‘Tween Sun and Shade—Outdoor Color Balancing


It’s almost a shame, really, that as cameras becomes more automated the photographer becomes increasingly isolated from the actual process.  All goes well as long as the camera’s processors analyze the situation correctly.  But when those processors are fooled, many of today’s photographers don’t know how to fall back to recover.

Choosing to shoot in raw over JPEG helps for tricky situations. Why?  Because raw records data from every single pixel in the sensor without any internal processing.  In JPEG shooting the resulting photograph is processed in-camera, and the results are pretty much locked in with not nearly as many options available to the photographer during later post processing on a computer.  With raw, you are making all the processing decisions.  That means you’re bypassing the camera’s processors and using your computer’s processors instead, and you are the one ultimately making decisions on everything from white balance to contrast, from sharpness to saturation, from highlight control to fill light, and potentially many other decisions as well.

Does that mean you should shoot in raw only? Heck no.  Raw is a real pain in the derrière and, unless you’re really obsessive about image control, the time spent post processing can really sap the joy of photography right out of you.  Raw requires an incredible investment in time during post processing to correct those settings you should have gotten right in the first place, before your finger ever pushed the shutter release button.  Also, raw takes up a huge amount of memory card space in your camera and eats up computer hard drive space like a woman takes up master closet space.  For instance, my Canon EOS 5D makes raw image files of between 12 and 15 megapixel, but in the finest JPEG resolution that same shot will come in at around 4.5 megapixels or less.  Besides, if you don’t have one of the more upscale models, many point-and-shoot cameras don’t even offer a raw option.  In those cases you have no choice but to get all the decisions right first time, every time.

Does that mean you can’t take award-winning shots with a point-and-shoot or in JPEG? Not at all.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  It just means that you cannot always rely on the camera’s built-in processors to get everything right.  The trick is to recognize situations in which the camera might be fooled and to make manual settings to compensate.

An online friend recently suggested for a topic shooting pictures in bright light or shadow, so that’s what we’ll concentrate on today.

But first, a little experiment. Take two sheets of white paper and go outside on a bright, sunny midday.  Take a good look at that paper.  What color is it?  Now, step into a shady spot and allow your eye to adjust for a few minutes, then look again at the paper.  What color is it?  You of course said, “You dummy, white is white.  In both cases the paper looks the same.”  And you’re right . . . but only because your brain “processes” what your eyes see and compensate for the shade to make you believe that paper is white in both cases.  Your brain automatically does this for relatively small to moderate variations in color light.  It fails miserably if you’re trying to determine the color of that piece of paper under a red light bulb because the amount of color recorded by the eye overwhelms and confuses the brain’s ability to compensate.  Your camera’s lens and internal processors are no different.

Now we’re going to place those two pieces of paper side-by-side to see what’s really happening, but this time put one paper in direct sunlight and place the other in the shade.  Step back.  Now what color is the paper?  The one in the sun will be white with perhaps a slightly yellow cast, but the one in the shade will have a distinctly blue tint to it.  If you take a picture now, what is your camera going to do?  Is it going to assume the shaded paper has the correct white balance, or will it go with the paper in direct sunlight?  You cannot know for sure, but you can take the guess work out of it.  If you want the shaded page to be white, you would manually set your camera’s white balance to it’s “Shade” setting, but if you want the paper in sunlight to record properly, you would manually select “Sun.”

Your camera’s processor isn’t that smart. If you’re taking a picture of a green forest, there’s a good chance that your camera will think the subject is actually tainted by overwhelmingly green light and attempt to compensate by adding magenta to the white balance.  If you’re zooming in on a red flower to fill the entire frame, there’s a good chance your processor will be fooled into thinking it needs to add cyan to balance things out.  Same applies when taking photographs under certain light conditions such as shade.  Want to ensure color accuracy of that violet in the shade of a large elm?  Override your camera’s automatic white balance and dial in the “Shade” setting.  Zooming in on the red of a Radio Flyer wagon in bright sunlight?  Don’t take chances; dial in the “Sun” mode.  Don’t be afraid to get off automatic.  Make that JPEG right the first time.  But remember to set the camera back to Automatic White Balance when you’re done with that shot or all your subsequent shots may be off balance.

Below are simulated examples of the affects rendered on a subject by incorrect white balance. The left side photographs show what the camera might very likely determine for white balance.  To the right of is the appropriate, manually selected balance.  The first six examples show what happens when your subject is in shade but the camera thinks it’s in the sun.  The last shot is an opposite example.  If you cursor over the photos you can see the white balance setting.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “‘Tween Sun and Shade—Outdoor Color Balancing

  1. Caseyf6

    WHY don’t you have a photography book? :) This is awesome. I play with the settings to see “what works” but I (truthfully) don’t know what I’m doing. Little by little I’m learning.

  2. I’m very glad you’re enjoying my series on photo tips, Caseyf6. I’m actually contemplating a book such as you describe, but I have four other writing projects currently vying for my time that must be finished first.

  3. Phillip Davis. In difficult conditions – sun and shade, taking large cats in sanctuaries – I’ve used manual for years.
    Now, belatedly I’ve discovered the value of putting the camera on P.
    I shall go to London Zoo and work for several hours on Programme and see the results.

    • If you’re shooting in difficult light, might I also suggest shooting in camera Raw. That’s not something I normally recommend, but Raw will give you the most leeway in stop ranges and even allow limited HDR recovery once you master it.