Digital photographs shot in JPEG format must be “balanced” in the same way that film is in order to have the best possible color rendition. The problem is that JPEGs throw away information that is deemed to be unimportant. If a JPEG is shot out of balance, the other colors that were present in the original scene have been discarded and can’t fully be recovered or recreated. When you shoot JPEGs and select a balance on your camera, you are telling the software in the camera what is important and what can be discarded. If you get it wrong, there is little you can do to fix it later. But there are ways to correct the balance before taking a single shot. Here’s how.
Your camera does have an auto white balance (AWB) setting, and chances are it will do an amazing job of approximating, or averaging, the correct balance for almost any situation you encounter. For 90 percent of your photography, you should leave your camera set to AWB. It’s tough to beat the AWB setting because it requires so much vigilance. You have to constantly keep track of the light source every time you shoot. Many a pro has had a terrifying moment when they realized they forgot to change the white balance when they moved from inside to outside—and chances are, you will forget as well.
The problem with AWB is that it also corrects things you might not want corrected (like a deep red sunset). It will still look good but probably not as rich as if you had set the camera to “Daylight.” It also might not correct some things enough.
Your camera has a menu of “stock” settings that approximate the common color balance situations:
When it is really important to get the color as accurate as possible, you might need to create a custom white balance. Times that this is particularly problematic are when you are shooting under fluorescent or mercury vapor lights (very common in gymnasiums and sports arenas).
Fluorescent lights can vary wildly in their color spectrum according to brand and age. Mercury vapor lights are just plain awful; they look like giant light bulbs but are very green, and their exact spectrum can change according to how long they have been on. Sodium vapor lights (very common for modern street lamps) are even worse. Sometimes they are so yellow/red that they can’t be fully corrected.
The exact procedure for creating a custom white balance varies slightly from camera to camera, but all of them involve photographing a white object that is illuminated by the light conditions you will be shooting under. Here’s how:
This all sounds more complicated than it is once you have done it, and it makes shooting under difficult conditions so easy that I wonder how I ever got along without it.
While it’s true that you can choose or create a custom white balance for any situation, this doesn’t really solve all of the problems of photographing in color. For instance, take a look at this series of pictures:
Whenever you have a few different light sources in a scene, you have to choose which source is the most important and correct for that particular source. This can sometimes get really complicated and require special lighting equipment.
There is another way to get around the balance problem: training your eyes to see the world the way the camera/film sees the world. Is it really so terrible that the interior lights of the house are so yellow? Not necessarily; it actually enhances the photo.
If you can learn to see the way the camera sees, then you can use the disparity of color in various light sources to your advantage. This makes the mismatch of different sources a tool instead of a problem. Even the green cast of fluorescent light can be used to your advantage once you know how to use it. (For a great use of the green fluorescent color cast, watch the Clint Eastwood film Million Dollar Baby. The unique color signature of fluorescent light is used as a background accent throughout the film and reinforces the atmosphere of a boxing gym.)
Again, it’s tough to beat the AWB setting, but try shooting for at least a few days with the camera set to the “daylight” setting. (Don’t worry; you will turn AWB back on later.) This will approximate the effect of shooting color slides and help you learn to see color the way the camera sees it. Photos shot in the shade will go blue/cyan; photos shot indoors will go yellow/orange. Photos shot under fluorescent light will be green.
Even better, try to balance the settings of your camera to the light sources as you are shooting. The important thing is to become aware of the fact that different light sources will register color differently in your photographs.
An invaluable lesson in learning how to see color is to shoot the same subject at different times of day, different times of year, and with different films. Below the photographer shot the Chrysler Building every time he saw it, at every hour of the day. When he was through he had a collection that showed the building in early morning light, late afternoon light, the winter, the summer, sleet, and fog. He also shot at night to see how street lights and the fluorescent lights in office buildings looked, and with different films to learn the “palettes” and color ranges for all of the different films on the market.
This is a great experiment for any photographer. Pick your favorite structure or place, and start shooting!
Using these tips and techniques your digital photographs will have the perfect color balance and look stunning. Happy shooting!
From The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Photography Essentials by Mark Jenkinson