it a bit orange and moved on better than green.

    I tell my clients:
    If there is a missing bulb in the home it will be missing in the image I deliver. (I use to painstakingly clone and balance a lit bulb missing in bathrooms)

    I write about and inform my clients the importance of balanced lighting in luxury homes and suggest they inform the client to throw out every one of those "curly que" bulbs and replace all bulbs with the same color cast bulbs. I show them how to determine the right kind of bulb. This has almost nothing to do with the camera, you can see the different cast bulbs right in front of your face.

    I tell them "I'll try to fix it but just like if there's a chicken bone in the corner then I take a great photo of a chicken bone in the corner..."

    My solution to this whole mess is just "move them sliders till it looks pretty and is not garish" then move on.

    ...and no I'm not being unprofessional it's just that those extraordinary efforts would require me to triple my time and my pricing and no I'm not cheap to begin with I just can't justify $4-600 charge for a $200k home and 25 images. This is not Architectural Photography. We don't have total control of the set and all day for 3 images.

    I am with Ken though, if there is enough light I turn the offending fixture off but unlike him I just shoot and move on. Now go ahead guys diss me for "not being professional" there are just times you may win the battle but lose the war because you used up all your efforts in that one battle. I'll live to fight again the next day by avoiding that battle.

  5. With all the focus on Photoshop, let's not overlook the quick and effective solutions in Lightroom. In 10 seconds i can paint out a cast from an adjoining room that is heavily orange. Adobe has done a nice job of improving their area selection tools, coupled with adjustment sliders, you can fix and move on. The same can be done with a soft brush anywhere in the space to correct florescents or other casts. Even a dark bulb can quickly be brightened, a major improvement and in many cases saves the image You can also select a color and use sliders to enhance or desaturate right in Lightroom. In addition to color correction benefits, can save the need for sky replace. Lightroom may be underrated in this forum. We still need Photoshop for the heavy lifting, but Lightroom handles 90 pct of my workflow.

  6. This is where the use of flash is indispensable. I've worked at this for decades, trying to find the right ratio or balance between what exists in the room, and how much flash to add to overcome what is there, and to what degree. The flash can either totally overcome the room, or compliment it. The real goal is to clean up the spectrum by introducing a clean source (flash). Since daylight is in the 5000K range, and flash is also in the 5000K range, it's a no-brainer to use those two things in tandem. But i dont turn lights off and on. Takes too much time. Flash can complete erase what is present in ambient sources, or allow some of it to show - it's just a matter of finding the right camera settings to control it. A higher shutter speed will remove the ambient, and a slower speed will allow some ambient back in. But to have a clean final image, you have to at least have one frame where the inside color and the outside incoming color match. Steak vs meatloaf. You can make a lot of other meals with a steak, but there are fewer options wherein meatloaf can be used as an ingredient. 🙂

    I've typically used the shooting sequence that employs a flashed frame, and ambient frame, and a window-pull frame. It gives the most predictable result, and the one with the cleanest color rendition. The subjective addition of the ambient frame, which is color corrected and masked and painted-in to taste, puts some of the ambience of the room back into the image. It's also very time consuming, and I'm not sure any of the retouching services offer a solution for this sequence yet. They typically offer automated HDR, which contaminates the original intent of shooting that sequence. It's a muddy result.

    This week I've been experimenting with shooting in a new way for me, but the results are erratic. I've been using the camera on the A (aperture priority) mode, using bounced flash, and changing the +/-ev compensation dial to arrive at an in-camera mix. So far, the color is completely contaminated, and very hard to globally correct. The goal is to achieve clean color SOOC. Since quite a few people have made this a trend for outdoor shooting, I thought I'd pursue it for RE images. However, the unnatural combinations of spectrums in a house might just make this an impossibility. It would probably require a camera capable of shooting with a custom LUT installed in it. I imagined that somebody like Kinefinity could create a still version of their box camera, that could be controlled and programed from a smart phone, making precise customization a possibility.

  7. In Lightroom, I use a couple of tricks to deal with mixed color casts for 3 shot Enfuse images.

    1. Chose a different white balance setting across the images. Normally in a dark warm bulb room with windows wb the normal and over images for the bulb and the under image for the outside. This helps a lot.

    2. Take the image into Color Efex and use the white neutralizer tab. This does a really good job of toning down/eliminating color casts and has a lot of control too.

    Both very quick and useful in the low cost, high volume market that many of us shoot in.

  8. The "spectrum" issue is a major part of the problem (on top of the issue of mixed lighting to begin with). LED lights do not evenly produce wavelengths within the visible light spectrum. Unlike traditional incandescents, there are various spikes and gaps when you look at a graph of their color output across the spectrum. So even if you white-balance your image for both blue/yellow and green/magenta, the lighting will reflect differently on certain colors within your scene. Add this to the fact that the color science in your camera favors certain colors more than others to be more "pleasing," and the way raw processor profiles emphasize certain colors, and you have the potential for a real mess.

    Some folks prefer to combat this with a flash frame, which is fine, but for twilight photos or dark home theaters it isn't necessarily practical, and there are some folks who don't use flash. As for just "painting it out," that would work to a degree, but depending on what colors are present in the scene, they may come out unevenly muted or oversaturated due to the way they reflect the light source.

    My recommendation is to take an X-Rite ColorChecker Classic or ColorChecker Passport to a home that is lit with these warm LED lights, take a properly exposed raw photo of it, and then create a DNG profile with it (Camera Raw calls it something different I think). This tells Lightroom/C1 how to account for the irregularities in the light source. There's a great video (I think on YouTube) where a photographer uses one of those old mercury vapor street lamps as his primary light source for a nighttime photo. The lighting looks terrible even when color-balanced, but when he creates a profile from that light source, it looks about as good as it could possibly get. If you want to get fancy, create a "dual-illuminant" profile by adding a ColorChecker frame taken in daylight. That will help Lightroom (or C1) infer what should happen in situations of mixed lighting between warm LED and daylight. Not perfect, but it will get you far more into the ballpark than a standard camera profile. And within reason, you should easily be able to use that profile on future shoots where warm LEDs are a primary light source.

    Keep in mind this would work best when the LED lights are the primary light source in the scene. Those who use flash would have less need for the custom profile in most situations, but it never hurts to have the option available for the times it's needed.

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