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Seeing the Light - Part Two

~ Part 2: The Colors of Light ~

Sep 12, 2013
Maureen Spagnolo

“Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.” George Eastman

Seeing a rainbow is always a treat – and reminds us that light consists of all those colors, though we're usually blind to them. Generally, we notice light only in relationship to doing our everyday tasks – whether we have enough light or not.

Besides rainbows, we appreciate the colors in a lovely sunrise and sunset, as when the sun's rays skim across the surface of the earth after passing through more of the earth's atmosphere, dispersing the shorter blue and violet wavelengths from the beam, leaving only the longer red and orange rays illuminating the scene.

A sunny day, sunny WB setting, creating a cool, blue color.
A sunny day, sunny WB setting, creating a cool, blue color.

To understand the colors of light, we note that all color pictures have some degree of blue, red and green in them. How much of each will depend upon the color temperature of the light – which largely depends upon the sun (we'll talk about artifical light later).

Blue light is described as cooler – though it has a higher color temperature than red. Color temperature is measured by the Kelvin (K) scale in degrees from 2,000 K to 11,000 K.

7,000 to 11,000 is considered cool (blue), and 2,000 to 4,000 is considered warm (red). Between 4,000 and 7,000 is daylight – a combination of red, blue, and green.

Warm light is seen during the Golden Hour on sunny days. Incandescent 60-watt lightbulbs on a summer evening or a winter morning also give warm light.

Same time of day, but cloudy setting. Note the warmer hues.
Same time of day, but cloudy setting. Note the warmer hues.

Cool light is what we experience on cloudy, foggy days, and in open shade on sunny days.

Most of our digital cameras have White Balance (WB) settings for different light situations: sunny, shade, cloudy, incandescent, fluorescent and flash. Some of the more advanced digital cameras will allow us to chose the Kelvin temperature. Your camera may also give you the option to choose a setting in which you can quickly shoot a scene with different WB settings. In most situations however, our cameras do a pretty good job of selecting the right setting in the automatic mode in natural light. (Trick: if you want a warmer light at midday, change your WB to Cloudy.)

Mixed light. This portrait had a lamp (tungsten) on the right and daylight coming through the blinds on the left.
Mixed light. This portrait had a lamp (tungsten) on the right and daylight coming through the blinds on the left.

It's when we shoot in artificial light that we begin to notice some challenges, especially when there are mixed lighting sources such as natural, incandescent, and even perhaps fluorescent. These are the occasions when photographers turn to light meters, which are used to test the color reflected from the subject. Another option is the use of a bright white card which the photographer will hold in front of the lens each time he changes the lighting, so he may know where to set the WB.

Sun shot through a tree at high noon using cloudy setting
Sun shot through a tree at high noon using cloudy setting

Many photographers choose to shoot in RAW or ARW – the unedited modes which gives them as much detail about the image as possible. Thus, they have more contol over the final image in post processing, and can easily "tweak" the WB to suit their vision.

Same scene using incandescent setting, creating a cool, moonlit kind of scene.
Same scene using incandescent setting, creating a cool, moonlit kind of scene.

Don't be afraid to experiment. Shoot different lighting scenes with different WB settings so that you can own the light you capture.

Go ahead and put yourself in the light; explore the world in all its colors!

 

Maureen Spagnolo is a photographer, living in Washington, DC. She writes on a variety of social issues in addition to her photography articles.

Her passion for photography began in her twenties when she fell in love with a photographer, and then took her first photography class. She used any camera she could get her hands on - until she got her first DSLR camera several years ago. Since then, she has gone gangbusters - taking photos like a junkie (!) and reading everything about photography she could find. She now owns enough (never enough!) cameras, lenses, tripods, and camera paraphernalia to warrant an add-on to her home owner's insurance.

Yet, photography is not about equipment. It's about passion, and seeing - qualities that can turn a cell phone into a tool which can compete with the most expensive camera.

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