Thursday, 4 October 2012

The colour of daylight

Not sure what to make of this “project” as it does not involve a task. It clearly builds on some of the work in Digital Photographic Practise and I have no beef with the content – it’s all reasonably familiar to me – but very film related. In the context of Landscape photography I guess this is still relevant given that anyone using a large format camera – still the weapon of choice for keen landscapers – will be restricted to film. However as the text notes for digital cameras variations in colour temperature can generally be dealt with either in post processing or by selection of a custom white balance on the camera.
What I find more difficult to fathom is that the text makes little mention of the creative choices that come into play when trying to balance colour. In sunlight there is undoubtedly a preferred ‘right’ colour that most people would find most acceptable, but as the text notes, this naturalness can be disrupted by a range of factors, including weather, surroundings and time. Even in these cases there are examples where non-neutral lighting looks natural – the red of sunsets being a case in point. But what about mixed lighting? Or landscapes by artificial light?
For example, which of these is correct – if the term has a meaning in this context? They are a lit by a mix of mercury vapour and fluorescent lights, while the sky is a reflection of the mixed lighting of the city beyond.
E8262820.jpg  Zetland Road, Mont Albert
The one on the left is balanced using the grey of the path in the bottom left corner and provides a more accurate rendering of the grass, the second is out of the camera and gives a more accurate rendering of the sky. I actually like both – so the one I choose to display must surely be an artistic decision depending on for example whether I am trying to convey the oddness of suburbs at night – in which case the out of camera version would be my choice, or to emphasise the graphic quality of trees in winter – in which case I think the purple sky version is more effective. I could, of course, have set a white balance using a white target close to the tree – and I rather wish I had now because now I’ll never know what a neutral rendition looks like. So there’s Lesson 1. A similar set of arguments applies to this pair:
P8316884.jpg  Lemon Scented Gums, Kings Park, Perth
The left hand shot uses Lightroom’s Auto white balance, the right hand is using the camera’s idea of Auto white balance – which is interesting in itself as they are clearly calibrated differently. In this case I find it hard to choose a preferred treatment. The left hand shot is cooler and has, perhaps, a slightly more dramatic feel while being truer to the general grey nature of Australian foliage. On the other hand the right hand shot is warmer and perhaps murkier – which is truer to the conditions of the time as it was raining lightly. In isolation I feel either works, but there is a very clear choice to be made if the idea was to use this as part of a portfolio.
At the risk of protesting too much – it seems obvious to me that this shot would be pointless if the colour was neutral and properly balanced to make the tarmac grey/black – something I have not, in any case, been able to achieve in post-processing. Not that I would want it neutral – this was how I planned it – emphasising the texture and colour.
1000/814: 13 May 2012: Golden Tarmac
For a final example in this post I’ve reworked a couple of the wave shots from this previous post to give a different colour rendering. As I noted in that post I felt that the more neutral /less saturated colour simply made the shots feel muddy but a fellow student suggested that they seemed a bit oversaturated so I felt it was worth going back for another look.
P8256228.jpg  P8256227.jpg
Both of these are balanced using the ‘Shade’ setting in Lightroom – acknowledging the fact that in both the foreground is in shadow – lit only by the light from the sky. In the first case this is close to the Auto setting from LR, and in the second it is close to a manual white balance using the row of foam as a white. They are clearly more natural (except for the odd sky in the second) but I feel they lose impact and no longer hang together so well as a set. The sea was blue, the sky was blue, it was quite a cool day – everything screamed blue – so on balance I’m going to stick with my original rendering – but it does emphasise that personal preference has a major role to play.
  • If the opportunity arises at least make a shot with a custom white balance – it may not give the answer you want, but it will provide some kind of ‘natural’ reference.
  • When using non-natural lighting there is often more than one right answer – the right right answer will depend on end use and personal taste.
  • There will be plenty of situations in simple lighting where there is a generally preferred correct rendition, but even something as simple as the presence of large areas of shades forces you into the area of ‘artistic’ decisions.

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