The concept of hot and cold lighting is nothing new to the world of photography. We all know that tungsten light is a warmer light (think regular light bulbs) and fluorescents or flashes produce cooler lighting. While it makes sense, until I read an article by Peter Kolonia in Popular Photography, I have never thought of combining warm and cool light to produce different effects in a photograph. Since I’ve not tried this yet, I don’t have any sample pictures, but they should be viewable over at so stop over there to see samples in action.

Basically, the article says that by lighting your subject with one tone and the background with another, you can produce some really interesting results. For simplicity purposes, here is a chart of what combinations produce what types of results:

Subject Light

Background Light

White Balance


Tungsten lights (like a lamp)

Flash or cool window light


Electric Blue Background

Cool daylight or Flash

Tungsten lights (like a lamp)


Orange Glow

Tungsten (like a lamp)

Tungsten (like a lamp)


White (or grey1)

All light

No light



1For a high key (all white) effect on the background, throw more light on the background. The more light you direct to the background, the brighter the resulting background will be for your photos. Conversely, as background lights get dimmer, the background itself will be more of a gray.

Just a few reminders Peter gives us:

Use a large space so foreground light won’t spoil the background light

  • Experiment with exposure to get the right glow from the background (typically longer speeds thus necessitating a tripod)
  • Using an old-fashioned fluorescent light can result in the “grunge” look of cross-processed photos

8 thoughts on “Hot and Cold Lighting

  1. Wow, never seen that site before. Thanks for the link!

  2. Heh – just wait for me – I’ll be there in about 6-8 weeks!

  3. Also, didn’t see before I posted. Looks like Tim S. is from Colorado too! I’m from Highlands Ranch – my brother, another photographer, also lives in Fort Collins (a great city!).

    I’d be up for a photo walk this summer!

  4. Joe McNally has also done this quite a bit before. When taking an outdoor shot, you can set your camera’s white balance to tungsten (which gives the background a blue look). Then, throw a few CTO (orange) gels on the flash and point it at your subject for a nice warm feeling. It is definitely a nice combo.

  5. Strobist is definitely the site for lighting in photography. I still am only scratching the surface compared to what these guys do. Good idea on the gels there Tim, thanks for sharing that. (Your photowalking Colorado site is quite cool too – I like the shots from the car show!)

  6. The Strobist is definitely a fan of the warm/cool combo. To really make that background pop blue, you could use a blue gel on the background, and an orange gel on the subject light.

    A tip for those space challenged: if you have your main subject light spilling on the background, move it closer to the subject, even if that means it’s moving closer to the background. It doesn’t make any sense for those unfamiliar with the laws of light, but it works.

  7. It’s really interesting to see how you can pick a picture up with these sorts of combos. Read your David Hobby! Strobist has some great tips regarding this sort of stuff.

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