Technique Tutorial: Color Correcting for Mixed Light


I was going to write a post griping about the lack of color correction gels for Paul Buff strobes (Alien Bees, Einsteins). Instead, I figured I’d show you how I came up with my own solution. Take a look at this picture:

Dining Room

The image was taken on “auto” white balance with a strobe fired through an umbrella. Take a close look at the colors. You’ll see some orange mixed with white. The orange light is the warm light coming from the incandescent bulbs. The “white” light is actually “blue” daylight coming from this open sliding glass door:

Living Room

The strobe matches the daylight color temperature and the camera reads it as white. In order to balance the colors, I need to match the light sources. The first thing I do is to close the sliding glass door and the curtains. This filters out any blue daylight leaving me with a single light source. My strobes, however, are still balanced for daylight. I can put a gel over my speedlight which I’ve blogged about here and here. But that won’t give me enough power to properly light the room. My Einstein is powerful enough, but as I mentioned above, the company doesn’t make color correction gels. They do have gels, just not color correcting ones.

(If you’re new to color correcting flash and you didn’t read the previous blogs I linked to above; here’s the primer: Light from a flash roughly matches daylight which is around 5600 degrees Kelvin. Incandescent lamps are warmer at around 2800-to-3600 degrees Kelvin. Putting an orange gel (Color Temperature Orange) on a flash turns it into an incandescent lamp.)

So I had to buy my own gels that would fit the Einstein. I went with a pack of LEE daylight-to-tungsten filters. The pack includes a range from a full cut of CTO down to 1/8. They are big enough to cover the 7-inch reflector but there’s no way to attach the gel to it. I could buy clips, but I would pay more in shipping than the things cost. So I just use two small binder clips.

Einstein Strobe with gel

Here you see the set-up (notice the curtains are closed). It may not be elegant, but it works. If I want to use an umbrella, I would have to cut a hole in the gel. Usually, I’m close enough where I can hold it in front of the strobe or I just use the timer on the camera so I can run and hold the umbrella.

Now that my strobes (I’m also using a gelled speedlight) match the light source in the room, I just set my camera’s white balance to tungsten and take the shot.

Dining Room Color Corrected

If you’ll notice, this image just seems more balanced. All the light in the room is roughly the same color temperature. One of the biggest challenges I face shooting interiors is shooting in mixed light. Having the right tools can make all the difference.

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Technique Tutorial: Photographing and Editing a Bathroom


Bathroom
I hate shooting bathrooms. It is one of the most challenging scenarios I face when shooting interiors. Mostly because of the darn mirrors; I have to figure out how to shoot it without catching my reflection.

When I shoot, I try to give the image context by showing a room in relation to its surroundings. The image above, for example, is a master bathroom in a condo. So I always try to show the room it belongs to in the reflection in the mirror. This gives you a sense of space and lets you know that you can access the bathroom from that bedroom. Easier said than done.

The first step is to get an exposure for the room reflected in the mirror.  If I shoot to expose for the bathroom, the reflection will be overblown and you won’t see detail in the mirror. You can see from the reflection in the shower door that I am holding a flash “Statue-of-Liberty-like” and bouncing it off the ceiling. I also have a strobe in the room to provide the light in there.

Now I want to expose for the bathroom. There’s one problem, however, and that is white balance. I’ve written about white balance before and how you can use gels to correct for light sources. In this case, the bathroom is lit with incandescent  bulbs (warm light) and the light coming from the open door is daylight (cool light). To filter out any blue light, I just close the door. That doesn’t solve my problem, though. The light that comes from flashes is also daylight balanced. So I put a full cut of CTO (color temperature orange) on the flash and set my camera’s white balance to “tungsten” (incandescent for Nikon users). The difference is subtle, but I want to capture what I saw with my eyes and what I saw was the warm glow of the bulbs. But I still have my reflection on the shower door. One more exposure to correct for that:

Then it’s just a matter of masking in Photoshop. I use the first exposure for the room in the mirror and to correct for the overblown lights. I use the third exposure to get rid of my reflection. I then had to do some cloning to remove the reflection of the camera on the shower door. The end result is the image at the top of this post. Three shots for one bathroom. Did I mention how much I hate shooting bathrooms?

Photographing Fireworks this 4th of July


Fireworks

It’s that time of year again to practice your fireworks photography. I wrote a post last year with tips; you can read “how to photograph fireworks” here. I won’t rehash the topic, but I did want to add a few points.

First, if you have a point-and-shoot, you should have a “fireworks” setting. I can’t really vouch for it and I still wouldn’t trust it hand-held; but it’s worth a shot.

Secondly, I said that your lens should “go to infinity” on its own. If you don’t know what that means and you have your lens on auto focus, your lens may try to hunt for focus in low light conditions. If it can’t find an area of contrast, it won’t be able to lock focus. Bright fireworks against a dark sky should do the trick, but if your focusing distance is off, your results may not be as sharp as it could be. So here’s what you do. Look at your lens and you should see a focus window:

Lens focus window

The window tells you how much of your image will be in focus in meters and in feet. In the image above, for example, you can see the lens is set to infinity. That means anything from the lens to infinity will be in focus. If it had been at 3-meters; only anything up to 10-feet would be in focus. So the best bet is to set your lens to manual focus and set the focusing distance to infinity. Just don’t forget to switch it back to auto focus before your next shoot.

One last tip: Try to give your fireworks images some context. The shot at the top of this post and last year’s just show fireworks in the night sky. This year, I am going to try to show the fireworks in relation to the surroundings. If you can find some building or landmark to put in the foreground or bottom part of your image, it will help convey more information.

Good luck and Happy 4th of July!

[UPDATE: I just shot some fireworks this evening and my shutter speed was between 15-to-30 seconds. I think this is because I zoomed out to show some context. In the past I zoomed in on the fireworks like the image above so it didn’t matter if the sky goes black. As you can see in the image below, it was still twilight and I didn’t want the sky to go black.]

Baldwin Park Fireworks

Thinking Differently About Composition


Bedroom

I don’t remember if it was David Hobby (Strobist) or Joe McNally who said that when they were shooting for newspapers, they would always use the same lighting technique: camera in right hand, flash in left hand. That led to the same lighting pattern over and over again. So it took some thought to begin setting up a light on the right hand side of a subject.

It’s kind of like that for composition, I think. If you are used to doing one technique; be it lighting, shooting or editing, you fall into a routine. This  isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can lead a beginning photographer to discover their style. But it’s also a good exercise to break out of your routine and try something new.

Not too long ago, I was hired to shoot a couple of houses. I thought it would be a standard shoot until I arrived at the first house. The client said he was looking for something more creative; not necessarily showing the whole room. It turned out to be a fun and challenging shoot because I had to approach each shot in a different mind frame.

Foyer

The shot above, for example, is not one I would have normally taken; but I rather like the compositional elements. The homeowner specifically mentioned the sculpture on the right. On the left, the pattern and vertical lines of the wrought iron door anchor the image. In the middle distance, you can see a sitting area and the dining area in the background adds depth.

A front door and staircase

At the second house, the client wanted to emphasize the detail work above the doorway. I didn’t want to just take a picture of the door, so I thought I’d make it interesting by showing the spiral staircase. The dramatic curve plays nicely against the horizontal and vertical lines outside.

Staircase

In this last image, I think the angle of the staircase leads the viewer’s eye to the living area. The vertical line of the wall makes a good dividing point between the left and right side of the image.

Obviously all these examples are of interiors and architecture. If you are a wedding or portrait photographer, you might try using negative space. Or use the environment around your subject to frame them. The point is, break out of your comfort zone. It’s going to take a little forethought before you even look through the viewfinder, but you might be pleasantly surprised at the result.

A Lesson in White Balancing


I shot the annual Vacation Rental Managers Association (VRMA) conference at the Hilton Bonnet Creek Resort in Orlando last week and it was a white balancing nightmare! Truth be told, I shoot in RAW so I can always change the white balance in post, but I like to get an accurate representation of the image at the time of capture. It’s just a comfort thing, not to mention trying to get as much right in camera to begin with. Take a look at this image: (NOTE: for the images in this post, try not to focus on the content, but rather the color. These examples are pretty much out of camera with little or no editing)

VRMA Conference. Orlando 2011.

You can see how “orange” or “warm” it looks. That’s pretty much right out of camera. The warmth is due to the tungsten (incandescent for you Nikonians) lights overhead. So I switched from “auto” white balance to “tungsten” and while the result was better, I knew I’d run into trouble if I wanted or needed to use flash.

The 2011 VRMA Conference in Orlando

In the image above I used fill flash with a 1/2 cut of Color Temperature Orange (CTO) gel. Putting an orange gel on your flash essentially turns it into a tungsten light. So if you set your white balance to tungsten (incandescent) then the two light sources will balance. If you look carefully, however, you’ll notice that the waiter’s face still looks a little “cool” or “blue” in comparison to the room. So I added another 1/2 cut of CTO which equals one full cut and that did the trick.

The next day, I turned to using custom white balances for each room and that really made a difference.

The 2011 VRMA Conference in Orlando

Compare the color of the walls in the image above to the very first image in this post. Actually, if you see that white board on the right side of the frame; that’s what I used to get a custom white balance.

I learned about custom white balancing as a news videographer right out of college. Back then, those big cameras didn’t have handy white balance settings and you couldn’t tweak it in post. You either set the kelvin temperature or you took a custom white balance every time you moved from indoors to outside and back.

In case you don’t know, when you take a custom white balance, you’re basically telling the camera what “white” is so it can set all the corresponding colors accordingly. Camera models vary, but to take a custom white balance, take a picture of something white that is getting hit by the light source in the room. If, for example, you have a mix of tungsten and daylight, take something white and put it where it’s getting hit by both sources. You might need to switch to manual focus because your camera may not find focus in something with no contrast. Next, go to your menu function for custom white balance and select the image you want to use. Then, change your white balance to “custom”. Don’t forget to switch back to auto focus.

The 2011 VRMA Conference in Orlando

The classrooms (pictured above) were the worst! They really did have this weird orange color that seemed warmer to me than regular rooms lit by incandescent lamps. Not to mention, I was expecting fluorescent lights at hotel conference rooms. Switching from “auto” to “tungsten” didn’t help at all. So I just shot the white door at every room to get a custom white balance.

The 2011 VRMA Conference in Orlando

Getting the right white balance is crucial if you shoot JPEG because you don’t have as much latitude in post processing to tweak it. It’s less important if you shoot RAW, unless you’re like me and want to see an accurate picture when you shoot it.

Photographing 113 Homes in 9 Days


Collage of 110 Homes

I’ve been a little busy the past couple of weeks. I was given 10 shooting days to shoot the exteriors of 113 homes. If you’re counting, the image above only shows 110; I needed an even number to make the collage work. Click on it to see it bigger.

The first step was plotting the homes on map and figuring out the best time of day to shoot them. The LighTrac app I blogged about recently was indispensable. I was able to figure out, down to the minute, when the sun would hit each home at the best angle. Unfortunately, I was at the mercy of the weather. In Florida, afternoon thunderstorms are a regular occurrence  which made shooting the west-facing homes a challenge. Sometimes, it would be too cloudy. Sometimes, I’d have good sun, but dark clouds behind the house. Other times, I’d have a good sky behind the home but a huge cloud obscuring the sun. As it was, I usually had to wait for a cloud to move. There I would be, camera on a tripod and me standing next to it looking up at the sky.

I do want to share one tip which I mentioned in a previous blog regarding shooting exteriors. Absent of a tilt-shift lens, you have to make sure your verticals stay vertical. Most people have the inclination to stand in front of a house and tilt the camera up. This makes the house look like it’s falling over. So I set up across the street on a tripod. I dial in my exposure manually, raise the tripod as high as it goes and use a cable release to take the shot.

In the end, I got it done in nine days. It would’ve been sooner if it wasn’t for the darned weather!

The More You Know…About Lighting


The More You Know

I’ve often told other photographers that they can learn a lot about lighting from watching TV. Pay attention to the color of the light and lighting patterns used on actors. In news magazine shows (60 Minutes, Dateline) they might cut-away to a shot of the interviewer and the subject. In this shot you can usually see the lights, flags and modifiers being used to light the person and often, the background.

I saw a great example on TV last night in one of those “The More You Know” PSAs on NBC. It featured Ken Jeong (The Hangover, Community) talking about saving electricity.  When he turns off all the lights except for one light bulb he says you can look “dashing and mysterious”. This emphasizes the importance of shadows in portrait photography and how it can affect the mood of your image. I once heard a photographer ask, “when is it OK to have shadows in your pictures?”. The answer is: ALWAYS!

Another photography point emphasized by the PSA is what you can do with just one light…especially up close. A light bulb is a pretty harsh light source because it’s so small, but that can work for a male subject. When it’s up close, the rapid fall off creates dramatic shadows.

Click the image to see the video.

(Note: I had some trouble with the link sending me to the right video. If that happens, look under the video player for a list of videos in the “environment” category and navigate to the very last one.)