White Balance and Photographing Icebergs Under the Midnight Sun

Delicate light illuminates a gigantic iceberg on the edge of the Ilulissat Icefjord in Greenland.

Greenland is a wild and remote land, but it's also very beautiful and, under the midnight sun, it's landscapes are indeed epic. I spent around a week in Western Greenland, most of it in the tourist town Ilulissat, on the edge of Disko Bay and the Ilulissat Icefjord.

This photo was made during a long hike I undertook from around 9pm till about 5am the following morning. While physically difficult it was a truly great experience. While the weather was fine, it did get very windy during various stages of the walk.

The Wind is Not Your Friend

Beware! Tripods placed onto rocky ground become wind conductors and cause significant vibration which you can feel ripping along a tripod leg under such conditions. Far better, where possible, to situate your tripod onto grass or, when working on softer ground, push it into soil, sand or snow.

The Need For Foreground When Photographing Icebergs

The Ilulissat Icefjord is magnificent and the colors produced by the midnight sun can be quite surreal. It's also vast and quite difficult to photograph. The icebergs are huge, some of them the size of large city buildings, and often so crowded together that it's hard to get a sense of scale and three dimensional space.

In the case of the above photo I was careful to include some foreground subject matter to contrast light and dark as well as smooth and textured areas and to emphasize foreground, mid and background elements within the frame. The little patches of green grass help highlight the soft pink colors in the ice and sky.

The Wondrous Colors Of Light And Of Shadows

While it's true that icebergs can sometimes exhibit a strong cyan (i.e., aqua) color, in this case the cyan/blue in the icebergs is largely due to light reflecting from the blue sky above and behind me. You'll notice that it's in the shaded areas of the icebergs where the cyan colored sky is reflected.

And why should shadows on icebergs be any different to those falling on grass, rock, clothing or skin? In each case the color of the shaded area is influenced by the color of the sky that's being reflected onto it. This is the reason why sunlit grass may photograph yellow/green while an adjacent shaded area of the same grass will photograph a much cooler (i.e., bluer) shade of green.

Perception And Reality | What You Make Of What You See

So why is it that most folks don't perceive such changes in color in the world around them? First of all our brain stores memories of how we believe things should look, rather than how they actually do look. That's why most folks will perceive a traditional white wedding dress, photographed in the shade under a clear blue sky, as being white when, in fact, it's not.

At best it's a cool white, due to the bluish color of the sky that's being reflected into it. And that's why, without the appropriate white balance, that dress will usually photograph as a cool, rather than a neutral, white. We see it; we're emotionally effected by it; but we don't quite believe it.

The other reason we don't easily see this cool bluish color cast, in shaded areas under a blue sky, is due to the fact that our brain white balances most scenes so as to make them look more neutral in color and, thereby, re-align them to more closely match our perception of how the subject should actually look.

"I've Done My Time in the Kitchen at Parties" Jona Lewie

Have you ever photographed a kitchen at night under incandescent (i.e., tungsten) lighting? Let's say the kitchen is full of white goods and has white bench tops and a white tiled floor. Will those white areas actually photograph a neutral white or will they be adversely affected by a color cast?

That all depends on the white balance to which the camera has been set. Auto White balance will usually do a pretty good job neutralizing the strong yellow/orange color cast from the incandescent light. Likewise, the Incandescent (i.e., Tungsten on a Canon or Olympus camera) setting should also do a good job under these circumstances.

White Balance And Learning To See Color

Now, just for fun, try making a few photos with your camera set to a Sunny (i.e., Daylight or Direct Daylight) white balance. In doing so you'll effectively be turning white balance off and, thereby, allowing the camera to actually record the true color of light present in the environment in which you're working. In this case you can expect a very yellow/orange result.

But why would you do such a thing? Simply as a learning exercise to allow you to see the actual color of the light under which you're working. By doing so you'll begin to prove to yourself that our own perception of reality is flawed, in this case by our brain effectively white balancing (i.e., neutralizing) the color of the light under which you're photographing.

Color temperature is an amazing gift for the color photographer. But before we can work with it we first need to understand it. And to do that we have to begin to see the color of the light and how it effects the world around us. It's an amazing journey and there's hardly a day goes by without me marveling at the changing color of light throughout the day and from one side of the street to the other.

Seagulls resting on an iceberg in Disko Bay near the town of Ilulissat, Greenland.

Great White Balance Is Simple And Easy 

In the days of film-based photography, particularly with color transparency (i.e., slide) film, I'd usually employ a warming filter to overcome this problem. While I had a range of Light Balancing filters my favorite was the 81B filter, which remained on my camera, in place of a UV or Skylight filter, for almost all of my outdoor photography. These days I set the white balance on my Sony a7Rii camera to Cloudy to achieve a similar result. Incidentally, I used the same setting on my previous Nikon D800e and Canon 5D and 5D Mark II cameras and also on my Leica M9 camera. It works and it's something you might like to try.

Under certain circumstances the Cloudy white balance still won't neutralize all of the bluish light. In that case set your camera to the even stronger Shade white balance setting.

Now most folks prefer to leave their camera on the Auto White Balance setting, simply because they don't want to have to think about such things when making images. There are some advantages with this approach. For example, if the correct white balance setting is somewhere in between Cloudy and Shade it's quite possible the Auto White Balance will find.

However, we're not always wanting to neutralize the color of the light. Sometimes we're trying to embrace it as it's the primary reason why we're making the photo in question. Think of a spectacular sunrise. Your camera has no concept of whether you're photographing a baby, a bar mitzvah or a birthday cake. How could it possibly know you're photographing a sunrise, unless you set it to one of those insane camera presets (called Scene Selection Mode in some cameras) which, by the way, stop you from overriding the cameras metering and subsequent (often inaccurate) exposure. 

So when would you actually use the Sunny/Daylight/Direct Daylight white balance? When you want to record the color that's actually there. It's often my starting point for photographing the city at night, an amazing sunrise or sunset (where auto white balance, not knowing it's a sunset, would try to neutralize the color of that beautiful warm light) and, when there's already a nice mix of warm and cool colored light within the same scene, as was the case with the image above. That's right, it was made on Daylight white balance, but not because it was daylight. 

Let me know how it goes, and don't forget to change your white balance off Cloudy when working under predominantly incandescent/tungsten or lighting. Otherwise you'll end up with an image displaying an extremely orange color cast.

I hope this article helps and please feel free to SHARE widely and wildly. I'd appreciate it.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru