The color of light

Visible white light actually consists of 7 colors… red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo & violet. This can be clearly demonstrated using a glass prism experiment, something I’m pretty sure was covered in science class when you still were in high school. Even so, white light is not always white.. or pure. This happens because sometimes some of these 7 colors have been filtered out of the light. The color of the light will change when this happens.

The color of the light affects the mood of an image. When used correctly, an experienced photographer can alter the mood of an image simply by mastering the control to the color of light used in a photograph. If used poorly or if an inexperienced photographer doesn’t control the color of light, it can destroy the intended mood of an image. Sometimes luck or the camera’s built-in auto white balance works to create the photo he wanted, but due to his lack of understanding of the color of light & the emotional impact it has on the final image, he will not be able to replicate the conditions to get the shot he was looking for. This is where your ability to imagine the final image before taking the shot is so important in the art of photography.

There are 3 basic types of color of light; neutral, warm & cool. Warm light has a tint of yellow/orange to it where else cool light has a blue tint.

Neutral light is naturally obtained in the middle of the day, from the sun usually directly over our heads. Natural colors from your subjects present themselves under neutral lighting.

Warm light projects the mood of comfort, a warm atmosphere & at times used to describe an intimate moment in time. Warm light is naturally found just after sunrise or just before sunset. The diffraction of the light entering our atmosphere at that very angle creates this warm light.

Cool light projects the mood of calmness & cold. If a photographer wants to express quietness or loneliness, cool colors come into mind. A photo of a boat on a misty blue lake shows the viewer that the place is cold, deserted & calm.

Our eyes & the way they perceive color

Perhaps I may have been too quick to say eyes, what I really meant was the human brain. When light is captured by our eyes, the information is not immediately registered as an image. Our brain does quite a bit of data crunching & quite significant altering before we form a perception of what we have seen. The screwed up part is that, the 3 basic types of color of light I mentioned above is often rendered to neutral by our brain. That’s right, what is warm or cool colors is reality has been altered by our brain & everything is adjusted to appear “normal” or neutral again.

I had a pair of Oakley sunglasses I used to wear when I drive. The ones I had were tinted yellow & the first time you wear it, everything looked like they were from planet Mars. However after a minute or 2 wearing it, everything became brighter & everything looked “normal”/white again. Goes to say that wearing sunglasses is pointless because our brains would alter our vision to see normally again as would if we hadn’t worn the glasses in the first place.

This presents somewhat of a problem. When we walk outdoors to indoors, from one area with a warm light source to an area with a cool one, we are usually not aware that the color temperature as altered quite drastically because our brain messes with the color that we see. Intense color changes in reality is viewed by our eye as less intense… however the camera will record a more accurate account of the color temperature when a shot is taken. So to an untrained photographer, he may not be aware that the light has changed & has become more warm in the later part of the afternoon until he gets home, uploaded his images to the computer & wonders why the photos of the people he took has a weird yellow skin tone!

I have seen many photos of friends who uploaded their indoor photos of their friend’s parties & gatherings which have this rather strong yellow tint & people who look like they have yellow fever lol! Just look through your friends photos especially those taken with auto WB on a point & shoot without flash… you’ll see…

OMG! If that’s the case, what are we to do??

There isn’t much else you can do besides learning through experience. Here are a couple of steps you need to do to “train” yourself to be aware of the color of light changes where you are trying to shoot…

1. Understand the color of light & what conditions produce what type of light.
Knowing under what kind of situations that can alter the color of light through experience & a bit of trial & error at the beginning. Under natural light eg. direct sunlight, cloudy day, shade & the different times of the day. When shooting indoors, observe what kind of lighting is used. Are the bulbs incandescent? Daylight bulbs? Fluorescent? Knowing the different characteristics of different lighting is crucial to nail the correct camera settings to minimize color cast.

2. Understand how we humans interpret the color of light & understand how the camera interprets that same light.
Remember that what you see is not what you get. What appears to be slightly warm to you will look super yellow to your camera.

There really is no shortcut to this besides learning & translating what you see to what the camera will produce. With this experience, you will better anticipate how your gear will interpret the color of light.


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