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|| News Item: Posted 2012-04-19

White Balancing

By James Madelin

Photo by James Madelin

Photo by James Madelin
Photography is an endless road of discovery. However much you learn and practice and use your new skills to improve, there’s always more to learn.

My five part “Flash Basics” series is a primer to get you using your speedlight flashes creatively. From now on I’m going to explore more esoteric techniques. This article is all about tricking your white balance settings to get some interesting creative results.

The concept of white balance hinges around the fact that what we think of, as ‘white’ light, for example daylight or the light hanging from your ceiling, will likely be a range of different frequencies on the color spectrum. It can be different colors even though it looks the same color.

It’s weird. If you hold up a piece of white paper indoors, it looks white. Take it outside, it still looks white, even though the light outside is a very different frequency – a different color - than the light inside.

Our own image processing chips, our brains, are exceptionally good at calibrating our built-in auto white balance to compensate for changing lighting so we barely notice the color of light. Cameras can’t even begin to compete.

Have you ever opened photos on your computer and discovered they look orange or green or blue? If you leave your camera on Auto White Balance the differences can be subtle, but I’m sure you know what I mean.

The first thing to remember, to ensure you get the best from any lighting, is to either shoot in RAW or set the white balance manually. Shooting in RAW means your camera will record all the information hitting the sensor, so you can fine-tune the white balance when you open the photo in Photoshop, Aperture or any other reasonable program.

If you’re not shooting in RAW and want to avoid strange color casts, dive into your manual and work out how to set your white balance for different conditions like sunshine, shade, fluorescent lights, flash, etc. It’ll pay dividends.

So what’s this got to do with lighting? There’s a great trick you can play on your white balance to get a really interesting effect.

It involves setting your white balance on the ‘wrong’ setting and then gelling your flash to counteract it. If you’re shooting outdoors and you set your white balance to tungsten and snap a test shot you’ll see that everything looks incredibly blue.

Tungsten is a very orange light source so setting your camera’s white balance to tungsten makes your camera register the other end of the light spectrum more, the blue end. It looks horrible if you’re shooting outdoors. Under tungsten light the orange light and blue-dominant camera setting cancel each other out.

Photo by James Madelin

Photo by James Madelin
So gel your flash with an orange gel to mimic a tungsten light (like a light bulb). Experiment to get just the right gel, but start with a gel called a ‘CTO’. Now everything lit with your flash should be the same color as a tungsten light source and thanks to your WB setting will look like it’s lit with white light. Everything not lit with the flash will be a cool, eerie blue.

Check out the eerie blue cast to the entire scene, except the model lit by a single flash gelled with a CTO and an orbis® used to soften the light. A cool effect that works particularly well for environmental portraits.

Play around with various gels and WB settings and see what happens, then add this technique to your lighting armory!

Try replicating my results first before experimenting. Just remember that you want to gel your flash with a gel that’s a similar color temperature (a measure of white balance) to your camera WB setting. Enjoy!

Light stand:

James Madelin is a professional photographer and lighting workshop tutor based in New Zealand, he is the inventor of the orbis® ring flash. You can see his work on his Sports Shooter member page:

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