Recently I covered the basics of white balance in an article that focused on achieving accurate color in your images. This is certainly the most important aspect of white balance in today’s DSLR’s. Just as we strive for accurate color representation, there may also be times that we wish to alter the colorcast to help create a mood, feeling or perception. Remember, light has color because light has an associated temperature.
Different types of photographs and different photographers express moods and feelings differently. If you were to assemble 10 photographers in a room, you just might get ten different ways of showing moods and feelings. Photography is a type of non-verbal communication, therefore, our viewers must be able to sense, feel and otherwise understand what our images are saying without us standing behind them in a gallery. Under normal circumstances this is achieved using the “Three Pillars of Photography”. The first is Aperture, which controls the depth of field and consequently directs the viewer’s eye to the intended subject. The second is ISO. We know that increasing ISO subsequently increases digital noise and this can be used to make an image more gritty or edgy. The last is Shutter Speed, which you need to control in order to demonstrate motion in an image.
For those of you shooting advertising work, your objective is most often to help sell a product. For those of us with a primary focus on nature and wildlife, we are selling conservation and preservation. I would like my viewer to care about the subject. Once they care, they hopefully will want to help protect nature and wildlife. I use each of the “Three Pillars” to direct their eye and fix an idea in their mind. Manipulating white balance is an additional tool to achieve this.
When I shot primarily with a film camera, I would use a wine colored filter on my lens to enhance reddish tones for a more dramatic sunrise or sunset. I also had a very light blue filter for adding the feeling of cold. Today, these are done with a manipulation of the white balance. Not only do we no longer have to invest in filters, but also we keep extra weight out of our camera bags.
In the examples below, white balance was first set to AUTO, but in each one I was trying to achieve a specific mood.
In figure 1, I was shooting at Lake Cane in Orlando, Florida one winter morning. The cooler temperatures at the lake produce a short-lived fog that is ideal for a simple photograph such as this. In the first image, I used an automatic white balance setting and the resulting image is close to the color temperature that was present. It is not, however, what I wanted. I envisioned a colder looking scene, mellower and thus bluer in cast. Similar to what I once achieved by shooting with film on a winter day. To get this blue cast, I changed the white balance setting to incandescent/tungsten. This is about 3200° K. The camera ideally wants to achieve a daylight white balance at about 5200°K. The tungsten setting is for a light that has a yellow cast. The camera thinks it should add some blue to the image to correct the color, thus makes a false correction. In the second image, the additional blue is apparent and effectively changes the mood of the image.
In figure 2, I was shooting a sunrise at Nauset Beach on Cape Cod during the summer of 2014. As in the previous example, I used an automatic white balance setting in the first image and the resulting image is again close to the color temperature that was present. It is not, however, what I wanted, which was a brilliantly angry red sky. To bring out the red, I changed the white balance setting to a numerical value of 10,000°K. With a high numeric value of 10,000, the camera is being told that the light is very blue in color and it needs to compensate by adding reds and yellows to bring the value back to 5200°K. In the second image, the additional red is apparent and dramatically changes the mood of the image.
Knowing how to manipulate my white balance for dramatic color changes, I awoke one morning at the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary in South Dakota, (where I spend each September guiding and teaching photographers among the herds and bands of wild mustangs), to find a sky with wonderful cloud patterns. I quickly raced out to a location near the visitor center with a horse statue and made the image shown using a high white balance value (10,000° K) to bring out the reds in the sky. This made the image more dramatic and powerful. It also enhanced the silhouetted statute against a brilliant red and yellow sky. A few seconds in the field saved time behind the computer during post processing.
George Wilson has more than 30 years of experience as a professional photographer, and his work has appeared in many national and international publications. Now focusing on nature and wildlife photography, George exhibits his infrared black and white landscape work and teaches photography at numerous art centers, botanical gardens and at the Walt Disney World Resort in his home state of Florida. A key element to George’s work is his dedication to traditional photography as his post processing is strictly limited to tools aligning with the traditional darkroom. To see more of George's work, visit wilsonphotographyfl.com