Welcome to the third and final installment of this series of Tips & Techniques. This week we will finish up our discussion on white balance, specifically with respect to customizing your settings for difficult lighting conditions and how to use the white balance controls built into your camera as creative tools – as achieving the ‘proper’ white balance is both technical and aesthetic. Let me explain what I mean by this.
A scene will always have what is called a technically correct white balance value. This means that the color white is actually rendered as the color white in your scene. However, this may not always be the most aesthetically pleasing color rendition for your photograph. This is one of the areas where the science and art of photography begin to overlap – technically perfect, aesthetically uninteresting. See the examples below.
This image is ‘scientifically accurate’ with respect to white balance, but may not evoke any type of emotional response.
This image, although not technically accurate gives us another interpretation for this image. When looking at this image and telling someone the story of preparing breakfast on Christmas morning after the evening’s snowfall, it helps the viewer enter the situation.
Once again, this image although technically inaccurate provides a framework for feeling energized upon the first morning of Spring at the farmhouse and getting ready to go out after breakfast and prepare the fields for another year.
So what is this image really then? In fact, its just a photo on no particular morning as the sun was rising, but by altering color, I could make you believe just about anything.
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It is important to be able to work both ways, which is what Part III of this series is about. What I will discuss first is establishing a technically accurate white balance reading and then using white balance creatively to enhance mood or interest in your subject. In order to guarantee an accurate white balance reading, you must be able to tell the camera what the color white looks like in your lighting situation. To do this, you will need either a white cloth, white piece of paper, or to be 100% accurate, an X-rite/Gretag MacBeth White Reference Card. Here are the steps: Set your camera for the Preset or Custom White Balance mode. As each camera unit is different, please consult your user manual to find the appropriate menu. Next, set your lens to manual focus, as the camera will NOT be able to auto-focus on something completely white. [Once you finish this process, you may change your lens back to auto-focus if you wish.] Lay or prop the white target so that it is in the lighting situation you will be shooting in. Fill the viewfinder frame with the white area of the target and snap the shutter. Following this, depending on the way your camera takes the reading, you may have to perform one more step in camera. Once this is done, leave the White Balance setting at Preset or Custom. You have now told your camera what is scientifically white within your shooting situation. Remember, however, if you change lighting situations, be sure to set your white balance back to AUTO (or the necessary mode), or you may take another white target in your new lighting situation. See image below for demonstration.
But let’s say now that after you did all of the technical readings and white target calibration the image looks too neutral, it lacks a certain warmth or coolness which cancels out the type of mood you were looking for. You can use the camera’s built-in white balance presets as creative tools for working with the scene during the image capture process. If you want to mimic the effect of late afternoon orange-glow sun, you can try adjusting your white balance to Cloudy or Shade. This will add orange to the scene, acting like a warming filter. The reverse is true as well. You can use the Incandescent setting to make the scene cooler-feeling, as it will add blue to the image. Keep in mind, however that these in-camera white balance adjustments are quite dramatic, but are interesting to experiment with. Many of the newest (2nd Gen) cameras have the ability to dial in an exact Kelvin temperature, which will give you even more flexibility when attempting to use white balance as a creative tool. See below for some more examples of this effect.
This image was purposely shot at a lower color temperature to evoke a crisp, cool mood for the client.
This image was taken during midday, however by adjusting the Kelvin temperature in the camera, I was able to make the scene appear as if late-afternoon sunshine was filtering through the stained-glass windows.
Lastly, I would like to make a (an obvious) segue into the next series of Tips & Techniques. With respect to White Balance (among other things), if you are shooting JPEG images with your camera, it is imperative that you shoot with the correct white balance setting for the situation at hand. It is both aggravating and a waste of time to attempt to correct for white balance on JPEG images through software after the fact. However, when shooting RAW files with your camera, it is possible to make fine (or gross) adjustments to white balance parameters on a per image basis during the RAW conversion process easily and without any compromise to image quality. Next week we begin RAW.