So in prior posts we have explored white balance settings, and their importance to capturing the appropriate "mood" of a given scene or situation. So, if the automatic settings aren't doing there thing, what do I do about it, and how do I know if I need to intervene?
I should mention here that these techniques not only work for your specialty lighting situations, but also those times where there are a mixture of light sources which often fool the camera. For example, at an outdoor stadium event in very late afternoon or twilight, you often are faced with natural light from the sky, stadium lights corrected for television, and perimeter lights for the stands and access ways. Each of these sources has a very different color temperature which could reek havoc with your pictures.
As an example, these two photos following were both taken moments apart, one with the automatic white balance, the other using a white balance preset sampling based upon the lighting conditions. You'll notice that the second one has a lot more life and better skin tones, resulting in a more pleasing image.
What to do?
Let's take it step by step:
Step 1: Review your photographs. After you have taken a number of those "magic shots", take a look and see if they turned out as you expected. Does that rich, late-afternoon sun appear to be white? Does the "glow" in real life not "pop" in the photo? Perhaps most importantly, do the intangibles of the photograph capture the mood of the scene where you are?
If the mood is there, and the intangibles are there, you might not need to do a thing. If not, then let's move to Step 2.
Step 2: Find A Neutral color source: Find something in your viscinity that is "pure neutral". What do I mean by that? Neutral in color represents balance. In general you are looking for a neutral gray or pure white color. While something perfect is unlikely, find the closest you can. A grey stone, for instance, can serve well. Sometimes a concrete sidewalk, or a light blacktop surface will work. The key here is to ensure that whatever source you choose is NOT tinted toward a particular color, like blue or yellow. (We'll revisit this at the end, for those that want to add an item to their field kit).
Step 3: Set your camera to a preset white balance: Not every camera will have this as an option, but most middle-tier point-and-shoot, interchangeable lens reflex, and SLRs will. Note that this is NOT one of the most commonly used features, so prepare and do your homework to know how to do this. Every camera varies. (By the way, most manufacturers offer their user guides on their website. I have the guide for every camera on my smartphone, so I can get to it in a pinch).
Setting a custom white balance generally requires two steps. First, you put the camera into a special picture-taking mode to accept in what YOU are telling it is pure neutral, and then you take a "bogus" picture to register that into the camera. For my Nikon, I am given a flashing "Good" message to indicate that the process succeeded.
Step 4: Take a few test pictures. At this stage, if all has gone well, you are shooting with your new white balance, and the shots you take in this special situation should improve and begin to capture the magic. That said, there is clearly some trial-and-error in the process. For example, that curb that you used as a neutral source may not have been quite as neutral as you thought. If you go through these steps, and the picture of Aunt Mabel is making her look sickly green, you probably didn't choose a neutral enough source. Just jump back to Step 2 and try again. Once you have it right, you'll know it.
Step 5: Shoot Away! Once you are happy with the color results, shoot as you always have. Once you get the photos back into your digital darkroom, you'll find that this process will save you HOURS of post-processing adjustment of color, and often will result in a better outcome than if you had tried to do it all with manipulation.1
Step 6: VERY IMPORTANT!!! Reset your white balance to normal. I cannot tell you how many times I've done all of the above, only to toss the camera in the bag to notice hours into my next shoot that I was using a custom white balance from last time. As such, I've gotten into the habit of reseting EVERYTHING on the camera to normal shooting positions upon completion of each shoot. That means white balance, exposure compensation, ISO setting, anything else that may have been done to accommodate conditions out-of-the-norm. If you get into this practice, it will save you loads of grief down the road. I promise!
The Last Word -- While I do not intend to have this blog all about equipment, I would be remiss in pointing out really handy tools that are valuable additions to the camera bag. For white balance, I rely upon ExpoDisc (http://www.expodisc.com). Photographers of yore will remember carrying around "grey cards". These printed cards are neutral in color, and are that neutral color source you need, always on hand and accurate when you are carrying on yourself. Expodisc takes this to a new level. It is a snap-in filter that does the same thing -- providing a pure white source for your camera to use when setting white balance. I find it invaluable, and (although really overpriced) it is still worth the money, especially if this situation comes up with any regularity. Probably overkill for the blue-moon photographer, but for anyone making a hobby of it, well worth the investment.
At some point further down the track, we'll explore custom color temperature settings, overall picture hue, and color saturation, but I think it is best to get into those topics when we discuss post-processing.
Best of luck trying these techniques out. Please leave me your thoughts and feedback on how this has worked for you!!