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.

Coming in 2017: Simple Film Lab

Photographic film has taken quite a beating in the last decade or so. Film labs have been closing left and right for quite some time now. This is quite unfortunate and something that I’ve struggled with for quite some time myself being as I’m primarily a film photographer.

This led me onto a path of processing and digitizing my own film and developing tools to do so that also give me my images in a way that is complimentary to film.

I’ve finally reached a point where I can offer my services to other film photographers.

A Few Things To Note

You shoot film because of the color and look that you get with it, not because it gives you a lot of resolution or is inexpensive. So with that being said, what do I bring to the table with Simple Film Lab that is better than the other film labs out there? If you look at what other labs charge and what I will be charging, I’m certainly not less expensive from a purely monetary stance. I also won’t really be delivering the highest of resolutions either.

In order to really take advantage of what film has to offer, one must beef up the entire imaging chain. Almost every lab I’ve looked at and tried out typically scans with a Noritsu or Frontier scanner and delivers jpegs. You hear a lot about how a Frontier scanner delivers color like this or that, and how some film scanner is beloved by x type of photographers. OK. I mean no disrespect to other film labs, however, having a process where you deliver jpegs of film scans to customers is not doing the customers or film any favors.

It’s all about the color. While I do have a dedicated 35mm film scanner that is very recent and can scan 35mm film at really high resolutions, and I do have a very high resolution flatbed scanner that can scan 120 film at crazy high resolutions, I also have a way to digitize film using a very controlled light source, with very good optics, and a reasonably high resolution imaging sensor. The setup I prefer could be called a DSLR film scanner, but it’s actually more complicated that than. Photographic film by definition is very high dynamic range, with a lot of color. When you digitize film, what you are essentially doing is taking a picture of the film emulsion. You can take the picture of the film emulsion with a dedicated film scanner, a flatbed scanner, or with a digital or film camera. It’s what you do with the digitized image after that that makes all the difference.

Typically, the color negative is inverted by either the film scanner itself, the scanning software, or manually in Adobe Photoshop. While one can get good results with that, I’ve brought my skills as a computer programmer to bear and developed code that significantly beefs up the entire imaging and color chain after digitizing to full 64 bit floating point in linear color space. What does that even mean? That means the process to turn the color negative into a color positive along with the following color modifications to get a usable image happen in very high resolution 64 bit floating point linear color space. I’d love to be able to deliver 64 bit floating point linear light images to customers, however, that is not something that any software customers would have access to really supports, so the next best thing is 16 bits per sample (or 48 bit) TIFF files in the ProPhoto color space.

Because the high precision digitization workflow requires a calibrated film profile for every film we support digitizing, Simple Film Lab will not accept any film to be processed and digitized. While we can pretty much process any C-41 film (we use standard Kodak C-41 Chemicals), the service we offer is coupled together, so when you send film in, it is to be processed and digitized. The cost therefore, might seem high per roll, but when you factor in that you’re getting processing and a very high quality film scan, and 48 bit TIFF files in the ProPhoto color space as the delivery with enough resolution to make 16×24 prints, it’s worth it, at least we think there’s a market for it.

The Plan

The plan is to start accepting processing orders for Kodak Ektar 100 film in 35mm, and 120 roll the first quarter of 2017, then add Kodak Portra 160, Portra 400, and Portra 800 in 120 roll film in the second or third quarter and add 35mm Portra 160, 400, and 800 later in the year if there is demand for it along with the 4×5 sheet versions at some point in the second half of 2017. We’re also going to keep things simple in terms of what resolutions we offer: There will really only be two options, standard resolution, and custom scan. Standard 2:3 resolution will be 7200×4800 pixels with other aspect ratios having 4800 pixels on the short side, and custom scan is exactly what it sounds like, a custom scan with an output to your specifications. The standard processing/scan target price will be $20 per roll not including shipping, and custom scan will be priced according to how much time/effort Simple Film Lab has to put in. At the end of the day, it all boils down to image processing time and who is spending that time.

All film will always be processed with fresh chemicals, and the target turnaround time will be 5-7 business days. As things pick up, we’ll be adding additional films to the catalog that we support. There are a couple of emulsions that are pretty popular with wedding photographers (Fuji 400H, looking right at you), and we do plan to support it, however, that comes with some challenges, as most labs that cater to processing/scanning that film also use Fuji Frontier scanners and already deliver pretty good results, so in that instance, the biggest issue is going to be getting customers to move away from those labs and start using Simple Film Lab instead.

Additionally, you can expect very good customer service. As my own customer, I have very high standards, and I’m a firm believer in providing very high standards to my customers. Because Simple Film Lab is a small operation, as a customer, you’ll be dealing directly with me, and it will be my eyeballs that look at every single one of your images before they’re sent to you.

In short, Simple Film Lab is the Film Lab that I would want as a customer. Keep watching this space, good things are on the way.