Wednesday, April 24, 2013

How to Take Better Photos: Color Balance

In my last photography post, I talked briefly about how light is not all equal, and that different light casts different "colors".  Once you understand to see that, you can easily correct this color cast to show "true" colors (like for product photography) or you can use these color casts to set a "mood" for your photograph.

Your camera has the ability to "balance" out the color casts while you're taking a photo. Most of you probably simply use the "auto white balance" on your camera setting.

This is PERFECTLY okay! I tend to use the Automatic White Balance (AWB) on my own camera about 80% of the time. The following image was taken with AWB. (It's my Hemlock Ring Blanket that I blocked recently.) The color of the yarn is "Oatmeal" (Cascade Eco), and the color in this photo is pretty darn close to reality. I used the late afternoon sun as my source of light.

But, there are times, when the automatic white balance (aka WB) doesn't work.

Simply put, when you take a photo, your camera tries to figure out the overall color of your photo. BUT, sometimes, if there is no white or "neutral" color in the image or if there is a single color dominating the image, then your camera is fooled and you get a photo where the color doesn't match reality.

You can set your camera's WB to a specific color temperature (known as Kelvin -- which is another topic entirely involving lots of numbers and photography geeking, so I won't bore you), or you can try using some of the presets built into your camera. Here are some of the most common icons used in cameras:

(I highly recommend reading your camera's manual to understand how to use these presets.)

Using these Pre-Built Settings

The above icons represent the types of color casts your camera is capable of correcting. Basically, what happens (in simplistic terms) is the following  .....

Your camera assumes that there's a specific color cast (at a specific temperature) and adds the opposite color to balance it out to "white".  So, if there is an "orange" cast for tungsten, it adds "blue" to your image. If there's a green cast, it adds magenta.***

I'm going to go over each of these icons, what they mean, and what your camera is doing for each of them.

(You don't have to use these presets under these specific circumstances. You can use any of these settings to add mood or a different type of lighting to your image. These are just guidelines!)

  1. Daylight --- 
    • Used when? This setting is for when your location is relatively sunny. 
    • What your camera does: Balances this as the sun at midday.
  2. Fluoresent -- 
    • Used when? if you're inside a gymnasium or work that has fluoresent lighting, set your WB to "Flouresent" to get rid of the green cast
    • What your camera does: Adds magenta to balance it out to white.
  3. Tungsten -- 
    • Used when? If you're inside your house and you use incandescent lightbulbs, then set your WB to the lightbulb icon. 
    • What your camera does: Adds blue to balance it out to white.
  4. Shade / Cloudy-- 
    • Used when? These option is an interesting one. Whenever it's a cloudy day or if you're in the shade during a sunny day, there's a bit more "blue" in your image. You can use either of these for the same thing.
    • What your camera does:  Adds a little bit of orange to warm up your image. For "Shade", it adds a bit of extra orange.
  5. Flash  --- 
    • Used when? When you're going to be using your on-camera built-in flash
    • What your camera does: Adds a bit of orange and magenta to balance out the color of your flash.
The following images* shows how each of these presets work and the color the camera** adds.

Color Balance Presets

You can notice the following from the images.

  • The "Fluoresent" & "Tungsten" images are the most obvious color changes. Because I'm using sunlight as my light source, the color changes are very obvious here.
  • The "Daylight" is closest to AWB because I was using sunlight as my main source of light. 
    • For this image, I might actually choose "Daylight" because it's a bit closer to the "Oatmeal" color than the AWB image above -- but they are pretty close to each other. It just becomes a matter of taste.
  • The three options "Shade", "Cloudy", and "Flash" add varying degrees of "warm" orange to your image.

Okay, now what? How Do I use these Presets?

You can probably get away with using AWB or "Daylight" especially, if you're using natural sunlight as your color source. However, if you have mixed lighting in your house (say tungsten and daylight light bulbs in your house), you might run into problems.

These presets can help you fix the color problem. Digital "film" is cheap, and you can easily take a few shots using the different white balance setting on your camera, then compare them to see what you like the best!

  1. First, try AWB and take a photograph.
  2. Look at your preview image. 
  3. Try "Daylight" and compare the two images.
  4. If either looks okay, then continue shooting. Otherwise:
    • If the preview image looks blue-ish or "cool", then try "Shade" or "Cloudy" and take another photograph.
    • If the image too warm, then  try Tungsten 
    • If the image is too yellow or green, then try Fluorescent.
  5. Compare your images.
  6. Choose the best option, and continue shooting.
One of these presets should fix 85-90% of the problems that you might have.  If you still have a problem after trying these steps, try changing your light source for your craft project.

Of course, you can always fix the white balance of your photo is a photography software, like Photoshop or similar, but that means that you have to buy the software and learn how to use it.  Hopefully, you will discover that getting it right in the camera is often times faster.

Let me know. I'd be happy to help you answer any questions.

* The images are straight out of the camera without any post-processing, but I did resize and put them into a single image for comparison.
** I use a Canon 5D camera. The lens is a 24-70mm lens.
***  If you don't understand why this happens, it's because of Color Theory, specifically the Opponent Process. While you don't need to understand all of color theory, it's good to at least understand the basics, especially if you work with color.

Check out my other blog series on "How To Take Better Photos"

If you would like to see some of my photography work, please take a look at my Photography website - WyldFire Studios.