The importance of White Balance and Flash Gels

Many times when taking an image the camera’s auto settings just do not produce the desired outcome. Take this shot for instance:

Click on images to enlarge

The goal was to capture a picture of Steph and myself in front of the Christmas tree in Faneuil Hall during the holidays. Obviously this picture is less than optimal. The lights on the tree are glowing orange and the subject in the foreground is barely visible.

One way to enhance this picture is  to add in flash to project enough light into the scene to properly expose the subject while keeping our current background exposure. See my previous post here.

That’s a little better but not much. How many Christmas Tree’s have you seen that are actually that muddy orange color – yeah… me neither. The problem here is that the camera is spot metering for the subjects which does not produce a very desirable outcome for the tree.

The camera in AWB (Auto-White Balance) mode chooses to meter the white balance as the “daylight” setting or around 5,100K. Its very apparent that we need less orange in this picture and more blue. When we change our camera’s white balance to a tungsten setting or roughly 2,850k we notice that the tree looks a lot better. It more accurately reflects the image we are looking for. A white Christmas tree.

While the tree looks a lot better I’m sure you immediately noticed that the subjects went from a normal skin tone to blatantly blue. Since they were balanced correctly under daylight white balance when we knocked down the white balance to make the tree turn from orange to a cleaner white the same thing happened with the subjects. However, they were already correctly white balanced before so they are now too blue. Life is never easy.

What can we do to correct this? Adding a simple color correction to the flash known as a gel, specifically a CTO or Color Temperature Orange gel, projects an orange tint from the flash onto the subjects. The orange, in turn, is canceled out by the white balance setting. If we were still shooting at the day light setting we would have observed both the subjects and the tree in the muddy orange color. We then corrected the white balance using manual settings on the camera to change them both back to their normal colors as you or I would see them by using the tungsten setting.

The resulting image is much more appealing than any of the previous images.

Below is another example used in the opposite direction. In the original image below the city in the background has a white color to it. While normally this makes for a fine image, in reality there is nothing special about it. In order to add some warmth to the image I chose to change the white balance to more of a yellow or orange color. That minor adjustment completely changes the mood of the image. Same principal, only this time I wanted the muddy orange in the background. No need to gel the flash here because I was shooting through a white umbrella.

Of course the aviators are really what makes the image pop! ;-p

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