To get perfect colors in our images, we need to get the white balance right. White balance is so often overlooked. It sounds technical, it sounds like it's going to be hard. So, what do we do? Put on auto, right? No. Automatic mode is not going to give you constantly accurate results. When I’m shooting an indoor event, the light from the ceiling is not going to look great. It is coming from a poor direction, it is not very bright, and it can be a weird color. I’ll actually set up my own lights, (A.K.A. studio strobes), in key locations to completely override the quality and direction of light from the ceiling lights or even the sun in some cases. However, you might not have this luxury. You might not have your own lights set up and therefore have to use the ceiling lights (A.K.A. ambient light). Either way, I go through the same process to make sure that I’m reproducing as close to accurate colors as possible consistently all weekend.
White Balance ExampleYou don't want ugly yellow, white should be white. Right?
I just want to clarify right away, there are many great ways to correct your white balance. Some cost lots of money and time, others are free, and everything in between. Depending on how much time I have and how important proper color is to me, I’ll choose the option that suits the shot. Most of the time getting 95% or better accuracy is acceptable. Getting that extra 5% can be a huge hassle as well as cost substantially more. Also, I’m shooting Canon but Nikon, Sony, Fuji, etc… all have a smiler option. Just refer to your owner’s manual to figure out how to do it on your camera. There are of course many ways to correct white balance when you edit but I’d rather just nail it in camera and not have to screw around with it later. I’ll often be shooting 10-20,000 images from the same location in a weekend. It would suck to have to go back and “fix” them later. Also, these tips apply even if you’re going to get creative with your photo’s mood or colors. It’s always best to start with the best colors you can. Be sure to read the Pro Tip at the bottom.
My super fast and easy way to get pretty dang good colors goes like this. First things first, I get my other settings pretty much dialed in so I have a properly exposed photo. (shutter speed, ISO, aperture) Then I find something white or neutral grey. I have a little pop-up disc that was less than $20 for this but in a pinch, I’ve used regular old copy paper since that’s usually handy and almost free. Copy paper tends to have a little bit of a blue tint even if our eyes can’t really tell that it is blue, so you may have to correct for this. Using copy paper tends to make your images a little tiny bit yellow because the camera is compensating for the blue tone of the paper. For this reason, I spent the $20 and got something actually white, but we can still solve this problem in camera too.
Hold this white object out so that the light that is going to illuminate your subject hits your white object. Then snap a picture of it with the camera you are going to use. It should be out of focus and fill most of the frame. It is ideal to fill the whole frame but I understand that isn’t always easy. Now, you should have a picture of a blurry piece of paper or whatever. It probably doesn’t look white but even if it does, I would still continue.
Now, you can put down the object. Open up the menu in your camera and there should be something like “Set Custom White Balance” or “Set Custom WB”. In this menu, there’s an option “Select Image on Card”. Use this to select the out of focus image you just shot. It should be the image that comes up first but if not scroll until you find it. Click the option that lets you use the WB data from this image for Custom White Balance. Then choose “Set as White Balance” or go into your white balance menu and choose the Custom White Balance setting. That’s it. Trust me, it takes way longer to read this blog post than it does to actually do it. You’ll get good at it and soon be able to do it in seconds without having to think it through.
Pro Tip: If you shoot with your own lights you can do some pretty creative things with this method. Personally, I love the look of a deep blue sky behind my model. To make the sky blue but keep your model the right color you’ll need a gel. A gel is basically just a colored plastic sheet you put in front of a light source to change the color of the light. For this trick, get a CTO (Color Temperature Orange) gel and put it on the light so it covers all the light coming out. Now, the light coming out will be orange (the opposite of blue). Stay with me here it can be hard to conceptualize why we are making the light orange if we want a blue sky. We are “tricking” the camera by doing this. When we set a custom white balance we are essentially telling the camera that “this” is white. The camera uses the opposite color of whatever it sees to bring the image to neutral. When we show the camera orange, for example, it uses blue to neutralize the color. Take something white like we talked about above, and pop that orange light on it, then set that image as a custom white balance. Now, take a picture of your model using that light. You’ll see that everywhere the “orange” light hits is actually the correct color and everywhere else has a blue tone. If you do this against a blue sky it looks very natural but the sky is a more saturated blue. Feel free to try this with all the other colors! Of course, you can do this is post-process, but it is so easy to do in camera. Plus, it is way faster.
Orange Gel ExampleAn orange gel was placed in my 60 inch octabox so only the light that fell on her was the right color.
That’s all for this one! Hope you learned from this quick tip. Have fun!