Do you have any best practices in general for shooting in low-level monochromatic light?

This is easily my least favorite lighting condition. Say you're at a Halloween party, and everybody is hanging out outside, and the only light sources are red, or blue, or whatever. I feel like my images never look good in any sort of color taken in these conditions, and even if I process them as black and white, they often come out very flat and just...weird.

Currently I crank up my ISO to whatever the minimum is that still lets me get the shutter speed I want (say 3200 or so, I like grain so the added noise doesn't matter too much to me), usually shoot with a wide-open aperture, and then often process B&W because I don't care much for the single-color look. I don't usually shoot with a flash, but am open to it.

Typically shooting with my Olympus OM-D EM-10II (fairly poor dynamic range at higher ISOs I think, could be part of the problem) or a first-gen Sony Alpha-7.

I will update this evening with some unprocessed example images if there is interest.

  • 1
    How much of the problem is monochromaticity, and how much just plain low light levels? For low light, adding flash makes a huge difference (use a diffusor or bounce).
    – xiota
    Dec 18, 2018 at 17:29
  • @xiota I don't notice the issue as much in more balanced low-light, my guess is because more of the sensor is getting activated? That may be incorrect, but I get the impression that the images look worse in monochromatic low light than balanced.
    – Engineero
    Dec 18, 2018 at 18:18
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    This problem is very similar to shooting concerts under saturated LED lights. Take a look at Blown out blue/red light making photos look out of focus, and Best ways of photographing at a concert/festival
    – scottbb
    Dec 18, 2018 at 23:29
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    Some things just plain do not look sharp or bright under truly monochromatic light - take your next photo walk on a sodium or LED lit street and observe. Ironically, truly monochromatic light allows many lenses to render at their very sharpest WHEN in perfect focus - any kind of CA can be perfectly compensated out by focus! Dec 19, 2018 at 12:38

3 Answers 3


As you've already identified, the problem is likely associated with low light levels.

  • Monochromatic light exacerbates the issue because only 1/4 of the sensels are used for pure red or blue light, and 1/2 of the sensels for pure green light.

  • Consider adding on-camera flash with a diffuser or bounce. Though many recommend against it, it is warranted in this case because it makes the difference between getting a viable shot or not.

  • When post processing to black and white, evaluate each of the channels to select the best ones. For instance, if shooting in pure red light, the red channel will likely be the best. It would make no sense to mix in any of the blue or green.

  • Pushing ISO does not only increase grain. It also reduces dynamic range and color fidelity. If you like the look of grain, add it in post (or enable grain enhancement if available on your camera).


Off camera flash is your best bet for getting a really nice final result because you can "turn off" the existing, ugly light and add your own, making it look however you want. Moving your flash away from the camera adds much more depth, detail and visual interest than keeping it on the hotshoe. Yes it's slower and more involved than shooting with available light, but it gives you the power to walk into any situation and create beautiful images. http://strobist.blogspot.com/ is an amazing resource for learning off camera flash. It completely changed the way I make photographs. Start with the Lighting 101 section.


Even if there doesn't seem to be enough light in enough of a varied spectrum to get decent color, I often try to take a calibration shot to use as a 'Custom White Balance' frame. If you don't have a calibrated target, something like a styrofoam cup (or even the blank pages at the end of your flash's manual - which once upon a time were supposed to be neutral white) can get you surprisingly close.

Most of my experience in this area has been with Canon cameras, but I find that using a white target as a 'CWB' frame will allow a wider latitude of correction than most raw processing software with the adjustments made all of the way to the extremes if you try to use the "white clicker" later. With Canon, the camera has to be set to 'CWB' at the time an image is captured to apply the CWB generated by a different frame used to shoot the target object.

Here's a frame that was taken under high pressure sodium vapor lights on a city sidewalk at night. White balance was set using a 'CWB' shot of a styrofoam cup. The image was saved as a raw file and color was fine-tuned with Canon's Digital Photo Professional 4 (which preserved the in-camera CWB). DDP4's Hue-Saturation-Luminance tool was used to further fine-tune the color.

enter image description here
Canon EOS 5D Mark III + EF 50mm f/1.4, ISO 5000, f/2.2, 1/100

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