Mixed Light, Color Rendering, Etc

A quick follow up from the reader question post over the weekend. This time instead of just a technical neutralization of whites with two distinct light sources with two color temperatures about 1000 points apart to illustrate just how different they were - let's take a look at something even more complicated. Not that I made it complicated on purpose - that happens all the time even without flash in interesting natural light.

As usual I chose a shot made specifically for the lighting field guides. I know I didn't use this one. It's the very first test shot I made for this setup. This one also has completely different post processing from anything in the lighting guides - not a one-click VSCO so it looks completely different than any of the illustrations in Simulating Sunlight I. There was a switch panel to Anastasia's right that I had to clone out it bothered me so much as well - the bane of indoor location photography. I also shot it standing strait up so she looks really short even though with heels she is the same height as I am. Hey, if you like this perspective - go for it. It's quite trendy at the moment.

The shot at the top is a tiny crop to better see how the various color temperatures are playing in the scene. Here's the un-cropped three-quarter length shot…

Both of them are a fairly radical departure from the as shot auto-WB. Both have a heavily forked-with version of VSCO 800Z that renders upper-mids and highlights more to my way of seeing the way color neg film renders. Fuji 800Z (RIP - I think) had crazy colors compared to it's sibling 400H that is somewhat represented in VSCO's digital representation and here it actually exaggerates the color effects of the various light sources.

Here's what the Nikon D600 chose with auto WB.

Way way different than today's custom choices. Both are okay - depends on my mood. In this circumstance as in most there are going to be choices to be made rather than any one and true ultimate "correctness" of any sort. Unless you go to great pains when shooting in mixed light and especially in various environments this is going to happen all the time. Hence the choices, all of which are going to be a matter of taste - either yours or your clients.

Let's run through what's going on here. There are three distinct light sources with three different colors that are pretty far apart.

  • Obviously (or hopefully not real obviously) is my little un-gelled speedlight acting as the sun. It's pretty blue - actually very blue with not a whole lot of tint one way or another.
  • As with the reader questions post there is also the big broad directionless interior bouncing around of ambient off of the warm-white walls and everything else in the room. It's way way redder and way greener than the flash.
  • Unique to this setup and why I shot it for illustration in the first place there is a third. You cannot see it in this framing (another reason I didn't choose this for the eBook) but the actual real sun is blasting down from the same direction as my speedlight just at a much higher angle. It's smashing into the floor directly in front of the subject. The floor happens to be a yellow-orange hardwood. So we have a big bright up-fill that is also way warmer and even more yellow than that ambient fill. It's also brighter but broad enough and still below the exposure of my flash so that it doesn't cast any shadows of it's own.

The white balance I choose for this post is actually in a fairly extreme direction on the green/pink axis to better show the three distinctly different colorations of those light sources. If you go really far one way or the other you start to make everything so warm or so cool or so pink or so green that that's all you can see. The interesting stuff usually happens with tweaks that are pretty narrow. Here I made it 250 points bluer and twelve points greener. That's a lot. The camera saw all the yellow being introduced at a high exposure level and dialed in a bunch of pink which made everything pinker/redder instead of yellow-ish. That's okay - they both are okay somewhere in between is okay. Depends on your desire. You could modify the shooting circumstances such that all those colored sources are closer together - that would give you a whole different flavor. Me - I would just reverse the flash/fill relationship in terms of which one is warmer and which one is cooler for my desires.

The notion that there is some "correctness" to target here is really not the case. Say you had a color target. Which way would you point it? Would you make sure it was lit only by the big ambient fill? The speedlight? Or maybe that up fill yellow-orange from the floor? Which source would you click your way to absolute neutral rendition? You can't have all three. Here's a great idea - how about doing complicated stuff in curves or some other similar tool to neutralize all of them based on highlights/mids/shadows. Ooops that won't work either as the mids/shadows are all over the map. Guess you will need to have a bunch of different mid and shadow "corrections" where you can use all of your masking prowess to apply in various proportions. Forget it unless thats somehow what you like about photography.

Me - I figured out a long time ago I was cool with mixed color sources and actually embrace them in most cases. The one case I don't like is bluer/harder and warmer/softer especially in combination. Hence a $1.00 Rosco sample pack is my answer. I actually care way way more about the upper-midtone and highlight relationships than I do about some ultimate righteousness in terms of neutral color. If you take a look at Anastasia's right arm (farthest to the left of the frame) and the rest of the image where the flash is hitting the skin - that happens to be the upper mid/highlight relationship I prefer in most cases.

Here's a big take away. White balance controls or any of their cousins - and how/where you dial them not gray targets are a factor of 10 or 100 or even 1000 times bigger influence than whatever camera brand you shoot in terms of rendering color. Different cameras will make different choices in terms of what temperature and tint it chooses in the same circumstances and that is huge. You can see what a mere 250/12 does in these circumstances. It's also much bigger than any particular preset. Obviously your choices here completely influence what any particular preset does. Here is something really extreme that makes the whites more "white". After looking at the above images it will probably look really blue - it is but a vast majority of the whites are actually white. The relationships don't change at all. Shadows still warmer than highlights.

The other take away is that making choices when you shoot - like to gel or not gel a speedlight is a huge deal. Much bigger than a preset or what any post processing choices to "fix them". I think gels may have a bit of a bad rap with most photographers that want "normal" results. I think that a lot of people think of them as extremely effect-y. They can be but with a more judicious use and sticking with the CTO/CTS family they really are about changing the set of color relationships which is hard or impossible to do in post. Just like lighting ratios/relationships. The relationships are something you deal with when shooting - those choices are something you don't want to convince yourself can be manipulated to an large extent in post - they can't.

My limit when it comes to gels - making relationships look more like the way I like them (highly influenced by too many movies). Just like lighting ratios - color relationships are something that is pretty much set when you shoot. They are in a lot of ways an art rather than a prescription. Even if you only shoot "natural" light these are a choice and almost never will you encounter some all over one temperature/tint lighting situation.

As an aside, I am a sucker for limited color palettes when shooting color. Especially whites with skin or reds being the "color" in a generally white dominant image. I was thinking about where that came from yesterday and it just so happens it came from an old photography advertisement way back. Well it may have come from a lot of places but this one ad is one that I remember even now. Kodak came out with a line of new films - the Ektar family of color neg film. ISO 25, 125, and 1000. For a few years they used to run a series of full page Ektar promotions on the back cover of a lot of photography publications. One was of a cowboy wearing sunglasses shot on 35mm Ektar 25 with a crop magnified from his sunglasses and the reflection of all the detail you could see of the landscape he was facing. Sort of a pixel peeper kind of thing from the old-days.

I remember that one but a less frequent one was a really simple shot of a rose in a white vase with a backdrop of pristine white painted millwork. I also believe that was Ektar 25 maybe it was Ektar 125 - that image still sticks in my mind 30 years later. I liked it so much I just cannot stop shooting reds/skin on white backdrops - not white seamless but white surroundings that have some sort of ambience.

RB

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