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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Creative White Balance

Control the relative color tonalities in your photos to create a better sense of mood and atmosphere

This Article Features Photo Zoom
This image was taken in open shade on a sunny day, lit primarily by light reflecting from the blue sky above. The version to the left was taken using the Daylight preset (5500K) and shows a strong blue cast. The version to the right shows the image color-corrected using the Shade preset (7500K).
Olympic National Park, Washington State, Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 16-35mm ƒ/2.8L Mark II, polarizer, ISO 100, ƒ/13, 4 sec.
The RAW Advantage
When shooting RAW format, you can change the photo's white balance when you convert the RAW file on your computer in a virtually lossless fashion without degrading image quality (you don't have this same advantage if you shoot JPEGs). This can free you from wasting precious time optimizing white balance while in the field; rather, you can make your white balance decisions later when processing the image, giving you more flexibility to assess various white balance options. Decisive moments are fleeting, and the last thing you want to be doing is fiddling with your white balance before each and every shot. I keep my camera set on Automatic white balance mode; I've found that my camera gets it right much of the time, thereby streamlining both my shooting and RAW workflow. I almost never make any effort to set my white balance before I take a photograph—although I usually have a pretty good idea of the white balance setting I'll choose later during the RAW conversion process.

Making white balance adjustments during the RAW conversion process is simple (whether using Adobe Lightroom, Adobe Camera Raw or another conversion program). Typically, you have two options for controlling white balance: one slider changes color temperature (warm vs. cool) and another controls tint (green vs. magenta). Between the two sliders, you should be able to fully control color balance. You'll also have the option of using a number of preset values, which are similar to the ones your camera offers; most programs also have an Automatic option, which allows the software to make its best guess as to the appropriate white balance setting.

When Should You Correct Color?
Some photographs benefit from color correction (such as the stream in Olympic National Park), whereas others do not—it's entirely up to you. There may be times when you decide to keep a color cast—or to intentionally introduce one for artistic reasons. The "best" white balance setting varies from scene to scene, and further depends largely on your own personal artistic tastes. I encourage you to experiment with various white balance settings for each image, assessing multiple options until you find the color balance that appeals to you the most, in the process learning how white balance choices affect the colors of a given scene. This exercise will allow you to visualize color balance while in the field, thus expanding your creative options.

One thing to keep in mind is that human perception of color is somewhat variable—to a certain extent, our brains do a bit of "automatic white balancing" and adjust to strong color bias. For example, if you photograph a scene in deep shade on a sunny day, there's an abundance of blue light reflecting from the clear sky above, but our brains don't fully perceive the light as blue. Film photographers used to creatively take advantage of this by using daylight-balanced film in the "wrong" light, such as photographing brightly lit autumn color reflected in a mountain pond or stream in the shade. Although sunlit autumn foliage reflected in the water would be rendered as the eye sees it, any shaded elements in the water would be rendered with a strong blue cast. The savvy photographer would juxtapose these complementary colors in order to create an image with rich, almost painterly, color contrast—not quite "real," but beautiful nonetheless. There's no reason you can't do this as well with your DSLR.


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