The Colour of Light
As photographers developing our sense of observation is as important as getting to know our gear or understanding the technical aspects of nailing exposure or focus. Seeing light is as important as seeing your subject and one of the main characteristics of light is its colour. It is well known that the colour of light is determined by the wavelength of the light (primary school experiments with torches and prisms spring to mind, as do images of rainbows). However to a less observant or untrained eye it is not always that easy to see the colour of light when you are out photographing and more so when you are photographing indoors typically where the ambient light is man-made. Our brains also make white balance adjustment for us, creating the illusion that light is for the most part white.
Colour Creates Mood
Way back when I photographed on film and when I bought my day-light balanced or day-light calibrated film, I knew that as long as I photographed outdoors on a sunny day colour would be correct in my images. Going indoors would be a challenge as a red Coke can could look slightly more orange than its trademarked red colour and everything else pretty much too… I learned quickly that day-light white balance was not only for sunny conditions but also to capture the colour of light as it is. Also that the colour of light created mood in my images – the reason we perceive candlelit dinners as romantic is as much due to the warm colour of the candle light as it is due to the hot date on the other side of the table. For this reason I became more particular as to when to neutralize the colour of light with my White Balance filters.
Creative White Balance
Digital cameras have made White Balance issues much easier to resolve. The camera’s built in Auto White Balance setting does for the most part a good job at neutralizing colour casts and it is common knowledge that White Balance can be easily corrected in post-production especially if you shoot in RAW, making thinking about White Balance settings while shooting almost redundant.
I believe a case can be made that the digital era could limit our creativity in this regard. However, White Balance can become an additional creative choice. Let me explain…
Built-in Filter FUN
The cameras built in filters include 3 yellow filters of different intensities (flash WB, cloudy WB and shade WB), a blue filter (tungsten WB) and a magenta filter (fluorescent WB). I love experimenting with the yellow filters when I photograph sunsets, adding more warmth, or adding the blue or magenta filters to misty scenes or sunrises. The White Balance filters are therefore used to add and enhance the colour in the image as opposed to neutralising the colour of light.
Daylight WB will capture the colour of light as it is, and is my go to choice when I photograph stage lighting, fireworks or when the mood in the image is crucial to the storytelling.
Creating creative custom White Balance filters in colours other than those you already have in-camera is also fun. This is done in your camera’s WB Preset Measurement menu (Nikon) or Custom WB (Canon). The process varies a little for different camera models, but it is fairly easy to find the exact method for your camera on-line.
Remember WB filters are created in colours directly opposite the reference colour or colour cast colour on the colour wheel. Thus to create a Green filter, for instance, you need Magenta as the reference colour. I photographed a piece of dark fuchsia paper as the reference colour, which the camera used to create a green White Balance Filter.