Discovering unseen colour with your camera’s white balance

By Bill Hatcher 21 February 2014
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Hone your ‘photo eye’ so you don’t miss unique lighting in your shots

HAVE YOU EXPERIMENTED with your camera’s white balance settings? Say, switched your camera from auto white balance to one of the pre-sets. Or even better, to manual control with the K (Kelvin) settings.

You can adjust white balance within camera settings or, if shooting in RAW, during editing. Now, why would you want to override the camera’s auto function that seems to work fine? The answer is: to better understand the colour output created by different light sources. This understanding and control will allow you to unleash the real potential of the colour in the scenes you photograph.

One of the many marvels of digital cameras is the auto white balance setting. This camera control enables the camera to render whites in a photo as white with no orange, green or blue cast caused by varying light sources. The human eye makes these corrections so subtly that we are not aware of it.

The camera’s auto white balance is calibrated to make the camera ‘see’, to interpret the scene’s colour spectrum much as our human eye does. Switching the colour balance to one of the pre-sets – shade, flash, cloudy, Kelvin, etc. – will override how a camera sees colour.

In the days of film, cameras didn’t have a white balance switch; film was balanced to record accurately only one light source, for example, daylight. To correct for colour shifts caused by different light encountered on a shoot, such as the warm orange light of a candle or the blue cast reflected into shade, we used filters. We learned about filters in photo school or by observation and the self-taught method of trial and error.

The pros and cons with auto white balance

Today’s auto white balance is excellent and can compensate for different light balances as quickly as our own eyes. This is good and bad. It’s good because 98 per cent of the time the colour balance in a scene is rendered as naturally as possible and it’s instant; we don’t have to mess around with filters anymore.

What’s bad is our photo eye is no longer trained to detect errant colours in a potential photo scene. So you might miss the chance to capture an interesting scene because, to your eye – and the camera’s auto settings – the scene registers as normal.

In the outdoors I have seen many examples of unreal colours that auto colour balance would render neutral and mute. Most of my early learning about detecting nearly unseen colours was while I was shooting with film. For example, when capturing the surreal red glow found in Arizona’s slot canyons or the jade-green ice on Alaska’s glaciers.

These experiences helped me refine my photo eye for seeing colour. Today it’s second nature to check where the light is coming from – is it passing through or reflecting off something that has changed the colour spectrum of the light source? A look around will tell me.

Seeing with your ‘photo eye’

During a recent Blue Mountains trip with a friend, we hiked from Newnes to the Glow Worm Tunnel. I didn’t expect to photograph much; the main objective was to have a look around and to show Michael a view of the Wolgan Valley. But I did bring some gear (Nikon D800, tripod, headlamps and 16-35 lens) so I could shoot photos near the tunnel entrance.

Once I was standing just inside the tunnel entrance, my photo eye could ‘see’ there was some insane natural green light illuminating the darkness. It was caused by sunlight filtering through massive green ferns outside the tunnel opening. To the naked eye it appeared the tunnel walls were coated in green lichen. But I knew the colour was 100 per cent from the fern-filtered sunlight.

To photograph this, I walked 100m into the tunnel until the only light was dimly reflected on the right wall. I set the camera on the tripod, set the white balance to Kelvin 7140, the ISO to 800 f4 for a 30 sec exposure to a RAW photo file.

Michael patiently stood still for the long exposure as I light-painted him with my headlamp. The resulting photo is dominated by the green light that glows in this surreal, sci-fi-like scene. No tricks, no Hollywood lighting. Just the ability to see the colour potential in the scene and then override the auto colour balance of the camera to make the final image.