Lickable Light – white balance and how it will make your photos their best!

In the course of a day I look at hundreds of photographs.  By participating in Google+, forums, flickr, 500px and other photo communities it’s easy to do.  One thing that has been getting my attention is that people don’t seem to understand white balance and its importance.  Mainly I notice it when there is water involved. Blue waterfalls everywhere.  Is the world running with mouthwash?  Crazy.  I also notice it in woodland shots that are clearly taken in daytime, but look really odd and blue.  Too cold by far.  Mostly it’s white balance which is nothing more than color temperature and can be easily adjusted.  Correct white balance and overall color temperature is the most important thing in making sure your colors are accurate.  Well, that and monitor calibration, but since you can’t correctly calibrate every monitor in the world, just do your own and let it go.

Folks who shoot in raw often don’t care about white balance in camera because they can always fix it later.  To some degree I’m guilty of this, but try to match my wb in the field to what the light actually looks like.  It’s tons easier to do it there than after the fact when you might be too removed from the moment to remember what your eyes saw.  Most cameras have auto-white balance which is a place to start, but be aware that most cameras aren’t accurate.  Here’s an example:

This is my friend Melissa coming down through the Magical Birch Glade in the NH White Mountains.

Out of the camera white balance is too cool.

It was early afternoon and while there weren’t a lot of leaves left on the trees, there were quite a few.  The light in autumn afternoons around here is golden and soft.  At this time of day it’s not as warm as it gets later, but the yellow leaves made it more so.  Take a look at the birch trunks…they appear sort of blueish.  They didn’t really look that way.  To anyone not with us that day, this picture would be fine, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.  For an October day it was warm; in the 80s. Does this picture convey warmth to you at all?  And that golden afternoon light I talked about, don’t you want to see it?

The first thing to do is to check your scene in the field and try to match it in your live view screen to as best you can. Probably you won’t get it exactly, but close is good. Try daylight, cloudy, shade, flash – all of them are different temperatures and you can see their effects in the LCD screen.  When you get your shots into your computer the first thing to do is adjust the white balance.  Many photo editing packages have set their tools in order of precedence, in other words they are in a rough order of how you should use them with white balance at the top of the stack.  So with all other changes being the same between shots and only the white balance changed, here’s the Magical Birch Glade -

Inside the MBG - with the white balance correctly adjusted, it really is magical.

OK, maybe that one was too subtle.  Check this one out.

The Little River with auto white balance. Yuk.

This is the Little River in Twin Mountain where the Twin Mountain north trailhead is.  It was taken just a few hours after the shot in the MBG; farther into that mellow warmth.  You wouldn’t know it from this though, would you?  This is really the bane of my existence when I look at other people’s images.  Blue water.  Blue rocks.  Blue tree trunks.  Come on people.  Pay attention!  Unless these things really were blue, adjust your white balance.

It’s easy to do.  Most editing packages have presets like daylight and cloudy as well as a slider that will let you put the temperature somewhere in the middle.  It’s not hard.  And look what a difference it makes.

The Little River with correct white balance.

Check out the trees, too – the color pops a lot more and the whole scene is more inviting.  Only the white balance is different between the two shots.  Here’s another one that’s even more dramatic.

Drawing to a Close - way too cool. It makes this shot cold and uninviting.

My husband and I went walking in a state park the other day.  Unfortunately it’s been closed due budget constraints, but we jumped the fence (as everyone is free to do, you just can’t drive in anymore).  What have I been banging on about in this whole post besides white balance?

LIGHT!

What are we trying to photograph, folks? Light of course.  And nothing is more wonderful than soft, warm late afternoon light in October.  It’s truly special.  Believe it or not that’s what I saw in the shot here.  But the camera doesn’t see like the brain sees and so it’s off.  Way off.  If you weren’t there of course you wouldn’t know, but the whole point of sharing photos is to bring other people into your world.  To show them a little of what you experience and find delight in.  Personally I don’t find much to delight in with the before picture.  Straight out of the camera be damned.  Now for the correction -

Drawing to a Close - ah now that's a warm, inviting, atmospheric shot I want to just climb into.

Now that’s the scene that made me stop.  The trees and their shadows, the couple and the light all made me stop and shoot.  Look at that light, would you?  It’s lickable.  And isn’t that what it’s all about?

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3 responses

  1. The Green really stands out in that river pictures, they all look amazing

    October 21, 2011 at 11:35 am

  2. great post. my problem is that once I start fooling with the WB I can no longer tell what’s right anymore.

    October 21, 2011 at 3:23 pm

  3. Thank you for this enLIGHTENING article!

    October 22, 2011 at 12:46 am

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