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Light has different Properties, and by understanding those differences and using them in your favor, you can become a better image maker.
In this chapter, we will:
Please note that as a portrait photographer, I will be discussing portraits and using them as examples. However, this knowledge applies to any type of photography.
What we perceive as color is actually our brain’s interpretation of light reflected off objects and transmitted to the brain via our optic nerves. Under the field of color psychology, a range of studies have shown that colors can deeply affect how we experience the world around us, from the taste of the food we eat, to how we respond to new brand packaging on supermarket shelves. Colors affect how we feel, and this is precisely why understanding color is so important to you as a photographer.
There are many ways you can control or change the colors in your images, such as by editing, with the use of filters, or adjusting the White Balance. But as we are here to discuss natural light, so let us delve deeper into understanding how to create an emotional response by using the right color of natural light.
Because color is an amorphous concept (we all see colors slightly differently), there is a standard way to define color tone; this is called color temperature. We will not discuss the technical definition of color temperature for two reasons: first, it will make you very sleepy and second, it will not make your photos better. The important thing to know about color temperature is that it is a standard that is measured in degrees of Kelvin (now you understand what the “K” symbol means in your White Balance menu). Color temperatures below 4000K are considered warm (red and yellow) and color temperatures above 4000K are considered cool (blue).
In the previous article, Understanding Natural Light Part 1: Quality of Light, you learned to forget the concept of good or bad lighting, and think in terms of suitable or less suitable. It is your responsibility to shoot under the most suitable light for the visual story you wish to create, and this concept applies to the color of light as well. Now, let’s get familiar with how the color of the light changes throughout the day.
You can achieve very satisfying results by mixing cold with warm color tones. For example, by placing warmer colors in the foreground and colder colors in the background, you can add volume and depth to make an interesting image.
You can do this by either working during the border of two periods of the day, or by mixing natural and artificial light.
For example, if you choose to shoot at dusk, which I heard National Geographic photographer William Albert Allard refer to as the “The time between dogs and wolves”, you can combine the warm colors of the golden light, with the cold colors of the blue light. Here is an examples:
If you choose to mix light sources, the sky’s the limit. In this image: on one side (camera left), this lady was illuminated with the warm orange light of the shop’s light bulbs and on the other, with the blue cold light of a cloudy day (camera right).
Or in this image where I mixed the warm natural light of fire with the blue artificial light from the projector in the background.
Search the web and gather 20 images from your favorite photographer. Analyze his or her color choices:
To make it short, White Balance is how you help your digital camera create a more accurate representation of the colors in your image. By telling your camera the lighting conditions (cloudy, sunny, flash, etc.) you help the camera adjust to neutralize the color balance in the image.
For this exercise, I will ask you to go to the White Balance menu in your camera and shoot with the wrong setting. For example, if it’s a sunny day, choose the Cloudy setting, which will make your photo look much warmer. Or shoot in the Tungsten or Incandescent setting to make it really cool.
If you are shooting in the RAW image format as opposed to JPEG, the White Balance setting is not that relevant, as you can easily change it in post-processing. This is one of the characteristics of RAW files. But this exercise allows you to understand how, by intentionally changing the image’s color tone, you can create different and interesting emotional effects using color.
The author would like to thank Nicholas Orloff for his assistance in writing this article.