A Tale of Horrible White Balance and Lighting Challenges


This is a horror story.  Complete with monsters, gremlins and misinformation.  Be warned, it's quite scary.

I was recently hired to help a very nice team who operate a fashion store to help them to get setup to be able to shoot fashion images for their online store, so they could achieve some key goals.

  • Be able to shoot quickly and consistently themselves without having to hire out for every shoot
  • Learn to use the camera and lighting that they spent thousands of dollars on
  • Get consistent JPEGs right out of camera, ready for uploading to the web store, without ANY post processing or editing
  • Have the garments, skin tones, hair colour and such look colour accurate even as fabrics and models change

The client had gone to a very good local camera store and dealt with a person that I know to be a consummate professional photographer.  I know that there was a budget limit and I suspect that there may have been some misunderstanding of the requirements, and as a result, the purchased equipment was not optimal in practice for live model shoots, but well considered for statics on hangers or against a plain background a la Amazon.  Lack of understanding is the first monster that we meet.

The store owner is very accomplished in the role and knows precisely how to inform and educate buyers.  All shooting would take place in the retail store, either against a plain background, or preferably using a nicely stylized grey brick wall.  When I was contacted, the images from the new camera, a Canon T7i with 18-55 kit lens were nowhere near as colour correct as those from an iPhone and the owner was understandably frustrated. 

Upon arrival I saw very high power tungsten lights, which were contributing an orange cast.  The purchased lights, a set of three Godox LEDP-260C panels were on lightweight stands.  On that subject, the stands were wobbly at half their stated extension holding only a single panel at 917 grams.  I wish that sellers would quit house branding junk, it gives the whole industry a bad name.  Why must these stands be marketed as stable when they aren't?  FYI they were Cameron LS-8AC stands, that sell for $70 each.  RUN AWAY.  The Godox LED panels were severely underpowered for the job at hand and getting a proper exposure with them at low ISOs was allowing for far too much influence from the tungsten spots.

How can I put this nicely?  Those Godox panels looked nice, and were easy to use.  They are also so low powered as to be near useless in a mixed lighting situation.  Dialed in at 5500K they had a yellow cast.  At 5200K they were even more yellow.  Even with an incident meter reading and a custom white balance in the camera, they still were way too warm.  Cheap lights do not make a good investment, so if you are looking at these, they may be ok for small subjects with a single panel in really tight but they suck and blow for human subjects.  The client should have been sold flashes and soft boxes, because even at ISO 800, the highest shutter speed we could get at f/5.6 which is the maximum opening of the Canon lens, was 1/50, hardly ideal for human subjects who move.  Godox LEDp-260C - FAIL, BAD, RUN AWAY.

We turned the tungsten spots off, and the owner determined immediately that the wall now had a dungeonesque feel.  I agreed.  She wanted the sense of ambience created by the larger wash from the existing tungstens, but wanted the colours of face and garments to be accurate and without the shadows cast by the overheads.  It was not possible to match the Godox's to the ambient, as even using a colour meter, I found both had fluctuations that were too great, and the Canon T7i does not support a specific Kelvin colour temperature anyway.

We did try using the roll paper background kit that was sold to the client.  The "white" paper was really a cream colour, and the client hated the look of the shots taken against it.  I have to agree, they looked flat and dowdy.  The client would have needed a LOT more lighting power to make that background work, as well as a lot more space to get the model off the background.  The kit was by Savage, and while inexpensive, it was consistent in quality with other Savage products that I have been exposed to, meaning very casual use only, definitely not for regular use.  My opinion, if someone is recommending a Savage background, look elsewhere.  Crappity crap crap crap.

The T7i was used to create a custom white balance. following Canon's instructions.  Once implemented things got marginally better.  I say marginally, because my confidence that the camera's ability to create an accurate custom white balance is about the same as my confidence that I could hit an average target with a lawn dart from fifty feet away.  It did a lousy job.

The client required finished JPEGs right out of camera, and their online store software could not use any file larger than 20 megapixels (which is pretty stupid given that it's 2018 as I write this), so we were forced to go to Medium JPEG Fine.  We managed, but that kind of size limit is kookoo for cocoa puffs.  I expected more from Shopify.

Even with the custom white balance, the OOC JPEGs were still yellowish-orange.  Part of this was caused by the slow shutter speeds required by the low power Godox lights to make an exposure and the resulting colour contribution from the tungsten lights.  Canon affords a white balance adjustment option on top of the white balance setting and I had to dial in the maximum blue shift of nine units to bring the grey brick wall to look right.  Had Canon's custom white balance function actually worked properly it would have been right without further modification.  Getting this done also fixed the primary model's hair as blond, instead of orange.  The T7i is not an entry level product.  I found its white balance controls to be rudimentary at best, and with no ability to set a specific Kelvin rating, rather limiting considering its cost.  Underwhelmed.

Budget not withstanding, the client would have been better served with a faster lens as well.  A fixed f/2.8 would have allowed for more light transmission and better depth of field control.  Shooting live people under alleged 30W LED panels with a lens that has a variable aperture from f/3.5-5.6 and that hits f/5.6 shortly after 24mm is a poor solution.  

No one buying a camera and lights for such a simple thing should have to go through this kind of trouble.  And I know very few folks, even in large studios who even have a colour meter these days.  I don't blame the seller at all.  With no awareness of the client environment, this person could not have known of the local challenges.  I also found the output ratings on those panels to be "optimistic".  I could use another word or phrase such as Toro-Poopoo which would be more accurate.  2200 lumens at 0.5 meter, NOT.  That said, I am very surprised at the recommendation of the Godox panels and the kit lens.  I am sure that I am missing some key information.

CRI ratings on LED panels are self assigned by manufacturers.  This makes these ratings, in my opinion, nearly worthless as I find lots of $100 lights rated at 98% CRI but find studio grade pro LED panels that cost $4000 rated at 91% CRI.  I do not have to wonder which one is telling the truth.  And neither, gentle reader, do you.

Had the client bought six panels instead of three, as well as a boom stand to get the background light centred some of these issues could have been addressed, but so could three speed lights, a couple of strip boxes, a radio trigger and a background light shaper.  The client would get much more light control, with better spread, tons more power, higher shutter speeds, well you get the point.  Wrong lights for the job.

I understand that the seller was advised that the client would also want to do video in the future, so the choice of continuous lights makes sense, but I also find that education for sellers on what output numbers mean on LED panels is completely absent.  An LED panel always looks bright when you look at it, but they really aren't all that bright at common working distances unless you get yourself a serious unit like a KinoFlo or Arri.  You can certainly get by with less output, but be aware that power comes with price.  You usually are getting a lot less power than you think that you are.  Video and still requirements are different, and it irks me to no end that so often a single solution is recommended as ideal for both problems.

The client is sorted, for the moment.  Are they happy?  I would say not.  They feel that they bought the wrong products and have lost confidence in the selling store.  They were within a few minutes of doing their shoot with an iPhone, knowing that the quality would be worse, but seeing that getting decent looking images was a heck of a lot easier than with the thousands of dollars of gear.