Blue Hour Hacky Sack

For this post, let’s talk about taking advantage of white balance to enhance your scene.

I’ll start with a mantra: White Light is a Lie. I’m a long time reader of Strobist, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years it’s that white light has its uses, but largely is a subjective creative choice that can be manipulated in the camera, or manipulated with colored gels if shooting with a speed light or studio strobe.

Let’s take the image above. I was recently photographing an event and saw a group of youngsters outside playing hacky sack. It was evening and the sun had already dipped down under the horizon and they were trying to get the last game or two in for the remaining minutes that the light was still there enough to see by. It had been mostly overcast throughout the day and at this point, the sky had light cloud cover.

I took a quick step outside and grabbed a number of frames, the one above being the best one.

Once I got the images pulled into the computer, I initially did a white balance that looked like this:
Blue Hour Hacky Sack

You can see that it’s evening time, you can see the warm light from inside the building spilling onto the concrete in the foreground, and spilling onto the skin of the people in the frame.

Looking at the Adobe ACR data, the white balance was 8300 Kelvin. Very blue, very cool ambient light. When I did the initial WB, I pulled the reading off the concrete that didn’t have the warm light spilling on it.

On its own, white balanced like this, this could be a totally serviceable image, however, we can enhance the mood and feeling a little bit by adjusting the WB in ACR to something that is a bit more evocative of outdoors during the late evening.

The first modification, I set the WB to Daylight in ACR:

Blue Hour Hacky Sack

That’s better, and what it’d probably look like if you were shooting daylight balanced film, but not what I was envisioning. The Daylight WB setting in ACR is 5500K.

I then went to Tungsten WB in ACR:

Blue Hour Hacky Sack

Whoa. That feels like a bit too much blue. The Tungsten WB setting in ACR is 2850K. We need something between daylight WB and Tungsten WB in ACR. Good thing I shot raw.

For those of you who spend any amount of time shooting with flash indoors, you’ll know that many times, you have to CTO your flash to get it match the lighting indoors if you are blending the two. I primarily use Rosco lighting gels, and their range of CTO gels (1/8 to full CTO) with flash results in the following white balances in Kelvin: 4900K, 4500K, 3800K, 3200K, and 2900K.

When I shoot interiors that are lit warmly, I often end up with my white balance set at ~3800K. This still allows me to render the interior lighting to be anywhere’s from roughly neutral to a bit on the warm side (always a good thing if people are in your shots), and since a 1/2 CTO on a speed light or studio strobe lands at 3800K, gives me 3/4 and full CTO if I want to warm my flash, 1/2 CTO if I want it neutral, and 1/4 and 1/8th CTO if I want to cool if off relative to the camera WB. Many interior lights nowadays are generally 4000K to 2800K depending on the type of light.

Being that I was just inside shooting right before this image was taken, and actually had my camera WB set to 3800K, I decided to make my WB center 3800K. It’s right between 5500K and 2850K and falls nicely where a 1/2 CTO gelled flash would be if I wanted to do that, and if I wanted to, I could push my flash into CTB gel territory and match the color of the ambient light outside. That resulted in the image at the top of this page.

So what’s the takeaway? If your camera or post processing software supports it, don’t be afraid to explore the color temperature or white balance of the light in your image to enhance its mood and feel. You’d be amazed at the effect that it can have.

Petaluma, CA, USA

Author: Adrian Bacon

San Francisco Bay Area Portraits | Headshots | Event Photography | Videography | Photo Lab | Bespoke Printing Services | Film Processing