Image Adjustment and "White Balance"

May 20, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

Welcome to my Blog!

This is the first of what I plan to be a recurring series of photography tips, shooting guides, equipment advice, and general opinions and ideas that over the years have helped me, and which I hope will help you as well.  Along the way we'll illustrate with images that are both winners (and losers) to help make the point.

For my first post, I'd like to spend a moment focusing on "sense of place."  My view of photography is that it is a medium to capture the magic of a moment -- you have a frame to try to convey what it was like to be there.  Whether it is a fantastic landscape (such as this one), a special event (such as a graduation or birthday), or simply a special time of day, the camera is your tool to convey to people that weren't there what it was like.

I am often asked about Photoshop and what I do after the image was taken.  Let me start by saying that these guidelines are my own, and I'm not making judgments on others or the way they choose to process their images.  I do very limited "post processing" (e.g., the term for "fixing" photos after they are taken).  There are a set of adjustments which are considered the digital equivalent of darkroom processing that used to be done in film days -- sharpening, color correction, "dodging" and "burning" (e.g., lightening dark areas and vice-versa), and so on.  Dust removal fits into this category too.  I certainly do all of the above, and it is generally accepted practice by even the most stringent of organizations.  In fact, while I have not formally joined, I ascribe to the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) code of ethics -- the rules widely followed by news organizations to ensure photographic integrity.

As such, I'm not really a believer in adding elements that weren't there.  For example, photoshopping in Uncle Jim whom wasn't able to make the reunion, or adding a moon to a sky for effect.  Again, I'm not making judgments on those who do, but it isn't for me.  Either you have the shot or you don't.

That said, where there are minor adjustments, such as color or cropping (adjusting the borders of a picture to focus on the parts of interest), or overall tonal adjustment to bring out the "feeling" you had when you shot something, those are fair game in my book.  In the "old days", this was done largely via filters.  Today, much of that is often done in "Post" (the shortened term for Post-Processing, or digital adjustments after shooting).

As an example, let's take the scene above.  It was a gorgeous landscape taken a bit late morning after sunrise.  This particular landscape is in Shimla, India, in the Himilayan Foothills.  The scene as shot didn't match what my eyes saw, in particular because the auto "white balance" read the scene differently than I saw it.

"White Balance" is something that most novice photographers pay little attention to, but which is a constant cause for concern for the experienced and the pros.  This is just a fancy term for "what does white look like" for the shot.  Why do we need this?  The way we perceive white changes.  Our eyes make those adjustments automatically, but the camera "sees" this differently.  If it didn't people taken under fluorescent lights would look a sickly green, and the same people in incadescent light would look a burnt orange.  As a result, our cameras "read white" and make adjustments accordingly.

The problem is that sometimes they don't get it right.

In the scene above, for instance, the beautiful yellow of the morning was over-compensated by the built-in meter, making it more neutral than what I was seeing.  In other words, to relate this to my philosophy, the image wasn't capturing "the moment."

To solve this particular dilemma, I went to the filter box for help.  See the adjusted image below.


This was a bit strong, but conveyed the sense of place for that morning sunrise.  You'll see that the two images have a fundamentally different "feel" to them.  The real sense of that morning is somewhere in between.

I include these contrasting images to make a point -- the small details matter, and while today's cameras generally do an outstanding job of managing the technicalities for you, ultimately photographic is an artistic expression.  Your images need to capture what YOU see and what YOU experience.  That is why this is an art form and not a science.

While the above adjustments were made with filters, the same can be done in-camera or after shooting using the white balance adjustment settings.  I encourage you to pick a few shots and give this a try.  Next time we'll talk about a really handy tool that makes this work like magic, especially in difficult lighting situations.  Until then, keep shooting!



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