Two seconds to correct colors

June 08, 2016

Getting accurate colors, especially when shooting the interiors of homes, can be tricky, but there is a simple, two-second technique to get it right every time. At the root of the problem is something known as "White Balance". If you're using automatic modes on your camera then you're leaving it to your camera to guess what this balance should be, which won't always be accurate. For instance, I'm sure you've seen before colors of interior shots that are too orange or just don't look right. The problem is white balance, but with a couple simple steps and a cheap piece of gear, you can fix this issue in seconds.

 

First I'll cut to the chase and show you how I do it, and then I'll discuss some of the technical nitty-gritty so you can delve in deeper.

 

Step 1, take a shot with a cheap gray card, like the one I'm holding in this picture, which costs 8 bucks, and take the same shot without you and the gray card in the picture.

Yuck! Notice how orange this shot is? No worries, we'll correct it in two seconds, and then I'll explain what happened.

 

Step 2, open this picture in Lightroom and using the White Balance dropper (shown in the diagram below) click on the gray card:

 

When you click on the gray card, the picture changes like so:

Before

After

 

Step 3, take those white balance settings and apply them to your shot that doesn't have you and the card in it (either adjust them manually, or copy and paste the development settings). The final shot using the new white balance settings is below:

 

So what happened here? Basically, white balance is the balance of color, and it changes depending on what light (or balance of light) is available. Each kind of light has a different color; for instance, direct sunlight has one color, indoor lights have other colors, and flash strobes have another color. This is why your camera has presets for sunny, cloudy, shade, flash etc. So to "balance" the color from all these lights, you can tell software (like Lightroom) what the neutral color is in the picture. From there, the software can figure out the rest.

 

NOTE: Lightroom's white balance dropper tool is NOT looking for white; instead, it wants to know what neutral gray is. Do not click on white, make sure you click on neutral gray (like a gray card).

 

The color of light is measured as color temperature in degrees of Kelvin. In this previous example, we had outside light coming in from a semi-cloudy day (about 6500 Kelvin), incandescent lights (about 3000 Kelvin), and flash strobes (about 5500 Kelvin). Using the gray card in this example, Lightroom figured out that the light, where the gray card was, measured at 3850 Kelvin, and adjusted the tint to -5. Note that I said "where the gray card was"; even though we were able to get a good white balance, the perfect balance that I wanted was at the card -- the chandelier still has a warm, incandescent color, and the outdoors is higher. I wanted, in this case, to make sure I got the colors of the walls correct, so that's where I placed my gray card -- that was the critical area to get right.

 

Here's another example:

 

And here is a more subtle example. Note how the first shot has red on the ceiling and how my skin tone is off; both signs of a bad color balance, but easily corrected:

 

I know many photogs like to use the auto white balance settings in their cameras, but that is not as reliable as this method -- auto white balance is letting your camera sample areas of the shot, and try and figure out what white balance should be used. But when you have a variety of different light sources, each with a different color temperature, I find it best to say what balance I'd like to use, based on what my shot is concentrating on.

 

To do this quickly, I always shoot in RAW, which allows me to have a great range of flexibility with editing, such as setting the white balance correctly. I also set my camera's color temperature to 5500 Kelvin, so I always have a great starting point when using flash strobes, and, most importantly, it gives me consistency from shot to shot. Sometimes I need to blend multiple shots together, and if you leave your camera on auto white balance, then there is a chance that each shot will have slightly different colors. By forcing my white balance to one Kelvin setting (5500) I know that each shot I take is consistent. This also allows me to batch process photos using the same white balance if I need to; for instance, if I'm shooting a series of exterior shots (especially if I'm going to use HDR or exposure fusion on exteriors) and the day was between sunny and partly cloudy, I can adjust one white balance setting and copy that to all other shots -- I'll know each shot will then have the same white balance.

 

I don't use a gray card on all shots, but when color is critical, I always make sure to get at least one shot of a room with the gray card, this way I can compare other shots nearby that may have the same colored walls, floors, etc.

 

And that's all there is too it. A cheap piece of gear and a few extra seconds turns into photos with accurate colors each and every time!

 

Would you like to see the difference for yourself? Give me a shout and I'd be happy to show you first hand how a small cost for higher quality photography can result in better listings.

 

 


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