Game of Tones: Musings on Photography

Finding balance, part 1: the whites of their guise

In photography, you spend a lot of time balancing things. Balancing light and dark (AKA highlights and shadows); balancing subjects; balancing composition (what part of the scene goes where in the frame); balancing the elements you use to expose a picture (shutter speed, aperture, ISO). Sometimes you have to balance speed (“capturing the moment”) with technical precision (getting the focus, the light, the composition, and everything else just right). You could even extend this to the physical aspect of balancing all your gear. I think I may do a series of posts about balance in photography, and I’m starting with this one: white balance.

When I got my DSLR, I spent a lot of time reading articles and blog posts and consulting other resources to try and better understand the technical aspects and the mechanics of composing a picture – all those elements I mentioned above (ISO, shutter speed, aperture), how they interact, and how they affect your result. I made a pledge to myself: never put my camera in AUTO mode if I can help it. And I’ve honestly kept pretty true to that pledge. I’ve kept it parked in manual (or one of the “manual-lite” settings such as aperture priority) pretty much since day one. Consequently, I’d say my early success rate – “keeper” pictures vs. ones that just got deleted after import – has probably been around 10-15%. But I have learned SO much more from these mistakes than I would have learned by just using my new rig as a slightly upgraded point-and-shoot.

I won’t lie: it’s complex and complicated at first, sometimes maddeningly so, when you’re stepping up from a point-and-shoot that you just…well, pointed and shot. And, boy, when I say maddening, I mean MADDENING. Grab a picture quickly only to realize that you’ve changed your position relative to the light source and that shutter speed you set a few seconds ago has now resulted in a dramatic over- or under-exposure; forget that you were using a high aperture to get that nice blurred background on the flower picture a minute ago, and now you twitched half a centimeter and blew the focus on what would otherwise be a nice portrait of your friend. It can be frustrating, but it really, really does help you learn, and once you start to figure out what you did wrong and internalize the settings, you can start to shoot in manual almost as quickly and effectively as keeping it set in auto (…almost).

Now the question a newbie might ask is: why bother? My DSLR probably carries more onboard processing power than early space shuttles. Those big sensors are sensitive and smart; those processors are smart; you can use smart software like Aperture or Lightroom or Photoshop to make smart corrections in post-processing. Right? So why NOT keep it in auto?

Well, there are all sorts of answers, but the fundamental reality is this: it comes down to the difference between book smarts and street smarts. Cameras are really good at making educated guesses based on algorithms and processing (book smarts) but there are some things they’re not particularly good at (street smarts), and one of the big ones is figuring out what to do in mixed light. That’s where it becomes really important to pay attention to white balance when you’re setting up on a shoot.

White balance is essentially how your camera corrects for the color of light. You know that nice, warm, yellowy-orange cast from an incandescent bulb? Or that warm, flickering glow from a candle? Or the harsh, slightly blue light from fluorescent light? Our eyes and our brains are good at working together to process and adapt those signals into something that we recognize as BASICALLY the same set of colors in any given setting because we can figure out when “white” is “white,” but camera sensors aren’t necessarily very good at this…at all, sometimes. Which means if you forget to set your white balance properly, you’ll get pictures where your colors look all wrong – sometimes ridiculously so (like making people show up as if they’re Oompa-Loompas).

If you shoot in RAW, yes, you can very effectively tweak white balance in post. But why would you want to adjust the setting on a couple dozen shots in post if you could do it once in-camera and have it capture the colors properly every time you fire the shutter? It’s as easy, or even easier, to set the white balance as it is to set the aperture or the shutter speed: find the WB button on your camera, press it, and in most cases you can just choose one of the presets (on my Canon 550D, these are daylight, cloudy, shade, tungsten [AKA incandescent], fluorescent, and flash). And then there’s that other little guy hiding out at the end of the row: “custom.”

If you’re shooting in weird, or mixed, or tricky, or complex light settings, it’s worth it to take a second and set a custom white balance. There are all sorts of different ways you can plan for this (carry a white card with you, use special tools like an “ExpoDisc” or “Color Right,” etc) but the basic mechanics are the same: fill the frame and shoot a picture of something that is plain white in the light conditions you’re shooting in, then use your camera menus to set it as the “custom” white balance (those steps will change based on your camera manufacturer and maybe even the model number, so check for your own).

But here is what really matters: a before-and-after shot of the principle at work. A few weeks back I was out with friends for somebody’s birthday. We were at a bar where the light IN the bar was dim and tinted by a variety of colors from reflections off signs and furniture; on top of that, my group was at a table next to a giant open-air wall that gave me light coming in from the moon plus street lamps below. Here’s one of my first shots, with the camera set to auto WB:

Not bad, but everything is definitely way too warm and overly orange-ified

OK. Everything here is pretty orangey, as you can see. With the mix of light sources coming in, my camera just couldn’t keep up. In reviewing a few of my early shots, I noticed that the birthday boy himself was wearing a white t-shirt. I told him to hold still for a second and used the back of his t-shirt to set a custom white balance. Here’s almost the same shot as above, just a few seconds later, with nothing at all changed (as far as lighting goes) except the white balance:

Exact same scene about ten seconds later: nothing changed but the WB setting. This is a MUCH more natural exposure of what my eye saw.

The second shot is MUCH more natural in terms of capturing the scene that my eyes saw. And instead of having to tweak every image in post-processing, I spent five seconds changing it once in-camera, which reduced my workload later on.

So there you have it, folks. Whenever you can, remember this: don’t shoot until you can see the whites of their guise.

This entry was published on May 3, 2012 at 2:46 am and is filed under Learning, Technical. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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