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Photography Mysteries: Cycling Lights

Did you know that the power in your home, office, and high school gym turns on and off dozens of times every second? This causes some problems when you want to use available lighting to make pictures, especially in that high school gym. Let me show you three instances where there’s a problem with flicker, and the best way I’ve found to beat it.

High School Sports

Really big stadiums, like those used for the NBA, have really expensive lighting that helps make sure pictures and video look really good. Most high schools don’t have this set up. They have those big vapor lights, and you’ll find that white balance under these lights is a nightmare because as the power cycles, so does the color of the lights. One image may look great, the next will be noticeably pink, and another will be markedly green, even though you haven’t changed the white balance. What’s worse, different areas of the field or court may be different colors in the same image. As the lights cycle, they go pink, white, green, pink, white, green.

Notice the pinkish cast to the white uniforms? Compare it with the next image. Sony A7r, Zeiss 135mm f/1.8 lens, f/4, 1/400s, ISO 12800.
This one, under the same lights, is markedly green on the front of the helmet, and pink at the bottom; two different lights shining in two different colors. Fortunately, white uniforms make it easy to correct the white balance in Lightroom. Sony A7r, Zeiss 135mm f/1.8 lens, f/4, 1/400s, ISO 12800.

When you’re shooting high school sports, just relax and keep shooting: it’s not your fault the pictures have poor color. This is what postproduction can solve.

LED Lights

Some LED lights may also give you grief. Big bright arrays of LEDs are not powered on all at once all the time. They scan, which means they alternate on and off across the array. In my pictures, that means there are visible lines of light and dark across the image. The other day I was shooting in a theater with LED spotlights and ended up with a striated photograph.

See the banding in the screen behind the man’s head? This is the scanning of the LED lights. Panasonic GH4, Leica 42.5mm f/1.2 lens, f/1.2, 1/320s, ISO 800.
With the slower shutter speed, the banding is gone from the scanning LED lights. Panasonic GH4, Leica 42.5mm f/1.2 lens, f/1.2, 1/50s, ISO 400.

Electronic Shutter

One of the coolest features that is unique to mirrorless cameras is the ability to shoot photogrphs absolutely silently. They do this by leaving the shutter open and recording the picture by scanning across the sensor (much like the LED lights above). This is terrific in constant daylight, but it accentuates the scanning problem and the alternating power problems discussed above because the sensor is also scanning quickly as it records the image. I’ve had problems under fluorescent lights and LED lights when using the electronic shutter.


My Solution

Obviously, turning off the electronic shutter will help alleviate the issue, but the best solution to get consistent color and no scan lines is to use a slower shutter speed. If your shutter speed is slower than the cycling of the lights, then the light will appear consistent and smooth in your images. With a shutter speed of 1/50 of a second or less, I can almost guarantee you’ll won’t have these problems.

My Advice

Of course, if you’re shooting sports at those slow speeds, you also won’t have sharp pictures! If you really want to have good color, my advice is to photograph a white/grey card under these lights at the shutter speed you’ll be using, and I’d photograph it in bursts mode so that you have several pictures at all the various light colors you’ll likely run into. Then, I’d sort my images by color problem and use those white cards to apply the right white balance adjustments to the whole batch. That’s what you could do to beat the cycling color. Personally, since I don’t sell my sports images, I just do the best I can and enjoy th game through my lens. Don’t let shifting colors ruin the fun for you. If worse comes to worst…there’s always black and white ;)

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