Waterfalls and snow. Both white until you try to take an image of them using the in camera metering system. While they are darn good they can lie about the exposure needed. It’s not their fault. It’s how they are built. They are highly attached to 18% grey. Why? White Balance!
With all that light coming in off of white snow the software has no choice but to underexpose the scene and turn your nice white snow to a dull blue grey…
Two things are of great importance to me these days, White Balance (WB) and Exposure. Yes, I shoot in RAW, and could fix these later (within reason). But I find myself wanting to do it in camera more and more. First, I get to see the image on the back of the camera with my loupe and see a great looking image as my base to start with. Second, it is less work in post production, and I get to make sure the color balance is as close to what I actually see while on location.
I look at a lot of images online. In the PAC as well as many other social sites and photography sites. The one universal thing I see is a color cast to many images. Sometimes this is done on purpose for an effect. But most times it is the lack of the correct use of White Balance or no use at all except for the presets on the camera. Presets are general settings within a range.
I have been asked for advice a few times this year by PAC members and the answer is always the same: don’t over saturate and work on getting the White Balance as close as you can to “correct”. What is “correct”? Well, whites are white. Unless you are in Havasupai and the water is blue. Waterfalls should look white with maybe a blueish tinge. How much blue is a personal preference. But, if you get the White Balance correct then push up the saturation you will only bring the blue back.
Since we work (mostly) in a non destructive digital world now you can experiment and learn a lot about White Balance. The Eye Dropper Tool in Lightroom allows you to select a neutral color in a scene and the software will choose what it says is a correct White Balance. Is it right and correct? Not always. Sometimes it makes the image too cool and blue. Other times it makes it too warm. The next thing is to move the slider and manually adjust the image to your liking. But watch those whites. Yes, some of the saturation may come out of the image. But you can use the HSL sliders to target specific colors for saturation and luminance to bring them back.
(remember, don’t oversaturate)
Another way to get those waterfalls white is to do a blend of two different exposures. While shooting you can take a “normal” exposure and an over exposed image. Maybe even a few so you can choose the best one later. This is easy to do using the Exposure Compensation (EV on Canon). This adjusts the exposure up or down in 1/3 increments. Shoot +1/3, then +2/3 then +1 or even higher for your overexposed shots. Now in Photoshop you can use layers and layer masks with a soft brush, set to a low number say 10 to 20%, to blend the white water into the normal exposure.
In Photoshop there are also a number of ways to do selections that you can copy to a new layer then make adjustments to that area only. I often do this to work on the sky separately from the foreground or other parts of the scene.
OK, this is more advanced stuff. Let’s get back to the single image and using only an app like Lightroom. Everything you need to get a correct White Balance and exposure is there, Histogram, White Balance Tool and Tint, Exposure, Contrast, Highlights, Shadows, Whites, Blacks, Vibrance and Saturation. Holding the Option Key on Mac and Alt Key on Windows while moving the Exposure, Highlights, Shadows, Whites or Blacks sliders will allow you to see when you have no detail in the dark and light areas. Then you can back off a bit to make sure you have all the detail you can.
You can have a bit of fun playing with your camera White Balance presets. Shoot the same scene, say a daylight one, with each preset and note the order you use them in. Load the images into Lightroom and look at what the effect of each preset was on the image. Then use the Eye Dropper Tool in the Develop Module and try to correct each image. See how well this works for you. You can try this under different lighting too.
Shooting under my Paul C Buff Einstein 640 Strobe Lights I set the mode to “Action”. This produces a light with a K value of 6320k. A bit to the warm side. I then set the camera to Automatic White Balance (AWB) took a shot then moved to Daylight then took a shot and so on. This is the order of the following images: AWB, Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, Tungsten, White Fluorescent, Flash. Note I am using a Datacolor Spydercheckr™. This or similar products can help you adjust your White Balance later in the Digital Darkroom.
Click on the image to see a larger version.
As you can see, the camera software is adding color to offset the color of the light it received, 6230k color. Since I had a fixed color of light you can see what the camera is trying to add to fix the the situation based on the general WB setting selected.
In this next set of images I set my Strobes to Constant Color which give a nice 5600k light. This time I used the K settings in my Menu Screen to move in 500k increments from 2500k to 10,000k. With one exception. The 8th image is set to 5600k in the WB settings. So the 7th image is 5500k and the next one is 5600k. The 9th image is 6000k. Again, with constant color from the light source you can see what the camera is doing with the light.
Click on the image to see a larger version.
Of course, if you where working under tungsten lights and set the camera to Tungsten WB, the camera will add blue to offset the orange light of the tungsten bulbs. You can switch to a K number setting and try you hand at getting closer to the correct amount of blue by doing some quick tests on site before shooting your subject(s).
One of the hardest things you will face as a photographer is artificial light. When I go to shoot at a place like Tlaquepaque in Sedona the lighting is mixed. Tungsten, Halogen, and Florescent all at the same time. A custom White Balance has worked well for me in these situations. There are several ways to do this. One is to use a grey card that is 18% grey (you can use a white sheet of paper instead if you need to), hold it up into the light so it is bathed in the light mix you are shooting in, fill the entire frame with the card and take an image of it. You can set that as the image to use for a custom White Balance in your camera menu then go to your White Balance settings and choose “custom”. The other way is a device like an ExpoDisc. I use one and place it over the end of the lens and adjust the exposure to capture a grey image while looking toward the scene I am shooting. This image becomes the one I tell the camera to use for the Custom White Balance then I set the White Balance settings in my camera to “custom”.
Of course you could get deep into the details of light and temperature but that overwhelms most folks. Having a few simple processes to follow when starting to work on your photos can help you get better, more consistent results.
What about that blue/grey snow? Try overexposing by 1 stop (EV +1) and see if you get a better result. Adjust up and down 1/3 EV at a time and see where it works best for the scene you are currently shooting. This is assuming you are shooting in Aperture Priority Mode. If you meter the bright snow your image will be under exposed. Try metering a tree or more moderate area. You can even set your meter to Spot Metering to select a specific area of the scene to meter. Another way this can be done is once I see what the camera wants to do I switch to Manual mode and select the Aperture and Shutter Speed that is the same that the camera wanted to use in Aperture Priority Mode. Then I can change the shutter speed up or down to adjust the light getting in.
Finally, don’t take the “warmth” out of an image that needs it just because the software “says” a certain look is the correct White Balance. On the other hand, don’t give your snow or waterfalls an orange glow unless the sunset was doing that. The artists eye has the final say.
Thinking before you shoot will eventually engrain the behavior into a habit and you will simply do this automatically each time you are out with camera in hand (or on a tripod, right?!)
Click on the image to see a larger version.
Larry Pollock is an Artist living in Sedona Arizona. Digital Photography is his medium and passion. He makes his living taking product photographs. Landscape, low light and night photography are specific loves. He can even be seen doing some Street, Event and Portrait Photography from time to time… http://larrypollockphotography.com
WOW – a great article Larry – lots to think about!!
Babe Barton says
Wow, have added this information to my notes to understand and learn. I find that learning all about what white light is and what it does takes so much practice and patience as one experiences the variance in light throughout a day and how it affects the images we see and capture. Thank You!