Photography Travelogues – Finding the right balance
June 28, 2012 5 Comments
Young Street Merchants in Hosap, Eastern Turkey
Our bus stopped at the top of the hill at the entrance to the Hosap castle, so it didn’t take the residents in the town below too long to work out that potential customers were about! However, to sell to us, we also had a price: they had to pose for a photograph!
Does the colour look approximately correct in the photograph above?
We can see it is late in the day with yellow sunlight kissing the tops of the background hills, leaving the shadows cooler and almost blue. It’s an emotive response to colour, but is it accurate? And should it be accurate?
Often, the colours we use in our photographs are technically incorrect (depending on the colour model we’re using as a reference), but they still look pretty good!
For instance, your camera uses its white balance system to set a ‘correct’ colour balance, but since the camera doesn’t know what the light is like, it can only adjust the white balance to a theoretical ‘zero’ or ‘correct’ position.
Speaking non-technically, white balance is the term used for getting the colour cast correct at the point of capture, or when processing the raw file. It uses a temperature (yellow/blue) and tint (magenta/green) colour model to make colour adjustments. Colour balance is when we change the colour cast, usually during editing the file. The colour balance dialog uses the three red/cyan, green/magenta and blue/yellow channels. Both approaches to controlling the colour cast in a photograph can achieve similar results and are sometimes referred to interchangeably.
This is the image with the white balance suggested by the camera. The camera has seen the warmth in the light and neutralised it, but perhaps cooling the colour a little bit too much.
If you’re not happy with the colour balance, you can use the white balance tool in Capture One to change it. Using the white balance picker, click on objects that are white or neutral in colour, or that should be or could be neutral.
In this image, I have clicked the white balance picker on the girl’s white handkerchief, but I think it has too many optical brighteners in it because the result is much too blue.
In this third example, I have clicked on the grey roadway on the right of the image. Whether the road should be neutral grey or not isn’t really the point, because the rest of the image looks just right. I find using the white balance picker on various areas in the image while processing in Capture One is a useful way for determining the best colour balance, even if the white balance setting isn’t ‘accurate’ or ‘correct’!
You also have to be aware of how your viewers feel about certain colours. For instance, technically speaking, snow at high altitudes in the shadows is blue, but if it looks too blue in a photograph, it can look unnatural to many people. For this reason, snow photos can benefit from a slightly warmer colour balance, even though this may be technically incorrect.
So, if a technically correct colour balance isn’t necessarily the best, why do our cameras try to set it?
Whether we end up using a technically correct colour balance in our final edit is one matter; starting our photographic editing with a technically correct colour balance within our image file is another.
Many photographers find it very useful to start with a correctly colour balanced file. It helps ground their creative process and it also gives them a place to return if colours go awry.
So, unless you are sure about the colour balance you want in the final image, good camera practice dictates that we aim to produce image files which can produce a neutral or natural white balance. This is one of the reasons shooting raw files is so important because you can always reset the white balance within a raw file, something that can be much more difficult (if not impossible) to do with a JPEG file.
In the hero image at the top of the page, I have used two white balance settings. The girls in the foreground have a warm white balance setting, while the background has a cooler, bluer setting. Providing this subtle colour contrast also helps bring the subjects forward, emphasising them against the cooler background.
I hope you like it!