White Balance As A Creative Tool

In the last post I discussed the role of local contrast and how a bit less of it might actually be what is needed in a particular image. Specifically if you wanted a sharp/soft feel as old-style higher speed films used to deliver in typical D-76 developers. I do have to apologize that I incorrectly said that Aperture can do negative definition - it cannot. Of course it cannot. I was thinking Silver EFEX Pro and structure which is where 80% of serious B+W conversions happen in my world…

In the same direction as the discussion about clarity and local contrast I wanted to put a couple of thoughts out there about white balance. If you shoot film obviously this work is done to your taste by your lab. If you shoot digital it's roll your own. The reason I wanted to discuss this is because most of the discussions out there are all about techno-correctness in terms of obtaining the ultimate failsafe neutral white balance or some such unicorn.

Let's throw that idea out because in most real world shooting conditions that are controlled to exactly degrees that may actually be impossible. Not important. What's important is the way an image looks and if it meets your intent - or your client's intent. If we throw absolutely accurate and neutral all over out what we are left with is what looks best. Let me postulate that neutral is not always the best way to go. Let me also postulate that warmer than neutral is not always better. In fact the opposite may be true for a lot of looks that you actually desire.

Like all things in photography it's about taste and intent. Also like all things in photography a little goes a very very long way in most cases. Assuming that most of you watch some sort of films - as in movies or cinematic television shows you might have noticed that various scenes are immediately identifiable to you in terms of where and when the scene may be taking place. A lot of this is a trick because it's actually shot at a completely different time and a completely different place.

Even when the time/scene matches up with that actual shooting pay careful attention to the way color temps are used as queues and play a major part along with lighting and lighting ratios to denote a particular feel. In almost no cases is it dead neutral - it's close but not neutral. The Hollywood guys (gals to) know there stuff so steal it. Window light, cloudy conditions, night time, etc are almost always shot in varying degrees of cool. Just like you perceive them in real life. Scenes that are supposed to have sun in them are shot neutral to warm. Sunset is shot really warm. With a few exceptions regular old sunshine especially in morning hours are not shot that warm just a hair. Tungsten interiors at night are a bit more warm but not nearly as warm as sunset.

This is the trick. To match up the overall color balance with the lighting motivation to suggest mood and location. Even if it's completely different than how you actually made the shot. Not every single solitary shot has to have a sunset color balance. In my opinion having that warm a color balance in softer light actually looks really really wrong. In open shade I almost never get anywhere warm - it just looks kind of wrong. At best I will go neutral and then will probably cool it down just a hair and add a touch of pink - depends. If your color balance doesn't match up with what kind of light should be there it looks kinda off to me. Like sunset warm color balance and not even a trace of hard light at low angle - it just doesn't seem to register right.

The shot at the top has parts that are a hair - like a tiny hair warmer than neutral and parts that are a little cooler than neutral. I was going for sunshine in the morning kinda feel. The next shot is actually using much of the same light in the same location. I wanted it cool because it's a cloudy day and it's diffused window light. Warm here just would not feel right without the hard light somewhere - not necessarily on the subject - to suggest sunniness.

Just some food for thought. As always - add or subtract to taste but definitely learn from the best. Pay attention to lighting in terms of implied sources and ratios and overall color balance the next time you watch a well done film or serial and use what you learn by breaking it down to your own ends.


Ps. I told you you can make almost infinite shots in the exact same place… Just one more example of what I mean.

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