Tag Archives: Ambient light

Avoid funny colour casts in your holiday pictures

White balance - grey card

White balance – grey card

Unnatural indoor colours?

Holiday time – out comes the camera and most daytime shots are great. However, indoor shots often get a funny colour cast. Odd yellowish, greenish or blue tones have appeared. The reason? Auto-white balance problems. The condition is curable.

Auto-white balance problems

Outdoors the auto white-balance function works reasonably well. But not in all cases. Auto-white balance aims to iron out colour casts in your photography. The problem is that the camera frequently gets it wrong. There are two main places that can happen…

  • Out of doors when there is a lot of one particular colour around (eg. lots of sky blue; orange/red sunsets or snow)
  • Indoors when there are artificial lights illuminating the scene (ordinary domestic lights, fluorescents and bulbs).

When a lot of one colour appears in your shot. The camera assumes that too much of one colour is a problem. So, it shifts something called the colour temperature toward a neutral grey colour. This takes out the colour cast.

Intentions ruined

If you intended to capture that colour cast (from a sunset for example), the auto-white balance mechanism will ruin your shot. Typically blue skies and white snow tend toward grey. And, the real classic, lovely orange and red sunsets look pink, cartoon-like and flat instead of saturated. Orange and reds are particularly badly affected. So if your sunsets look cartoon pink/grey instead of saturated fire-orange you need to adjust your auto-white balance.

Auto white-balance fail!

• Auto white-balance fail! •

Cartoony pink-grey skies. The auto-white-balance function has colour shifted the orange/red tones toward greys.
Click image to view large
• Auto-white-balance fail! • By Netkonnexion on Flickr External link - opens new tab/page

Artificial light also creates a colour cast. Often the auto-white balance cannot properly adjust for this. The result is odd yellowish, blue or greenish tones in the picture where you did not see them yourself at the time. These also require an adjustment to your white-balance.

Why is there a problem?

Mainly the problem arises because we have made an adjustment in our heads without noticing. Most of the time we compensate for these colour casts and don’t see them. In fact, once we realise there is such a thing as a colour cast we can train ourselves to see it. We certainly see the heavy red colour casts of evening and early morning light. If we look carefully we can also see the yellows and blues from domestic lights – although less strongly.


There are two possible ways to tackle the situation…

  • Compensate for colour casts by using a camera pre-set.
  • Correctly set the white-balance so it records the natural colours.

DSLRs have reasonably good pre-sets to tackle well known colour cast issues. On most cameras you will find white balance settings something like these below. The notes explain details…

  • Auto – The cameras best-guess colour match for what it senses. OK most of the time. Poor when there is a predominance of a strong colour.
  • Tungsten – (bulb icon) indoor, tungsten incandescent lighting using bulbs. Cools the colours – often bluish. This setting helps remove blues to warmer tones.
  • Fluorescent – for use under fluorescent lights – will tend to warm up the colours.
  • Daylight/Sunny – (sun icon) indicates the ‘normal’ white balance (may not be present if this is the default setting).
  • Cloudy – (cloud icon) Adds a warmer, yellowish colouration.
  • Shade – This light is cooler (bluer) than sunlight. Shade mode warms the colours a small amount.
  • Flash – (lightening icon) Stark and cool, flash desaturates towards blue. Flash setting compensates with a slightly warmer yellowish tone.
  • Custom – You do a little procedure to get an accurate setting to suit the situation.
Accurate colours

Colour accuracy is important. You really do want a bright blue sky or white snow or saturated red sunsets. The problem is that the pre-sets are averaged out for the “types” of situations encountered. The pre-sets will change the colours from dull flat colours to more representative ones. For example more saturated sunsets will be captured if you use the cloudy setting. However, to get it right you need to adjust the custom white balance.

Setting the custom white balance is simple. The camera does most of it. You need a “neutral grey card”. This is simply a card or piece of material set at an average grey colour, normally at 12% grey, which matches the cameras accurate shade for neutral. You can buy these quite cheaply at most camera stores. (See: Range of photographic grey cards).

• The Lastolite Ezybalance •

  • collapsible; durable
  • wipe clean; very light
  • 12% grey; 30cm wide

An easy to use grey-card system. White on one side, grey on the other. The card doesn’t crease, the sprung border stretches the material tight. The card collapses into the supplied case, slipping easily into your camera bag. A great accessory to ensure colour accuracy in your pictures. You should not be without one.Spacer image

To set custom white-balance

It’s easy to set the white balance. However, there are lots of variations for how different cameras do it. Therefore it’s essential to use the right procedure from your manual. To get ready…

  • Place the card about 30cm/12 inches in front of your camera.
  • Zoom in or out to make the grey card fill the frame.
  • Now follow the camera manual “custom white balance” instructions.

To ensure complete accuracy you must do this procedure in the ambient light in which you will be shooting. This is the light the camera will sense and compare to the grey on the card.

More after this…

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Shooting with RAW vs. *.jpg

I am sure lots of you are saying, “But I shoot with RAW and this is unnecessary”. OK, that is partly true. You can, with RAW format files change the white balance in the post-processing. Here are two reasons you should NOT do that…

  1. It is time saving to get as much right in the camera as possible. I like to spend my time shooting not computing!
  2. I have rarely met anyone who can remember colours so accurately that they get the post-processing colour and temperature balance right. I like to get them right in-camera as accurately as possible. Then I can safely change them later if necessary.

RAW format is excellent – you have complete control over colour temperature and hues. However, if the picture is wrong from the start, RAW is only as good as your own memory or colour awareness. Artists of many years may be able to remember colours accurately. Very few others can. Beginners especially have very poor colour memory/accuracy. So, use RAW, get it right in-camera – then do your artistic processing from a solid colour-base you know is accurate.

Compensation and accuracy

While both compensation for colour casts, and accurate representation of colour casts both rely on white balance there are differences in how they are treated. Strong colours or a strong colour bias through the picture needs some special treatment. Think about the two different methods above and practice them.

Comments, additions, amendments or ideas on this article? Contact Us
or why not leave a comment at the bottom of the page…

By Damon Guy (author and Photokonnexion editor)

Damon Guy - Netkonnexion

Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)

Damon is a writer-photog and editor of this site. He has run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training for digital photographers.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’.

The secret to a wonderful black background with moody lighting

Mastering the black background

• Mastering the black background •
With very little practice you can get a perfect black background and moody lighting.

The eye is captured by solid black.

It provides a really focussed experience for the viewer. Low key and solid black backgrounds provide a wonderful insight on detail and features. If you get this right it provides an excellent insight for portraits and helps many other aspects of your photography. This is a technique I use for product photos, still life, landscapes and flower photography.

Simplicity itself

The technique involves using a bright light (off camera flash) to overpower the ambient light. The steps are simple…

  • Set your camera to its lowest ISO setting (around ISO 100) – the sensor is least sensitive to light.
  • Set your aperture to a high f number (small aperture = low light), say f11, or higher so that the amount of light your camera lets in is very small.
  • Take a test shot to ensure your screen is black – you want nothing to show.
  • Shoot with a diffused off-camera flash at full power using a narrow beam.

This simple technique is relying on extreme underexposure. Basically you are underexposing the whole scene to blackness. But then you are introducing a very narrow beam of brightness that overcomes a limited area of the underexposed shot. This leaves your highlighted spot on the subject in a moody light with the rest in black.

Photography Technique: The Invisible Black Background

Glyn Dewis  External link - opens new tab/page introduces the technique on video. Notice the way the umbrella is creating a focussed narrow beam of light. You can do the same thing with “barn door” lights or cards either side of a reflected flash. Enjoy the video…

By Damon Guy (author and Photokonnexion editor)

Damon Guy - Netkonnexion

Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)

Damon is a writer-photog and editor of this site. He has run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training for digital photographers.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’.

How to work with reflectors… essential!

Every photographer likes natural light – reflectors give you more.

Using a reflector you can use ambient natural light and modify it to suit your needs. The 5-in-one reflector is probably one of the best buys you can make to extend your lighting.

The five-in-one reflector is a system of reflectors in one package. The system includes a white ring (42inch) with white translucent material filling the ring. The translucent ring is accompanied by reversible covers. The set provide the following properties…

  • Translucent white: creates a strong light diffuser It creates a soft light so it has a vibrant wrap-around quality. Ideal for softening hard light sources, direct sunlight and effectively creating soft shadow edges particularly on the face for portraits.
  • Silver cover: reflects silver-light for increasing specular highlights and high-contrast light reflectance.
  • Gold cover: reflects a warm golden colour for gold colour fill light which is ideal for sunsets, portraits indoors and out, and for special work like fashion highlights, jewellery and back reflection on other surfaces.
  • White cover: produces an even and neutral reflection which will be an effective fill-light for still-life, portraits, product shots and many other situations where light is needed at an angle to the main source of light.
  • Black cover: used to absorb light increasing the shadow on the side used and to dampen the softer lights in the area. Effectively applies definition to glass on the edges of illuminated glass pieces. It will also stop-down sun light and bright hard lights.

In the video the guys from ImprovePhotography go through the different reflectors and how they can be used… more information after the video.
Published on May 23, 2012 by ImprovePhotography External link - opens new tab/page

The use of reflectors is the best way to create a second light-source to produce fill-light for your shots. Reflection or diffusion softens light and reduces its intensity. This is great news because it means that the reflected light looks natural and in proportion to the main light source. It even exhibits similar tonal quality to the main source unless the reflector colours it as gold or silver for example. One side of the shot will be illuminated with ambient light from a natural source or from a flash or other light. The other side is filled by the reflected light. Reflectors are a great way to extend your lighting equipment cheaply and to create great light that is controllably in proportion to the other light in the area. Excellent!

You can buy a five-in-one reflector set on Amazon now…

By Damon Guy (author and Photokonnexion editor)

Damon Guy - Netkonnexion

Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)

Damon is a writer-photog and editor of this site. He has run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training for digital photographers.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’.

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If you shoot with JPG, beware Auto-White Balance

"Test shot" - the ambient light in the room has created a yellow/red colour cast.

“Test shot” – the ambient light in the room has created a yellow/red colour cast. Removing this colour would be pretty impossible in *.jpg format.

It is ironic that people often shoot with the image format *.JPG because it seems ‘easier’. They can simply point and shoot with the camera on auto-settings. Well, precious photos are at risk. The *.jpg format dumps data when it is created in the camera.

Shooting in *.JPG mode is a problem. The data that is dumped leaves the file ‘baked’. Photographers use that term to describe a file where your options for change are limited. It’s a bit like a cake. Once the ingredients are baked, you cannot change the flavor of the cake. You might be able to make cosmetic changes. But you cannot change the fundamentals of the cake. So it is with *.jpg. If your colours or your white balance are off, you cannot change it.

Domestic florescent light bulbs (for example low energy bulbs) are some of the worst culprits for colour cast. They often create a bright yellow colour. The ‘Test Shot’ shown above is an example. Our eyes can normally compensate for the colour cast. The camera cannot. This ambient light shot has picked up a bright yellow cast – actually the background was brilliant white. It was white core board. The *.jpg format means that colour cast is there to stay.

Other colours may appear. Most common are yellows or steely blues. It depends on the bulbs that are present. So if you see these colours appear in your test shots, which is quite common, you need to compensate. If you read your camera manual you can look up White Balance. You will be able to find out how to compensate for these colour casts. In most cases digital cameras have white balance menu-settings for ‘tungsten’ and ‘fluorescent’. So it easy to select the appropriate setting. The next test shot will shot the colour as ‘true’ without the cast.

On the other hand, you can make it easy on yourself. Shoot in RAW instead. This is the type of file where the data in the file is retained. Then you can use an image editor – like PhotoShop or Elements – to change the colours when you are doing your post-processing. RAW files do no have the ‘baked in’ colour problem.

That brings me back to my original point. It is ironic that people think it’s easier to shoot in *.jpg until disaster strikes and everything goes yellow! Actually, since you cannot change anything, *.jpg is pretty hard to deal with at that point.

The motto of this story is… either get your white balance right when using *.jpg, or do the sensible thing and learn to shoot in RAW. The latter is easier and more flexible. And, you can save the day in ways that you cannot with *.jpg.

By Damon Guy (author and Photokonnexion editor)

Damon Guy - Netkonnexion

Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)

Damon is a writer-photog and editor of this site. He has run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training for digital photographers.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’.