Light’s Effect on Color
Here’s the basic science: color exists because of light and the cone receptors in our eyes registering the color. Objects have properties that hold onto certain colors and bounce off other colors; the colors that bounce off are the colors our eyes register. That’s the super simplified version.
Now, a light source (the sun, a lamp, a flame) casts and overall tone to the colors we perceive. The sun, the true light source, doesn’t cast a tone, it shows true colors. A tungsten/incandescent light bulb, the ones usually homes have, casts an orange tone. Fluorescent lights, usually in big stores, cast a blue-ish tone.
Our brain color corrects the tones so that we don’t notice them, everything looks to be in true color. The camera, however, needs to be told what the light source is so that it can color correct the image. This setting is called the White Balance.
When a photo is taken in tungsten light but the white balance is set to fluorescent light, the image will come out very orange-y. If the white balance is set to tungsten light and taken in the same light, the camera will add a blue cast to counter the orange from the tungsten light. If the white balance is on AUTOMATIC then the camera will know to add the correct cast of color to counter the light’s cast but if it’s not on auto then it’ll be evident in the photograph.
The photographs below, although taken very sloppily, illustrate how the white balance affects color. This Disneyland model is lit by tungsten lights but my camera was set to fluorescent lights in the first photograph and then changed to tungsten white balance in the second photograph, correcting the color. In person, the scale model looks like the photo on the right because my brain corrected the color. I only noticed I had the wrong setting when I looked at the image after I took the first photo.
There’s really not much more to white balance other than its purpose is to correct casted colors. The white balance helps the camera take the photograph the way our eyes perceive the scene, its a way to take straightforward picture. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only way a photograph can look. My previous photography post, Photography 101: The Trifecta of Proper Exposure, and this post are all that’s really needed to understand how to take a basic, correct photo, technically speaking.
Next post I’ll talk about some ways to make a basic photo look not-so-basic.