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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

You are smarter than your camera...how to get accurate color in photos


There are at least three options your camera needs if you plan to do better photo work in all sorts of lighting situations: 

1. To manually set the ISO (call it film speed)

2. An actual view finder you look through in addition to the screen on the back

3. The option to set a Custom or Preset White Balance

Camera white balance options, from Nikon DSLR manual.

White balance settings for Nikon DSLR
This article deals with White Balance.
You need to help your camera find what is really white to start with. You really, really, really need to do this! WHITE BALANCE is what the camera uses to determine what a color is. For instance, in a room lit with regular light bulbs, it is called incandescent or “tungsten” lighting. The light is naturally on the amber/yellowish side. If your camera is set for daylight pictures, your photos inside the room are all going to have a rather unpleasing and in-accurate amber/yellow cast.  A wall painted white or a white dress will not look the best if amber/yellow. We do not do weddings at Thomas Haynes Photography and don't have to worry about the dress looking right for everyone, whew! Walls being the correct color, that we do have to get right.  If camera thinks amber/yellow is white and decides how other colors look from there…what a mess that will be.  You already know how to fix that! I do not mean Photoshop™ or Paint Shop Pro™ or other software.  Sure, software will let you adjust color but why spend so much time doing that and still not getting it exactly right when you, smarter than your camera, can tell your camera which colors are accurate to start.  Then and only then use software to fine tune it all. 

You put the camera setting on AUTO for white balance or you select that little light bulb symbol for “incandescent”. Is that it? Either way, you photos will now be much closer to accurate color.  Look at your photos. Auto might have done ok but the setting for incandescent did not do so well this time. What happened to the color?  Mixed lighting is the culprit…daylight from the windows, funky color from spiral fluorescent bulbs, a halogen track light here and there—a mix too jumbled for basic incandescent camera settings to correct.   But, there is a better way to do it and most digital cameras have this option:  Custom or Preset white balance.  

“Read the manual” is good advice and is how you will learn to make a custom white balance for the room you need to photograph.  While different cameras use different instructions, buttons or knobs to set white balance, the basic event is the same.  Take a photo of a white sheet of paper or white foam core board.  The camera is set to use this reading as the starting point for “what is actually white”. All the kinds of light in the room are taken into account because that is what is lighting the white card.

Taking photo or white foam core card to set white balance of camera
 Using a white card to set camera white balance: In this instance, the green paint of the house was showing as light gray and preset white balance was needed for accurate color.

To set "pre" white balance on the Nikon DSLR cameras we use, the white balance setting is moved from Auto all the way over to PRE.  The white balance button is pressed and soon enough the word “pre” begins to flash in the control panel on top of the camera.  Then, a photo is shot of the white paper or card.  If the camera gets a good reading, the word “good” shows in the panel.  Keep the white balance set on pre and you are good to go for all the situations with lighting like in the place you did the custom white balance setting.  This IS more accurate than Auto because it literally uses the available lighting and the white photo to set a correct starting point (white) for other colors in your photographs.  Note, the white does not need to totally fill the view and does not need to be in focus.  Believe it..When Thomas Haynes Photography heads out of Clinton, Tennessee to shoot photos for a client, before any photos are taken we set the preset white balance for the scene.

Remember, by all means change the white balance when you move into a scene or room with totally different lighting or go outside.  Auto generally works acceptably outside and in many interior situations where lighting is relatively uniform.  Try preset or custom white balance to get you out of color trouble in difficult lighting and overall better color rendition by the camera.

At Thomas Haynes Photography, we go one step further.  We use a color chart like this one from xrite:
Xrite Color Checker color card, thomas haynes photo
Color Checker Passport by Xrite,  used for accurate color rendition from camera to computer editing.
 White Card of Color Checker Passport by Xrite, thomas haynes photo
"White Card" section of Color Checker Passport, designed for proper light reflection.

While we consider a color reference such as the XRite products Passport totally necessary to get accurate color critically accurate, simply using a custom or preset white balance from a white sheet of printer paper or sturdier white foam core board will work a small miracle in difficult lighting situations.  

You can do it...if you would rather spend your time with clients and not so much with a camera and editing software, drop an email to Thomas Haynes Photography using the email box at upper right of the blog page. We will respond and meet with you as you wish.  We work in the greater Knoxville area of east Tennessee, out of Clinton.  Email us and a we may begin a conversation on normal email where you are not limited to the blog page text box.

Send questions,brag on us(yes!) honestly, make comments, any way you choose to open the door to communication. This can be a win for both of us. You can even have us to do the photos.
We have no connection with makers or sellers of any of the products we mention in this blog.
We do not get a single cent but mention products as appropriate to the article.

Oops,ran out of time and space but will get into using shadow, contrast and saturation via your computer software in the next post. 

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