Master white balance in your night photography
How do I avoid ugly color casts?
Most of the time, your DSLR is quite capable of capturing accurate colours whatever the lighting. It’s the job of the camera’s white balance system to adjust the colour of the image, replicating the way our eyes see the scene (check out our in-depth guide to common white balance problems – and how to solve them).
The standard Auto White Balance (AWB) setting, however, is much better at getting the colours right in daylight than after dark. Shots taken of floodlit buildings or in your living room, for example, can have a slight but unpleasant orange-yellow colour cast.
This is a sure sign that the white balance is wrong, and this discolouration can be easily corrected in Photoshop, particularly if you shoot using the RAW quality setting.
However, it’s simple enough to get the colours right at the time you’re shooting. All you have to do is set a Custom White Balance. If you’re taking a sequence of shots of the same building, or in the same lighting, this is especially effective. The standard technique is to use a white or grey object and use this to set the white balance.
Is there a simpler way to avoid colour casts?
Even if you set the white balance manually, the colours of some areas of your night shots can still look wrong. The problem here is that a building may be lit by several different light sources, each with a different colour signature.
You can adjust the white balance for one, but adjusting it for them all is a much less straightforward task. A simple solution is to convert these troublesome images to black and white.
Shoot in colour, and then convert them to monochrome using your photo-editing software; this gives you the best control over the contrast and tonal range of the image. It’s a good technique to use on your party portraits, too!
How do I set manual white balance?
All digital SLRs enable you to set the white balance precisely, using a reference shot you’ve already taken. The following steps show the steps for doing this with a Canon DSLR, the exact procedure may vary if using other brands…
- You know when it’s time to act when your pictures start to look orange.
- Take a picture of something white or grey. Choose the Menu button and select the Custom WB option. Ensure the reference shot is on screen, then press Set.
- Now change your White Balance from AWB to the Custom option (denoted by a black rectangle above two triangles). Subsequent pictures will have no colour cast. Remember to recalibrate the white balance setting when you shoot a different scene.
An alternative method
The traditional method is to use a sheet of white paper or a grey card for your reference picture when setting a custom white balance. But you can get away with just using a picture of the subject itself.
This shot of Krakow Castle is much too orange. We then used this image as the reference for a Custom White Balance setting.
Using this lesser-known method results in a much better final image.
PAGE 1: Overview
PAGE 2: Choosing the right aperture
PAGE 3: Choosing the right shutter speed
PAGE 4: Choosing the right ISO settings
PAGE 5: Choosing the right White Balance
PAGE 6: Using flash in your night photography
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