How to Get Great Color

or… why I never use auto white balance, and neither should you…..

I have a vivid memory etched in my brain. I was in Las Vegas, standing in front of a room of about 450 of the best professional photographers in the country…. and I was about to be humiliated.

11"x17" French Fold TemplateWe had all gathered for a week long workshop on marketing. One of my marketing pieces was being displayed for critique on three giant projected displays positioned around the ballroom. It was a Jumbotron of scrutiny and shame.  I stood alone at a microphone at the foot of the stage, while the speaker, an internationally recognized expert in marketing and a damn good photographer to boot, peered down on me from above. I felt like the 2nd grader called into the principal’s office, and I braced for the humiliation I was certain was coming.

His voice thundered through the microphone and went straight to my spinal cord.

“Man, you really got this color thing nailed… Wanna tell us how you do it?”

BAM!… I was instantly everybody’s best friend, and I didn’t have to buy a lunch for the rest of the week. It was… well, it was cool.

This was in the beginning days of the photography industry’s transition to digital imaging, and photographers were struggling with this new technology called “color management”.

02eSee, in the old days, all photographers had to do was drop their film off at a professional lab and somebody ELSE took care of the color for them.

An expert, or someone who at least kinda knew what they were doing, just handled it. We, as shooters, didn’t need to think about it much, unless we weren’t getting good color. Then the solution was to send the order back for reprints, or find a different lab.

But Not For Me.

You see, I began my career in photography in the darkroom. I WAS “the guy” the other photographers trusted with their color! I was “the expert.” So, when digital flipped the responsibility for good color from the lab onto the photographer, it was no big deal for me. I just had to learn the nuances of the new technology, but what good color looked like, and how to get it, was second nature to me.

I Know Color.

These days though, I see a LOT of bad color, from both amateurs and professionals.

It’s particularly troublesome when it’s a professional, because they are supposed to know better. But I see a lot of professional portraits with yellow, orange, or even greenish skin. You have too. I’m sure you’ve seen photos with skin tones that look like the image on the left, and no, it’s not good. The background here is actually blue, not green, and her hair… well, nobody’s hair is that color, at least not on purpose.

Scarduzio-4577Its a shame, because it isn’t rocket science. Whenever I teach a class to professionals, one of the most frequent questions I get is about how to get good color consistently.  The techniques are applicable to both pros and amateurs alike, so I though it would make a valuable blog post.

So, Here Goes.

The color from typical household bulbs is very yellow-red, and ACTUALLY looks like this.

The color from typical household bulbs is very yellow-red, and ACTUALLY looks like this.

The first thing you need to understand is that light that we see as white, can actually be many different colors. Our brains do an amazing job of compensating for us, but “white” light comes in many different shades. For example, sunlight on a cloudy, overcast day is very bluish… or as we say, “cold”, while sunlight just before sunset, when the light filters through much more of the atmosphere, is very reddish, or as we say “warm”. Light from typical household light bulbs is very yellow, and fluorescent light bulbs are typically very green.

The relative color of light is defined by something called “color temperature” and to get correct color, you have to match your camera’s settings to the color of light you are photographing under. This is set under something called “white balance”.

 

 

“But wait a minute, Dennis… my super wiz bang hyper doodle fancy digital camera has an “auto white balance” setting. Why do I need anything else?”

Matching our camera's while balance setting to the color of the light we are shooting under let's us correct the color to something that looks more natural. Our brains do this for us. Our cameras, well, they try....

Matching our camera’s while balance setting to the color of the light we are shooting under let’s us correct the color to something that looks more natural. Our brains do this for us. Our cameras, well, they try….

Here is why. Your camera determines how to set the white balance by looking at the colors in the image, and trying to figure out what colors are present in excess. So, if you are photographing under very yellow light, your camera will see an excess of yellow and adjust the settings for the photo to be more blue… the opposite of yellow on the color wheel. If your camera sees an excess of blue… like on an overcast day, it will shift the color to be more yellow to compensate.

So, whats the problem?

Well, the problem is the camera doesn’t really KNOW what it is looking at. It can’t tell the difference between a scene that is blue because the color of the light is filtering through clouds, or if the subject is standing in front of a blue wall wearing a blue sweater. In other words, there is an abundance of blue because there is SUPPOSED to be an abundance of blue. This is referred to as a “subject failure”.

 

 

Tina's skin should look like the image on the left. But the camera sees an abundance of blue in the background and fabric, so it adds a bunch of yellow to try and "fix" it. YUK.

Tina’s skin should look like the image on the left. But the camera sees an abundance of blue in the background and fabric, so it adds a bunch of yellow to try and “fix” it. YUK.

Likewise, when Tina is wearing red, the camera will try to compensate by adding cyan to the image, trying to "correct" what isn't actually wrong.

Likewise, when Tina is wearing red, the camera will try to compensate by adding cyan to the image, trying to “correct” what isn’t actually wrong.

I once knew a professional photographer who shot a prom with the camera set on “auto”. Every photo was a different color… if the girl had a blue dress, her face was yellow, if the dress was red, her face was cyan (a kind of blue-green that is the opposite of red), a green dress would yield a magenta skin tone. About the only pictures where the color was right was where the girl’s dress was white, gray, or black. In other words, where the dress wasn’t introducing a FALSE color bias that was throwing off the camera’s auto color feature.

If the colors in the image are basically neutral.. an even mix, auto wb will work ok. But you never really KNOW.

If the colors in the image are basically neutral.. an even mix, auto wb will work ok. But you never really KNOW.

It was a mess. Even if she had photographed the whole job on the WRONG color setting, it would have been better… because they all would have at least been consistent. It would have been relatively simple to make one color correction and apply it to ALL the images in post processing. But, because every one was different, she had to try and manually fix the color one at a time on hundreds of pictures.

This is why professionals in the know refer to the “A” white balance setting as “Awful White Balance” and almost never use it!

So, how SHOULD you set your camera to get best color?

Well, there are other settings on your camera… they are named, or marked by icons for situations like “daylight” “cloudy” “flash” “tungsten” (light bulbs) “fluorescent” and even a “custom” setting.

Untitled-1(1)Setting your camera to the setting that most closely matches the conditions you are actually shooting under will usually get you much better results! Even if the color of your pictures is a little off, you can apply a color correction to all your images at once in your photo editing software, because if they are nothing else, all the photos taken under those same lighting conditions will be the SAME. But, if getting great color is really important to you, there is an even better way….

nikon 3000dNow, if you are using a cell phone to shoot pictures, this won’t apply. Auto color is probably the best you can do. But if you are using a more advanced camera, or a dslr, odds are good you have the ability to do what is called a “custom” white balance. This is the simplest and best way to get perfect color, every time! (Well, almost….)

The idea is simple. You photograph something that you KNOW is a neutral color (meaning it is perfectly grey) under the light conditions in which you are shooting. Since you know this perfectly neutral “target” should be rendered without any color… you can set you camera to use THAT as a reference and automatically correct for any color balance caused by the color temperature of the light.

Well, why can’t I just use something white… like the name “white balance” would imply?

Good question. You could, but a quick look around your house will show you that there are a lot of things that are called “white” that are radically different in color. In a pinch, something white is better than nothing, and may get you close… but depending on if the white object has a bluish tint, or yellowish, or whatever… can introduce color bias.

You can actually purchase something called an 18% grey card at a photography store. These are manufactured to be absolutely color neutral. Having one is a great thing to have if you are serious about getting good color. But, they are cumbersome to carry around, you probably won’t have it with you when you need it,  and there is an easier way.

 

color-7307A better solution, and one I personally use, is something called an Expo Disk. This is a small disk that fits on your camera’s lens like a filter. It’s small and easy to throw in your pocket or camera bag. The disk is perfectly color neutral. You simply put it on your camera and take a shot with the lens pointing toward the light you are shooting under. That’s right… point it AT the light. Then set your camera’s custom white balance to make that frame perfect neutral (because it is!). Bingo! Everything else you shoot under that same lighting condition will be accurate.

For example, let’s say you were shooting indoors under tungsten lighting. We already noted that tungsten light is very “warm”, meaning biased toward the yellow/red end of the spectrum. Shooting with this warm color light falling on the expo disk will cause a you to record a frame that looks like this:

color-7311But, once we set the camera to custom white balance to that frame, we will get a result that looks like this:

color-7309Grey will be rendered as grey, and all other colors will fall into place!

If we were to shoot under florescent lighting, our Expo disk exposure will likely look like this:

color-7312Kind of green. But by setting the camera’s custom white balance, now the greenish light will be corrected for, and the other colors will fall into place:

Of course, there are limits and exceptions. If the light is really weird or missing some colors of the spectrum completely, like some speciality high intensity discharge lights, or if you subject is actually being illuminated by mixed light sources (think a person standing indoors being lit by some tungsten lights on one side, and a window on the other), then a simple fix won’t really help. But that’s too advanced for this little blog post!

MariannaAlso, even though this trick will be a sure fire way to get you accurate color, sometimes accuracy isn’t what you want. If you are photographing a person by the soft warm glow of firelight, or basking in the beautiful glow of the setting sun, or perhaps on a stage with colored spotlights or something, then you probably want the color to reflect that color bias, rather than striving for a 100% neutral color balance.

 

These judgements and changes can usually be made in post processing. But it’s a good idea to always start with an accurate color balance first, then season to taste!

Shuster-0924By the way, if your camera offers you the ability to shoot in what is called a “RAW” format, then it doesn’t really matter what the white balance settings on your camera are set for. The “RAW” file format contains ALL the color information available, and you can “set” the white balance later, in your computer, to be anything you want, without any loss of quality. In that case, you should just shoot a file of the Expo disk or grey card, and the raw conversion software (I use Adobe Lightroom) will allow you to “click balance” on that file to set a perfect custom white balance, and then easily apply that setting to all your other images in just a click or two.

Hopefully, this little article has given you some insight into how your camera handles color, why you should probably never use the “auto” color setting, and how to more easily get good, accurate, and pleasing color in your photos.

Until next time………….

 

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