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Getting the Right Color Balance in Your Digital Photography

Getting the Right Color Balance in Your Digital Photography

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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.

Auto White Balance

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:

Creating a Custom White Balance

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:

  1. Take a photo of a blank piece of white paper (use an auto exposure setting to take the picture; you want the photo to be underexposed and rendered as “gray”).
  2. Select “Custom White Balance” in the main camera menu. The camera will ask you what photo you want to use as your ideal, so select the image you just shot and instruct the camera to use this image as your custom setting.
  3. The camera will color correct the image and use these settings to color correct all of the subsequent photographs you take while you are in “Custom White Balance” mode. Your stock white balance settings will not be affected.

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.

Learning to See in Color

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:

The interior is warm and yellow while the last remains of the sun reflected in the sky make the exterior deep blue.

Arriving at a friend’s for dinner at dusk, you might find that the house looks something like this. The interior is warm and yellow while the last remains of the sun reflected in the sky make the exterior deep blue.

Our eyes have begun to adjust to the color of the newly predominant light source.

By the time we reach the front door, our eyes have begun to adjust to the color of the newly predominant light source—and the scene might look like this.

The food and our hostess still look a little warm, but the dusky daylight outside the window is completely blue/cyan.

Once we’re inside, our eyes completely adjust to the color of the incandescent lights. The food and our hostess still look a little warm, but the dusky daylight outside the window is completely blue/cyan.

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.

Training Your Eyes

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.)

Turn Off Auto White Balance

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.

Assignment: Seeing Color

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.

The top of the Chrysler Building in New York City is being lit with the sun at sunset (about 4,000 K).

This photo shows a range of color temperatures in the same photo. The top of the Chrysler Building in New York City is being lit with the sun at sunset (about 4,000 K). The buildings in shade are bluer (about 8,000 K), and the common light bulbs of Grand Central Station are warm yellow (about 2,700 K).

The color of sodium vapor street lamps. Another (weird) yellow/green fluorescent light.

These two show the color of sodium vapor street lamps and another (weird) yellow/green fluorescent light.

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