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Useful Camera Settings: White Balance As cameras have “evolved” from film to digital, so has photo “vernacular.” Yet, the basic concept of KIS (Keep It Simple) remains; bombard yourself with too many features while trying to learn how to take a better picture and you risk becoming confused. You don’t want to just get lucky shots—you want to be able to predict when the right settings get you just the image and mood you desire.
One expression I always keep in mind is: “Chance favors the prepared mind.” Learn an array of useful photographic techniques, build a method on how to react, and grow in your ability to be creative at a moment’s notice. That’s how I captured the magical light in this photo of a full moon over the Andes Mountains, (#1). I envisioned the scene I desired and choose the appropriate settings to achieve the shot, all before the fleeting light was gone.
The key is to familiarize yourself with the tools you are using, study them one at a time, learn how to use them and recognize their limitations. Know where all of your D-SLR features and functions are and how to adjust them accordingly and you’ll gain a discipline that helps you react quickly in the field, cut down on post-capture editing and, best of all, eliminate the frustration of missing great moments in nature.
Keep It Simple
White Balance (WB)
White Balance is often referred to as “color temperature” and that word can throw people when discussing changes in light. You can think of sunsets and fire as being “warm” (recording the yellow/red end of the spectrum) and shots under an overcast sky and in shade as cool. Take a look at the diagram (#3) and you’ll get a sense of how color temperature and these color casts work.
If you want to neutralize a color (eliminate the influence of the color cast, or the influence of the prevailing light), you choose the opposite hue. This color wheel (#4) illustrates how it works. If you want to diminish the effect of red add cyan; to offset yellow add blue, and so on. The WB settings can be used to offset the influence of light by shifting the color in the opposite direction. In the “old” film days this was done with filters over the lens—now, with digital, it instructs the on-board processor to make the shift for you.
When it comes to presets I only use a few in my nature work. Take a look at a typical WB preset scale and the symbols that represent them (#5). Of all these (excluding Flash, which warms an image slightly) I mainly work with Daylight, Cloudy and Shade. Shoot in any type of sunlight, like the sunset tones I captured along the California coast (#6) and the Daylight preset delivers a “what you see is what you get” effect. If clouds cover the sun, as it did the day I shot along the Merced River (#7), the Cloudy preset neutralizes any subtle blue shift. Move into the shade, like this mossy landscape (#8) and switch to the Shade WB preset and the blue shift is corrected and the rich colors stand out. These presets usually solve most White Balance issues, but aren’t necessarily always accurate. The other presets really don’t affect nature photographers 99.9 percent of the time.
The color of the light shifts from dawn to midday to dusk. Much of nature photography is a celebration of color and because White Balance is applied to color images, the goal is not always to correct for the shift. Using the Daylight setting you allow the natural warmth of sunrise or sunset to shine without being corrected or neutralized by a countervailing White Balance setting. While shooting ancient Bristlecone pines in the White Mountains (#9), I kept my White Balance setting on Daylight to emphasize the wonderful pink and purple hues of dusk. Like I said, it’s a “what you see is what you get” setting.
What if there is daylight and shade in the same shot? The setting depends on the main subject of the photo and how it’s lit. If it’s bathed in warm light, use the Daylight preset, as I did in this Mt Whitney landscape (#10). If the subjects in shade are critical to color match, such as wildflowers under a forest canopy, then choose the Shade preset.
As artists take liberty in how they chose to apply their paint, you too can decide how and when to use White Balance presets or enhancements. For example, I sometimes integrate this way of thinking when photographing scenes captured in shade. The blue shift of shade can hurt a subject by diminishing its color, say a red flower, but it can also add to a mood or feeling. The color blue can represent many feelings—each person has their association, but there’s no doubt it’s an emotive color. Compare the interpretation of photos made in the shade (#11 and #12). I shot the initial image without correcting for the blue shift of shade, then used a Shade WB setting. Later, when comparing the two on my computer monitor I preferred the non-White Balanced shot.
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