Photography under florescent

Florescent lights are everywhere – they come in all shapes and sizes, they are inexpensive and they are energy efficient – they are also one of the worst light sources for photography (the bulbs used in street lamps and some industrial warehouses are much worse – but you rarely find those while photographing while florescent bulbs are everywhere).

There are two problems with florescent lights – flicker and color.

Flicker is the worst of the two, florescent lights flicker, they constantly cycle between different intensities and color, each cycle takes 1/50 or 1/60 of a second, depending on where in the world you are.

When your picture captures just part of a cycle you can get a strange color cast, incorrect exposure and even colored bends in you photo.

To demonstrate I’ve the camera to continues shooting mode and a shutter speed of 1/4000 of a second and pointed it at the round florescent bulb that is right above me, I’ve left the shutter button pressed for about 5 seconds and got a lot of pictures of the same light bulb, I’ve combined them for your viewing pleasure (click image to view larger version):

You can clearly see the color of the light changes between pictures and if you look closely you can also see the amount of light the bulb emits changes drastically between shots.

So what can we do? make sure we capture complete flicker cycles, here the electricity frequency is 50Hz (in the US it’s 60Hz, in most of Europe it’s 50Hz) so I’ve set the shutter speed to 1/50 of a second so I capture one complete cycle and re-run the experiment:

Those 16 identical images are different pictures – it’s just that the total amount and color of light of a complete cycle is completely consistent.

And if a shutter speed of 1/50 or 1/60 does not give you correct exposure you can select a longer shutter speed that covers complete cycles – in the US this will be 1/60 for one cycle, 1/30 for two, 1/15 for four, etc. and in Europe it will be 1/50 for one, 1/25 for two, 1/13 for four and so on.

If you remember in the beginning I’ve said the second problem of fluorescent lights is color – so I took just one more picture of that same light bulb, but this time with I’ve set the white balance to daylight:

If you look at the white ceiling around the light bulb you will see it’s green! you can fix this by setting your white balance to fluorescent – but if you have both fluorescent light and daylight or indecent light in the same picture this will cause a strange color cast that’s hard to fix.

If you mix indecent and daylight you can get the indecent to be white and the daylight to be cold blue or the daylight to be white and the indecent to be worm yellow – both will produce acceptable images but if you throw florescent into the mix you get a green cast – and unless you want people’s skin to look sickly green (or you are photographing zombies) you really don’t want a green color cast.

Also, unlike daylight and indecent light (and light emitted by fire) there are some wavelengths of light that are completely missing from fluorescent lights, this will cause some colors to look completely different under daylight or fluorescent lights – and this can’t be fixed by setting the white balance.

Luckily, the color issue with today’s fluorescent lights is not nearly as bad as it used to be and we can expect (or at least hope) this will continue to get better.

That’s it for today, hope this helps you the next time you take photos in a fluorescent-lit room, see you next week.

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9 thoughts on “Photography under florescent

  1. Thank you thank you thank you! I have been trying to figure out how to remove the aghasty green banding on some of my photos for aaaages! I knew it was something to do with the light’s frequency but I didn’t know how to get rid of it. Changing my speed to 1/50 had fixed it!

    Thanks again for a great post! :-)

  2. Awesome post. Very useful.
    It happened for the first time (ever (in 5+ years)) today and i totally freaked out thinking my 5d MKIII was trashed!!

  3. I just bought a canon 6D and i had problems with it shooting under a fluorescent light. It was the first time that has happened in 5 years of digital. My question is why it never happened before with my older camera and other cameras from people i know. I made a test using my 6D and a 450D with the same settings and it only happened on the 6D. Since i only found reports from people who own 6D and 5D MKIII, i´m wonder if it as something to do with the new Digic 5 processor from the latest models.

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  5. Thanks for the info, I am sure it will be very helpful. Have you any tips on Photographing LED lights in factory settings, I want to get rid of the flsare when photographing lamps in situ.

  6. Great article!! But how do you suggest shooting a wedding under fleuro’s in a church when hand holding the camera? Even with a 35mm lens, 1/50 shutter is really pushing the limits and risk blurring the shots. My 85mm lens I like to use around 1/160 shutter minimum! 1/50 would be impossible! Your help/tips are most appreciated!!

  7. Adrian – I don’t really have a good solution, a flash would have solved the problem but I understand you might not be allowed to used one in the church.

    Another option is “spray and pray” use continuous shooting to take as many “identical” pictures as possible, each will have different lighting and there’s a good chance you’ll get a good one – or at least one you can fix in post

  8. so, what if i need a fast shutter speed to capture movement e.g 1/800 or more? What can I do to stop the flickering

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