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How Cameras See - Color

Your digital camera doesn't see the way you do. Understanding the differences in the way you and your camera see is the start of taking great pictures.
Digital Cameras see things very differently than you or I do. Understanding this difference can make a world of difference in your images.

A little background
In the mid-1800s, well before modern photography, a temperature scale was devised by Lord Kelvin called, appropriately enough, the Kelvin Scale. Roughly speaking, Kelvin temperature measures the color of a bar of steel as it's heated to different temperatures.

In the early-days of film, the color of mid-day sunlight was measured. On the summer solstice at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC at noontime, the color of the ambient light was measured. It was determined that when you heat a bar of steel to about 5200 degrees Kelvin, it had the same color as the mid-day light. Thus, the Kelvin scale has been used ever since to measure color in photography.

Here is an example of the Kelvin color temperature scale, as it applies to photography:

Kelvin Scale

Here are some examples of the Kelvin scale, as it applies to light:

Ambient LightK Temperature
Candle Flame1,850
Sunrise or Sunset2,000
100-Watt Tungsten Light Bulb2,865
Summer Sunlight at Noon5,400
Overcast daylight6,000

Automatic translation?
As humans, we're at a disadvantage when tyring to discern color.  Our cameras see things the way they actually are, but we DON'T. We have the disadvantage of having a brain - well, at least in this case it's a disadvantage. Our brains "translate" color automatically for us. So, when you're in a room lit by a warm fluorescent light (about 2800 degrees Kelvin), our brain compensates, which makes all colors look "normal", when in fact, they all have a color cast. On a cloudy day, the color of the light is much bluer - again, our brains compensate for this automatically. We always see things the way our brains "expect" to see them - not the way they actually look, given the ambient lighting. But our cameras don't have our brain, and they see things the way they really are.

In the OLD days, film was calibrated to expect either 5200 degree Kelvin light (daylight-balanced film) or 3400 degree Kelvin light (tungsten-balanced film). With film, you had to use color-compensation filters to change the color of the light to match what the film expected. Digital cameras made color compensation filters obsolete.

Introducing White Balance
The motion picture industry invented something called "White Balance", that has carried thru to our modern digital cameras. White balance "corrects" the colors in an image by adding or subtracting various colors. White balance affects the ENTIRE image - all colors are affected equally. So, if you were to take an image under tungsten light (about 3400 degrees Kelvin), your image would have an orange tint. So, to correct, you'd have to add some blue (the complementary color to orange) to correct the colors in the image. That's what White Balance does. You have a choice with White Balance: Automatic or Manual. Each has its advantages.

Automatic White Balance
Your digital camera just records what it sees. Your camera tries to figure out how to compensate for differently colored light - but it doesn't always succeed. It does this by looking at the brightest object in the image, and assumes that it is WHITE. It then add/subtracts color until that brightest object is white, thus changing all of the colors in the image. This feature is called AUTOMATIC WHITE BALANCE. Unfortunately, it only works if the color temperature of the ambient light is within about 1,000 degrees Kelvin of a sunny day (roughly between about 4000 and 6500 degrees Kelvin). All digital cameras have this feature, but sometimes it doesn't always work correctly.

Take a look at this image taken with a Nikon D800. The image below on the left is an unprocessed JPEG image taken with AUTO White Balance - the camera obviously did NOT get the white balance correct! The image on the right is the way the image SHOULD look (more on how to do that coming up below).

Auto White Balance

Manual White Balance
The secret to getting good color in your images is to to set the white balance setting on your camera manually. On most digital cameras, you can do this in one of two ways.

1) You can set the white balance to one of the "preset" settings. These usually include settings like:

White Balance Icons 

If you set the most appropriate white balance setting for lighting conditions, your colors will look "normal" in your images.

The following color chart was taken with tungsten lighting using various White Balance settings. These are un-edited (except for resizing) JPEG images. They show how the white balance setting you use affects images. The top-left image shows how the camera compensated pretty well for the orange-color tungsten light. The Auto White Balance setting makes the colors look pretty good - not as good, however, as the TUNGSTEN white balance setting. The top-middle image shows the colors the way they should be - just slightly better than the Auto White Balance setting. Looking at all of the other images, you can see how an incorrect white balance setting can adversely affect your images.

White Balance Sample Images

You also have two other options on most digital cameras.

White Balance Icons

1) You can use your camera's "custom" feature that "measures" the color temperature. Generally it requires you to photograph a white or gray object under the same light as your subject and your camera then figures out the color temperature.

2) You can sometimes set the color temperature manually. If you know what the temperature is (i.e., you're using photo-flood light bulbs and you know the color temperature), you can set the Kelvin temperature directly.

The problem with handling White Balance "manually" is that you have to remember to reset the white balance whenever the color of the light (i.e., shade vs sunlight) changes.

Subtle Differences are Important!
Here are a couple of examples how manual white balance can improve your images. The images on the left are JPEGs shot with Auto-White Balance. The images on the right were shot with Manual White Balance. In these cases, the difference isn't dramatic, but it goes a long way to making your images more pleasing to look at!

Auto White Balance vs Manual

Auto White Balance vs Manual

There's an Easier Way! - just shoot RAW
There are MANY advantages to shooting RAW images over JPEG. One of these is that you don't have to even think about the white balance setting when you're shooting images - and one less thing to think about is a good thing!! When you shoot RAW images, you can set the white balance AFTER you've shot your pictures - on a computer.

In the images below, the left image was shot as a JPEG with AUTO white balance. The image on the right was shot as a RAW image, and during post-processing (I used Photoshop, but most programs like Elements, Lightroom, etc. also allow you to do the same thing), I just moved a slider with my mouse until the color looks right - it couldn't be easier.

Photoshop White Balance Slider

The disadvantage to this is that you have to use a computer program to process your images, but, as we'll see in a future e-Tip, there are MANY other advantages to shooting in RAW. Unfortunately, some point-and-shoot digital cameras don't allow you to shoot RAW images, but some point-and-shoot cameras and almost all DSLR (digital SLR) cameras do.

Auto White Balance

How to Ensure You Get the White Balance Correct in Post Processing
When shooting RAW, you get to select the white balance AFTER you shoot (when editing your image on a computer). There's an easy way to get it EXACT - just shoot 2 images - one that includes something without color. It can be a white object, or an object that is truly gray (no color).

In the images below, I shot 2 images. In the first (top), I just shot the image in JPEG.

In the image below, I inserted the white-side of a reflector in the image and then shot it without the reflector. I did this, so when post-processing the image, I would have a reference object from which to base the correct white balance. I then shot a second image without the reflector. When computer-editing the image, I used the "White Balance Dropper" in Photoshop to automatically correct the white balance using the white reflector.

The bottom image shows shooting with the white reflector, and also shows the "corrected" white balance. You can see how different the color is.
Using a white object to determine White Balance

You don't need to use a reflector - any truly white object will do.

Hopefully you have a better understanding of White Balance. Getting the color right in your images may require a little work on your part: if you shoot JPEG images, you may need to set the White Balance appropriately on your camera before you take an image, or if you shoot RAW images, you will need to spend some time on a computer post-processing your images (a true labor of love).

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