Saturday, May 21, 2011

Better Photographs: White Balance

First things first... about me. Ever since I started hiking and enjoying the outdoors a number of years ago, I wanted to record what I saw. So I naturally took up photography. I dived right in and got my first DSLR--a Canon 10D. A few cameras later and I'm now using a Canon 5D mkII. I now have the fancy camera and have slowly obtained a number of fancy lenses! With all this fanciness, I've managed to take a few nice shots now and then. I'm a complete amateur, but it was really bothering me that a lot of my photos really sucked! Ok, sucks is a harsh word, but the gap between me and the professionals was quite a large one! More like a chasm.

Now, when I say sucked, it wasn't that I couldn't push the button to take a photo very well, or that I was taking photos of boring objects. It was simply that my photographs didn't look at all like the scene I remember photographing. Usually the colors were muted. The bright blue sky was white, the green grass was vaguely greenish, etc.

It turns out I was ignoring the White Balance setting on my camera. I quickly found a color temperature that looked good for my outdoor photography.. The photos looked a lot better, but they still weren't perfect. And indoor photos! Oh... don't get me started! A bit of research and I learned about using color cards for calibrating my camera and software and finding the white balance temperature. So I picked up an X-Rite ColorChecker Passport. What a difference!

So, here's a raw untouched photo from my camera I just took a few minutes ago

Hideous, right! I bet everyone has yellow pictures of their family in their photo albums! Admit it.

Ok, so first I'll take a photo of my ColorChecker Passport

Those are some very yellow colors! Before I set the white balance using this, we can go one step further. The software that comes with the ColorChecker let's you build a color profile for your camera. Every camera has its strengths and weaknesses and may not represent every hue correctly. After using this photo to build an indoor calibration for my camera, I'll apply it.

It still looks horrid, but the hues are shifted correctly. Actually, it almost looks worse to my eyes, but once we do t he white balance it makes quite a difference. All that's left is to point at one of the grey's in the image to use as my white balance. I use Lightroom and it's as simple as clicking a white or grey square on the image. There are several shades on the card so I can select a cooler or warmer looking image. For this example, I chose a neutral white, and here is the result

Now we're talking! So let's apply these settings (I use the developer settings cut & paste in Lightroom) to my original photograph above..

I've pretty much removed the awful yellow lighting from my living room lights! Until recently, I've been faking my photos by using the camera's auto settings or using post processing software that tries to figure out the white balance for me... Sometimes the results were ok, but generally they were never great. So instead I'd spend hours on each photo moving dozens of sliders until I was happy. But usually, the slider jockeying ended up creating a mess and I could no longer remember what the photo was supposed to look like.

Here's one more example from my trip to Yellowstone last year. The before (top) was using the daylight setting on my 5D, the after (bottom) was using the ColorChecker to adjust the white balance and camera calibration. The second photo also uses the lens correction feature of Lightroom 3 as well.

I still consider myself a novice at photography, but each time I learn something new that makes a better picture, I'll write up my discovery. I'm sure I'm not the only one fumbling around all the buttons and dials on these fancy cameras.

First Post

Ah... the obligatory first blog post. I'm only posting this so I can get used to the blogging software. Anyways, I'll be using this blog to talk about my hiking trips, learning photography, and other wacky things that interest me.