White Balance Blues

What is the correct white balance?

I consider myself fortunate to be a people shooter; white balance is mostly a matter of taste for me. I don’t live in the precise world of product photography where the green in the BP logo must be that particular green, thank you.

I do have the Passport Color Checker to give me that precision which, like flossing, I try to use as often as possible (wink, wink). OK, I confess: I floss a lot more than I Color Check.

The blues in the title comes from white balancing theatrical lighting situations. What do you do? The lighting designer is going for impact; the photographer is at the dinner party getting fed the mystery casserole and politely must take what he is given. Back at the safety of home base or the studio or wherever editing software calls home he is left to ponder the meal – often with the aftertaste of a good stomach acid session.

The problem with theatrical lighting is 1). it isn’t designed with the photographer in mind 2). I often wonder if it is designed at all sometimes (other than all the pretty colors – let’s use red!) as half the time the featured performer is left in the dark and 3). it’s not designed with the photographer in mind.

Let’s start here (straight out-of-camera image).

I normally shoot with the camera set to tungsten. I’m sure this is a faithful reproduction of what the eye sees, but during the live performance you see the entire stage. At 200mm you see an isolated performer(s), and that changes the game significantly.

To me, getting an acceptable skin tone is the priority. Somehow I lose the mood of the lighting at this magnification. I generally white balance to skin tones and let everything else fall where it may. For this image, this is how I neutralized the yellow lighting:

The neutral part of the image is the gray markers on the floor, but I found using this to white balance still left the skin color  very jaundiced. I’ve found that using something on the subject (near the face if possible) gives better results. In this case the girl on the left’s earring, which I know you can’t see well in this size image, was close to neutral (it was in a silver mounting – close enough). I used this as a starting point and seasoned to taste.

A consequence of neutralizing the skin is that I have effectively changed the lighting (to its compliment on the blue side of things). You can really see this effect on the floor. This  then changes the reality of the performance. But it is closer to the reality of how the subject actually looks, a compromise I made to place them in a more pleasing light.

This entry was posted in Technique.