Since I always shoot in RAW, I almost always have the camera set on auto white balance (since I can change it during Lightroom processing). My Canon 50D does a fair job with the white balance, though I usually have to bump the purple a bit (the images are a bit green). I’ve just picked up a Canon 6D (more on this in a later post), and the auto white balance seems to do even a better job. However, in certain situations, the auto white balance setting is totally fooled. Such was the case when I shot in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Reina Sofia Art Museum in Madrid on my recent trip. It seems that my camera, if not most cameras, have a hard time with artificial light – often because there are multiple light sources (with different color characteristics) plus colored reflections off painted walls.
I suppose a quick primer on the color of light and white balance is needed (if you know about this stuff, skip this paragraph). All light has color. Daylight is naturally a bit yellow and warm. However, the same daylight in the shade is often blue because of the light coming from a blue sky. Light from tungsten bulbs is very warm and orange-yellow; light from fluorescent bulbs is green. The human eye does see these colors, but the human mind overrides what we see because the mind “knows” what color things are supposed to be and corrects for the “wrong” colors produced by the light. For example, snow is white, right. So when we look at a snow field in the shade on a sunny day, we see white snow; but in reality, the snow is blue in color. Same for a white piece of paper being lit by a tungsten lamp, it looks white, but in reality, it is colored orange -yellow. (Want proof? Try this experiment. Take a plain white piece of paper. Set it upright against the base of a table lamp with a tungsten bulb by a window. The paper should look white. Now, go outside [preferably at dusk, while there is still light in the sky] a ways off from the house and look back in the window at the paper. It should look orange or yellow tinted. This is because your mind is now “correcting” for the outside light, not the inside light.) While our minds can do this nifty little trick, cameras cannot. This is why digital cameras have white balance settings (and film cameras have different types of film for different light conditions). The white balance setting attempts to correct for the color of the light to make white white, black black, and grey grey. If you shoot JPEGs (instead of RAW), it is important to get the right white balance setting, or you may end up with color tints you don’t want (for example, using a daylight setting in the snow example above will result in blue snow in your image).
White balance settings in cameras are far from perfect. Often a scene is lit by more than one type of light (a scene with significant areas of both sunlit and shaded subjects for example). This is why I like auto white balance and shooting in RAW – the camera makes a guess, but if it is wrong, I can easily fix it.
However, sometimes I have no idea what the color of the light and no idea what the true color of the subject is. In these cases, it is difficult to get the color right. In these situations, following best photographic practices, you should set a custom white balance for your camera (many digital cameras have this option, it typically involves taking a photo of a white or 18% gray piece of paper. Alternatively, you can take your image of the paper with any white balance setting, then in Lightroom, correct the white balance by using the white balance eyedropper tool [also known as the white balance selector tool] on the paper). While it doesn’t take very long to set a custom white balance, it is only good for those exact light conditions. If you go to a different room, say in an art museum, you need a new custom white balance. Needless to say, I’m typically not that dedicated. So when in the art museums on my trip, I just used auto white balance and thought I’d try to correct later.
When I looked at the art museum photos after the trip ended, they typically had orange color casts, as in the examples here (Girl in the Window by Dali from the Reina Sofia Art Museum, and By the Seashore by Renoir and The Dance Class by Degas both in the Metropolitan Museum of Art). In Lightroom, I played with the white balance, but couldn’t seem to find a setting I liked.If I only had a neutral color (black, white, or grey) in the images, I could use the Lightroom’s custom white balance eyedropper tool and correct the color cast. My frustration was made only worse by the realization I had no idea what color Degas, Picasso, Renoir, Dali, or Van Gogh, etc. intended in their paintings, even for those areas that looked white, black or grey.
However, I soon figured out how to restore the correct color to the art masterpieces. It is my habit, when taking photos in a museum, to also photograph the explanation for the exhibit I’m photographing so I can remember exactly what it is. So in this case, when I took a photo of a painting, I also took a photo of the explanatory card next to it listing the painter, name of the painting, etc. Whether on purpose or not, it turns out, at least in these two art museums, the explanatory cards are printed on neutral-colored papers, and being next to the paintings, they are lit by the same light source.
With this realization, in Lightroom I opened the card photo for a particular painting in the Develop module and used the eyedropper tool on the card paper. Then copying the white balance settings, applied the same settings to the photo with the painting. It was as if magic, suddenly the colors popped and the paintings looked even better than I remembered them in the museums. Masterpieces restored by the magic of custom white balance.
I haven’t had much chance to edit or go over the images from my recent trip to New York and Spain last month. My final night in New York, I spent an hour or so working on night shots along the East River photographing Manhattan and the Queensboro Bridge (59th Street Bridge). The location was only a couple of minutes walk from the apartment I stayed at on Roosevelt Island.
After taking several shots of the bridge and various compositions with the buildings in Manhattan, I decided to try a panorama. My efforts were frustrated by the passing of barges along the East River, which ruined the reflections in the water. But eventually I got several series of images completed. The one above is a HDR panorama created from 6 vertical shots (with each vertical shot created by 3 different exposures). Thus the complete image represents 18 different shots. Exposure times were 4, 15, and 30 seconds. The HDR work was done with Photomatix and the panorama was stitched in Photoshop. I’m not totally happy with the result, and it needs a bit more work, but I thought I’d post it to see what you thought.
Yesterday, being our first full day in New York, I decided to carry the full camera bag and tripod around. Probably not the best move, since the camera bag bumped into several people, including Tanya (according to her, about 25 times). We hit two big sites yesterday, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Top of the Rock.
It is the museum’s policy to have visitors check all bags and backpacks – except for camera bags! At the security desk, they gave me a special pass allowing me to carry my camera bag (backpack) in the museum. However, it could not be worn on my back. Most of the visit, Tanya wore it for me on her front – what a woman! And, as it turns out, tripods are allowed on Wednesdays through Fridays – again with a special pass, this one given out by the information desk. They tape the pass to the tripod, so that the museum the guards/docents can see that you have it. I got the feeling they didn’t particularly like me using my tripod (more than one dirty look), but only one or two checked my passes. I felt rather special, being able to use the tripod; and it came in very handy, since flash is not allowed.
After the museum, and a short taxi ride, we arrived at Rockefeller Plaza. Here we bought our tickets to the top ($25 each, a bit steep if you ask me), and went to have a drink at the Rockefeller Cafe (with windows on the ice-skating rink). We had to wait an hour, then went through security (think airport, complete with x-ray machines and metal detectors) to go up. At security, they asked “did anyone tell you about the tripod policy?” “No,” I said. “Well, you cannot spread the legs; you can only use it with the legs together like a monopod.” I’m thinking, you’ve got to be kidding, a classy place like the Metropolitan Museum lets me use a tripod, and a tourist dive like the Top of the Rock will not?
The Top of the Rock is on the 68th, 69th, and 70th floors of Rockefeller center. The 70th floor is a 360-degree, open-air view. There were one of two other people using tripods, and I wanted to take a shot of Tanya and I with the city in the background, so I broke the rules and no one said anything. It was about 6:20 p.m. and dark. So I used the flash for us and a long exposure for the background lights. (Hint – when shooting a photo like this, have the subject stay still through the entire exposure, in this case 10 seconds, not just during the flash. If the subject moves after the flash goes, the background will be visible through the subject.) Tanya went inside out of the cold (the wind was blowing) and I took a lot more shots (trying to not fully extend my tripod legs). This, coupled with the wind, presented a problem, and most the shots I took turned out blurry. However, I did get a few relatively clear ones and put together the HDR image featured here (three shots, 2 stops apart).
Today, I left the tripod at the apartment we are renting, and we went to the American Museum of Natural History (no tripods allowed). Tonight, I did pull out the tripod again to take more night shots – this time with the legs fully extended. These shots are of the skyline and East River from Roosevelt Island (which is where we are staying). I doubt I’ll have a chance to process those until I get home, so stay tuned and hopefully I can show you in a couple weeks how those turned out.
Tomorrow we leave New York and fly to Spain. I hope to have another post from there in a few days.