This week we talk about a fairly simple way to enhance your photograph in post-processing: mixing white balance. I always use Lightroom 4 to bring my photos on to the computer and do the basic editing. Normally this is the only program I use, but sometimes I will use Photoshop Elements or a plugin (Topaz, Nik, etc.) to perform a task that is difficult to do in Lightroom. I shoot in RAW. One big reason I do is because this is the only way you can change white balance after taking the picture. If you shoot in Jpeg you need to choose your white balance before taking the shot, and then you can’t change it on the computer.
These photos you see, by the way, are quite small Jpeg versions created from the RAW photos. They are small to make them not so good for downloading, which is illegal anyway since they’re copyrighted. Click on an image for purchase options.
What is white balance? It’s simply a color scheme for your picture. Take a look at a color wheel (google it). Think of it as a sort of graph for color, where colors on the opposite side of the wheel represent extremes. Sometimes colors out in the world will be relatively pure, but mostly they will be a mix of these extremes. For example the color blue, as in a deep blue sky, is the opposite of the color yellow or orange (gold), as in a golden sunset. But think of what you see (and what you photograph) as a mix, a balance between the extremes represented by the color wheel.
In other words, each time you go outside and look around, you are seeing a particular white balance in the colors of each scene. Sometimes when you face one direction you will see one color scheme, and then you turn around and see a different one. The most dramatic differences in white balance come as the day moves along. During pre-dawn and again during deep dusk hours you get a fairly cool lighting scheme, rich in deep blues. That’s why this time is called by photographers the “blue hour”. When the sun is very low and reflecting off of a scene (such as in the image below) you are in “golden hour”. This is a time when the light is very warm and rich in yellows and reds. In mid-day, depending on the weather conditions, a pale blue scheme can dominate.
(A disclaimer for scientifically-inclined readers: I know that the more blue a light, the warmer it is. Red is cooler light than blue. But we are talking artists here, and for these purposes blue is thought of in cool terms while red is considered warm. So reverse your thinking. I know – artists!)
Now take a look at your white balance adjustment in the software you use to edit your photos. In Lightroom and most other software, it occupies a position near the top of your panel. That’s because it is usually good to adjust your white balance before you do anything else. But also notice that the adjustment includes two sliders. In Lightroom they are labeled temperature and tint. Temperature takes care of the balance between blues and yellows, while tint takes care of the green vs. magenta balance.
(Sorry I am just not going to put screenshots in this blog, at least not right now. Bring up Lightroom or have a book or tutorial open if you want to follow along. You will need to play with it yourself anyway to get the hang of it, and I don’t think a screenshot here will help you in the long run.)
This post will not go over all the ins and outs of setting white balance in your camera and then again adjusting it (provided you shoot in RAW) once you are in front of your computer. Instead I will (finally) jump into the main topic, that is how to incorporate different white balances into your photo. I will use Lightroom 4 to explain, but programs like Aperture, GIMP, etc. are quite similar. I’ll also assume you know how to use two tools in Lightroom: the graduated filter tool (shortcut M) and the brush tool (shortcut K). Get a Lightroom book or go online for basic Lightroom tutorials to learn how to use these tools.
The photos above illustrate something about this subject that I think is very important. It is a photo that naturally contains areas of different white balance, and it is these that I like to work on with mixed white-balance techniques. In the image of the geese in Hayden Valley, the top and bottom of the photo are blue and cool while the middle has nice warm golden front light. The other photos above have uniform white balances, and so changing white balance in part of the photos would result in unnatural effects. The reason I think this is important is that I do not want to introduce strange color schemes into my photos, at least for 99% of them. Although I do enhance things, I don’t like to see an image on my computer screen that is significantly different from the one I saw in the field. Again, there are exceptions that prove this little rule of mine.
Back to this image from Yellowstone’s wonderful Hayden Valley. In the river, the deep blue results from light back-scattering toward my shooting position. I had my camera set to auto white balance for this image, and given the perfect front light I didn’t have to adjust the global white balance in order for me to retain the great warmth that was part of the original scene. Water that is front-lit like this often has as deep a blue as you can possibly want, so I did not adjust the white balance in this part of the image. The sky, which is blue because of back-scattering as well, originally had a paler blue color. The second image from top, by the way, is the image before I did my selective white-balance adjustment.
Since I wanted the sky to match more closely (but not exactly) the blue of the water, I used Lightroom 4’s graduated filter tool. This is located at top of Lightroom’s Develop panel, and is shaped like an upright rectangle with a graduated shading inside. Clicking and dragging from top to bottom, I put the middle of the grad. filter at the contact between sky and land. Once it was in place, I then adjusted the temperature slider to the left a modest amount (9 points). I also bumped up clarity and contrast a bit, to bring out the clouds; and voila! I had a deeper, bluer sky to better match the deep blue of the river. Though this is a subtle difference, it certainly adds some pop to the image I think.
Sometimes I will decide to go with a fairly cool (blue) white balance globally, across the entire photo. Then upon looking at it I decide that some part of the image needs more warmth. That was the case above, with the image of the Goosenecks in Utah. This time I dragged the graduated filter from bottom to top, made it very narrow and placed the center at the horizon. I added back some of the warmth I took away, and then some, by sliding the temperature slider to the right 16 points. Then I noticed the river below was not the way I wanted it, so I used the adjustment brush in Lightroom. This is located at the top of the Develop panel, just right of the graduated filter tool.
My adjustment for the brush – temperature 12 points to the left – took away most of that warmth I had added with the graduated filter. I also bumped exposure and saturation up a bit to make the river stand out a little better in its deep shadowy canyon. Other than some normal contrast, clarity and sharpness/noise reduction adjustments, I did not do anything else to this photo. Note that it was taken under a full moon, thus saturation in the rocks was there but subtle (thus my desire to make it a bit less subtle).
In the photo above, I used two graduated filters plus a couple adjustment brushes. I began with the graduated filters. One was for the top third of the photo, and involved sliding the temperature slider to the left (blue/cool). I wanted to accentuate the blues that were still in the sky as the sunset had not really begun to peak yet. This was despite the fact that the canyon’s red rocks were catching all of the warm colors. The other graduated filter, therefore, was for the bottom third of the photo. I slid the temperature slider to the left (orange/warm) this time to accentuate that warmth a bit.
I was trying to capture the early stages of a sunset in that interesting location. I cleaned up the middle third by using a couple adjustment brushes: one with temp. warmed a bit (orange bias), the other with temp. cooled a bit (blue bias). Where the sky transitioned between a warm white balance below and a cool one above, I painted the clouds with the warm brush and the sky with the cool brush, to accentuate that transition. In addition, for the warming brush, I also slid the tint slider a bit to the right (magenta), because there was a subtle pinkish glow to the clouds that I wanted to bring out.
The photo above involves a combination of graduated filters and brushes as well, with subtle changes in white balance for each. I included this one because it involved a challenge. It’s not challenging because of the adjustments themselves, but because with the shadows and sharp (but beautiful) light transitions, it was difficult to retain a natural color cast. What do you think? Does the image look natural to you? Does it have impact (does it “pop”) without looking like an HDR image? Often even professional photographers get “too close” to an image. Like a writer, they get too comfy in front of their work and as a result lose some objectivity. It’s important to step away and come back to it after a day or so in order to see whether the color cast still looks natural. Hey! I just thought of another topic for Friday Foto Talk!