As a Marietta, GA real estate agent specializing in Atlanta real estate photography, I had to learn quite a few lessons on my way to competence. Even though I was a decent Atlanta photographer, or so I thought, it didn't take long to realize that taking pictures of homes came with its own set of unique challenges. This blog series is written with the amateur photographer in mind. Whether you are a real estate agent, home stager, seller or just interested in taking better pictures of homes, this blog series is for you.
Part 5 - White Balance and Color Control
If you have ever taken a picture of the interior of a home that had both lots of interior lights like lamps and fixtures as well as bight windows, you have likely noticed the control that light temperature has on a photo. In this scenario, you will notice the lamps look oddly orange while everything that has sunlight hitting it has a blueish tint. This may not seem like much of an issue on the surface, but in some circles it is considered a defect. Correcting, or better yet avoiding, the rainbow soup of yellows, blues and greens can go a long way toward giving your photos a more professional look.
In order to understand how color temperatures affect an image, we should probably first take a short physics lesson. If you don't care about the science part of this, jump down to the tips and photos, you will likely gain some understanding through the examples. When your ready to understand 'why', come back to the chart.
While all light sources do produce some amount of heat, light temperature does not refer to how hot a light is. Color temperature is used to describe the color cast of light and is expressed in degrees Kelvin, or K. If that's not confusing enough, color temperatures that are often referred to as 'cooler' actually have a higher color temperature whereas 'warmer' color temps have a lower Kelvin. As you can see from the diagram, daylight at 6500K has more of a blueish hue. Household tungsten bulbs at 2900K, in comparison, produce a yellower or sometimes orange color cast.
So why is this important? Because the more varied the light temperatures in a scene the greater the likelyhood that something is not being show in its true color or worse yet, an unflattering color!
The good news is there is something we can do about. In fact there are several ways to address the issue and I'll go into detail on a few of them shortly. For now, the important thing to understand is that in order to be effective at evening out the color temperature in a scene you have to first learn to recognize where the problem color casts are coming from. Going back to the scenario in the opening of this blog I refer to one of the most common problem situations you run into photographing interiors during the middle of the day. The blue daylight and the yellow tungsten bulbs are competing and the camera is only capable of adjusting for one, or the other, or a compromise in between. Let's say this scene is a shot of a kitchen. In addition to the daylight and 'soft-white' lightbulbs, there is also an overhead fluorescent light fixture, or maybe under-cabinet fluorescent lighting, which are now introducing a greenish light to the scene. Three different light sources, three different color casts, one confused camera... Learn to spot the offenders and you troubleshooting will be much faster and efficient.
In theory, the quickest way to fix this is to eliminate all but one color cast. As an experienced Atlanta Real Estate Photographer I know that's not always possible, but here are a few ideas on how to get close.
1. Turn off all the interior lights and overexpose the exterior so the interior is better lit. The trade off here is you will end up with with totally blown windows.
2. Change all the light bulbs to "daylight balanced" Photobulbs or Compact Fluorescent Lights (CFLs). I have a bunch of 6500K CFLs that I will use if I'm not going to use a flash. One thing I want to mention now is that not all CFLS are created equal and shouldn't be confused with traditional fluorescent light bulbs. These are often sold as "eco-bulbs" and have become very popular lately. Just make sure you buy a CFL that is intended for photography. The CFLs sold at home improvement stores will often advertise a certain temperature of light but rarely will they match the results a true photo bulb. They are better than a rainbow soup of mixed color casts from different types of bulbs but they really aren't a substitute for the real thing. As far as any other fluorescent light is concerned, my general rule of thumb is to turn them off and leave them off.
3. Use an external flash to 'overpower' the other light sources. One of the biggest benefits of using strobes are that they can put out a lot of light very fast. This allows you to use a faster shutter speed and effectively minimize all the other light sources, even large bright windows. Even better, you can adjust the power of the external flash from totally overpowering to a subtle fill light. External flash units typically put out a light that is between 5000K - 5500K and as a result blend quite well with most daylight shooting scenarios. It's easy to see why most professionals prefer to work with strobes like this. It gives them control over how much light and where it is added in the scene.
4. Take pictures a couple of hours before dusk. While this is going to have a different effect than the last methods mentioned, it does have its merit. With this approach, you are actually balancing everything for the interior lights and in this case the traditional 'soft white' incandescent bulbs or halogens work just fine. Keep in mind, the exterior light will change to a strong blue tint when you white balance for tungsten light. In some cases, this is a very appealing effect. If you have a view outside you want to showcase (sunsets excluded), this would not be the preferred approach. If you want to showcase an intricate lighting design of a space, however, this is a great time to get those shots.
5. Fix the White Balance with editing software. There are several editing suites along the lines of Adobe Photoshop that offer some very effective white balance controls. In fact, if you shoot in RAW format, the Camera RAW editor itself can make fixing white balance a one click solution. This solution isn't perfect however, especially when there are multiple competing color casts. Many photographers also use a 'grey card' in the field such as http://www.xrite.com/product_overview.aspx?ID=1257 . This handy product allows you to place a 'check point' in your scene that you can then use in conjunction with your editing software to balance the color cast in post processing. This can effectively allow you to create a custom white balance that is typically more accurate then the 'Auto' feature on your camera or editing suite. Unless you use very specific tools that are typically only available in the higher end software, you will often find yourself trying to find a compromise between the most prominent light sources. In many cases, this will indeed be an improvement over what was initially captured but it reminds us that it is sometimes better to fix things on site.
*Advanced Tip: One of the most effective methods I have found for fixing color casts is shooting an additional 'flash heavy' frame that I then layer with my base image in Photoshop in the 'color' blend mode. This can be accomplished by simply pointing the flash into the room at high power (and/or in combination with a fast shutter speed) and overpowering all the other color casts from any other light sources. By changing the layer mode to 'color' you can then use the opacity slider to weigh the image color more or less toward the flash frame. The higher the opacity, the more even the color casts will become, and vice versa.
6. Select the appropriate White Balance Setting on your camera. While this seems to be the most obvious solution on the surface, this method too has some shortcomings. Very much like fixing white balance with editing software, the camera will not adjust to individual sources of light. Instead, it will find what it thinks is the best middle ground. Shooting outdoors or an interior space that is well lit with no windows in the scene are good examples of situations where the in-camera W/B function may be all you need.
The above photos demonstrate how color casts and white balance can affect your photos.. 1) Exaggerated color casts from an HDR render, 2) Flash color cast overpowering the other light sources, 3) Color corrected version using both images and blending the flashy version with the HDR image in 'color' mode.
At this point I want to bring up another pitfall that you are likely to encounter in your pursuit of perfect white balance. Even if you get everything right on site and in the camera, the monitor you view or edit your listing photos on is likely to be different in many regards to the ones that your intended audience will be viewing them on. In fact, the only way you can have any certainty that what you are looking at is accurate in terms of color and white balance is to calibrate your monitor. Most monitors include some basic software to help you adjust the display so that it's colors and white balance are rendered correctly. While this is a step in the right direction, it is not as accurate as dedicated software and devices that are made specifically for this purpose. I recommend products such as http://spyder.datacolor.com/index_us.php or http://www.xrite.com/product_overview.aspx?ID=788 .
"So once I calibrate my monitor I can be certain that the colors are accurate, right?" Well, yes and no. They will be accurate as far as what you see on your calibrated monitor, however unless the viewer is also looking at the photos on a calibrated monitor, they may or may not look accurate to them... While some fill this defeats the purpose of calibrating in the first place, I personally like knowing that the images I produce are as accurate as possible up until the point they are uploaded or viewed on a different monitor. Besides, with the right calibration there is also the added benefit of the photos printing true to what you see on your computer screen.
Finally, as with most 'rules', there are always exceptions. There are times when changing a color temperature or White Balance can be used as a creative tool. In a situation like this, we actually change the color temp from what was really there to create a different mood. I will occasionally lean more toward a cooler, bluer light for rooms like bathrooms because it tends to give them a clean, crisp look. Bedrooms on the other hand, I feel benefit from a warmer light and thus I will sometimes lean more toward a yellower white balance. Sometimes what looks best in a photo may not be exactly what the the room or space looked like in person at the time you photographed it.
Once you have a good understanding of how color temperature and white balance affect your images, I guarantee you will never look at your photos the same way again. Until next time. Thanks for reading.
Be sure to check out the other blogs on the Tips to Improve Your Listing Photos series:
Part 5: White Balance and Color Control
Part 6: Understanding Focal Length