Light Is Rarely White

An aerial view, over the ice, Greenland.

Light Is Rarely White

One of my photography mantras is that Light is Rarely White. It’s a bit of a tongue twister, I know, but I consider it essential knowledge for all serious photographers.

The above image was made, through an airplane window, while flying over Greenland. You'll notice that it's a monochromatic (i.e., one color) image. In this case that's because the color of the light was bluish. The image was made on Daylight/Sunny white balance which means that it's an accurate reproduction of the color of the light under which I was photographing.

The Color Of Light

The color of the light that we photograph under varies based upon the time of day, weather conditions and depending on whether the light is natural or artificial.

The White Balance function on your camera provides a range of options by which you can neutralize the color of the light so as to enable you to record the world around you closer to the way you perceive it. This will ensure that a red sweater photographs red rather than, for example, orange. 

A few important points worth noting are as follows:

  • We all see colors, and the color of light, differently
  • In most circumstances our brain tries to neutralize the color of the light so that we perceive colors within the world around us as we would expect them to appear
  • Exceptions to this rule are sunrise and sunset

My understanding is that, due to the history of the oil painting, our brain is less likely to try to neutralize the color of the light, under those conditions, because of our collected memory of what a sunrise or sunset should look like.

In Camera White Balance

You can apply a white balance correction in a number of ways prior to making the photo in camera. My preference is to manually adjust the white balance by choosing the appropriate option (e.g., daylight, cloudy, shade, incandescent) from the list available to me in camera. Be aware that the names of these presets will vary across camera brands but, generally, fall in line with the following logic.

Nikon                                        Canon
Daylight or Direct Daylight   = Sunny
Incandescent                         = Tungsten

What’s In A Name

It may also be that your camera uses symbols to illustrate a particular white balance. So a graphic symbol representing the sun would be the same as Sunny on a Canon or Daylight or Direct Daylight on a Nikon. Likewise a graphic illustrating a building in shade would be referred to as Shade in camera menus that use words rather than symbols to define the white balance presets. It’s really not all that hard. 

So when you’re paid a compliment on your photography, followed by a comment along the lines of “is that what it really looked like”. Here’s some possible replies:

  • Yes, absolutely
  • No, I messed around with it in Photoshop and now it’s ended up looking nothing like it did
  • How would I know, I’m only the photographer

A colorfully lit alleyway, photographed at night, in the city of Bruges (i.e., Brugge), Belgium.

The above photo, made on a summer’s evening looking down a narrow alleyway in the beautiful city of Bruges (i.e., Brugge) in Belgium was lit with incandescent (i.e., tungsten) light. As you can see incandescent light castes a warm, yellow/orange light. Traditionally incandescent light was emitted by those screw in and bayonet light bulbs that were common in kitchens and certain types of desk lamps.

I live in Australia and, in this part of the world, those globes have been replaced by newer fluorescent light sources which can vary in color depending upon the specific tube used. This can make it harder to manually select the right color balance up front. But testing out a few white balance presets, including Auto White Balance (i.e., AWB), should get you very close to an optimum result when photographing under predominantly incandescent lighting conditions.

The small round halogen (i.e., down lights) found in many living rooms have a similar color temperature to the traditional incandescent globes.

How to Neutralize White Balance

The fact is that, for folks photographing in RAW, it doesn’t really matter what white balance you have your camera set to. This is why a lot of photographers probably set their camera to Auto White Balance. They probably just don’t want to think about such things at the time the photo is made, in camera, and know that they can easily reset the white balance in a RAW Converter such as Lightroom while processing the RAW file on the desktop.

White Balance and JPEG

However, if you’re photographing with your camera set to JPEG you need to get the white balance right in camera. While you can adjust white balance in Lightroom, you’re options are dramatically reduced when the file you’re working with is a JPEG.

White Balance on a RAW file is really just a tag that’s applied to the file. You can change the tag (e.g., Cloudy to Incandescent) in your RAW Converter at any stage without any loss of image quality. The same is not true for a camera-generated JPEG file. In this case the white balance is literally baked into the file. While you can tweak the image in an application like Lightroom you’ll never completely correct a JPEG image with really poor white balance. I know, I’ve tried.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru