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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

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Red light, reflecting off of clouds in the sky glowing with predawn light, dominated this scene. Instead of correcting the color cast, Plant chose a white balance that preserved the scene's colorful tones.
Acadia National Park, Maine, Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Tamron AF 17-35mm F/2.8-4.0 Di LD SP, ISO 400, Æ’/11, 5 sec.
Another color cast you probably don't want to correct is the warm light of sunrise and sunset. For example, with the image taken in Acadia National Park at dawn along the Atlantic coast, the scene was bathed in red and purple light reflected off of clouds above the rising sun. If I had let my camera auto-correct for the intense reddish color of the light, the magic of the moment would have been lost. I used a color temperature of 5600K and a tint of -11 to capture the colors in a way that seemed most faithful to the light I witnessed when photographing the scene.

I especially like to photograph during the twilight hours on a partly to mostly cloudy day, when mostly blue light is present—although, as previously noted, human brains tend to ignore the blue light, perceiving it as more neutral in color. If your camera is set to automatic white balance, it's likely that it, too, will try to remove the blue. For the photo of Boardman State Park [viewable at outdoorphotographer.com], my camera did just that, selecting the Shade setting to remove the blue color cast. By setting the white balance during RAW conversion to the Daylight preset, I was able to preserve the rich cool tones, which in fact dominated the scene, although the result is somewhat cooler than it appeared to the eye.

When working in sandstone slot canyons, I'll often drop the white balance considerably in order to preserve complementary colors. For example, in my photo of Antelope Canyon [viewable at outdoorphotographer.com], I used a color temperature of 3450K, allowing me to bring out the cooler tones of the sandstone lit primarily by blue light from the sky above, while at the same time preserving the warmer tones of the sandstone lit primarily by sunlight reflecting off of the rock at the top of the canyon.

In the end, the correct white balance is any white balance that you think makes the image look best. You should never think of white balance as an inflexible objective parameter. Rather, it's a subjective artistic tool that, when used creatively, can greatly enhance the mood and appeal of your photographs.

Ian Plant is a professional nature photographer, writer and adventurer. His work has appeared in numerous books and calendars, and he's a frequent contributor to Outdoor Photographer magazine, among others. He's also the author of a number of ebooks and digital-processing video tutorials. See more of his work at www.ianplant.com.


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