This is the fifth in an on-going series of articles on photographing miniatures. For the rest of the series so far, click the “Article Series” link in the menu bar.
In this article, we’ll answer your burning question: “Why on earth do I care about this ‘white balance’ stuff?” (If you don’t know what “white balance” refers to, don’t despair–just keep reading.)
Taking the initial picture is just the first step in the process of photographing miniatures. Once you have the initial image, you will still need to do some color correcting in PhotoShop or some other image-manipulating software. If you did not give any thought to the white balance when you took the photo, you will have a nightmare on your hands when you try to make a presentable photo. So knowing what you’re doing before clicking the shutter is important.
As I mentioned in an earlier article, the term “white balance” refers to forcing your camera to record the entire color spectrum of the rainbow as nearly as it can (which, so you know, is not very near). If your camera captures all the colors correctly, from infrared through ultraviolet (which it can’t), then a truly white object will appear truly white in your image, and all the other colors in the rainbow will fall naturally into place.
Did I mention that you cannot accomplish this? That’s because God invented your eyeballs, and a human invented the camera: the camera simply cannot capture the entire spectrum which your eyes see. So you need to make some compromises.
The easiest way nowadays to do this is simply to tell your camera to do it for you. Digital cameras (SLRs–see article 1) give you some amazingly simple but important controls over your photography. All you have to do is to tell your camera what type of light you’re using, as I explained in a previous article. But the simplicity of this step is a trap: you will be tempted to forget to take this step, and your photos will come out all wrong.
Very Important Thing to Understand
Your camera by nature cannot see blue light. Please remember this fact; it’s very important in understanding why things come out too warm or too cool. Cameras are basically blind to blue light. This is important because your images, as a general rule, will be too warm–that is, they will show too much red in the color spectrum. You will see this if you try to photograph a beautiful landscape on a clear, sunny day with deep blue skies. You will get the landscape reasonably enough, but your sky will be anemic at best. Try shooting it in black-and-white, and you’ll have a blank grey sky. (This is why black-and-white photographers, back in the days of film, used special filters which forced the film to record the blue light in order to get some detail in blue skies.)
This is the basic fact which led to tungsten lights and tungsten film (see previous articles). Tungsten lights and film were designed to add gobs of blue light into the spectrum of the final image, in hopes that whites would become truly white and all the other colors would follow suit. This worked reasonably well in the film days; in the digital age, we must learn how to accomplish this in other ways–which is simply to reiterate that we must tell the camera what type of light we’re using so that it can make adjustments to the blue end of the spectrum.
Allow me to illustrate with some samples. I shot a series of photos using right and wrong settings just to see how much difference it made–and it made a lot.
Correct White Balance (photo #1)
We will begin with a photo showing good white balance, just for reference. I used a standard “gray card” and “white card” in these images (very standard gear for professional photographers) to give us a reference point. I also used Citadel paints in red, green, and blue (RGB) because computer monitors use RGB to display the images. (We can discuss true CMYK printing in some future article, if there is an expressed interest.)
You will notice that the white card looks close to genuinely white–and that is what we will focus on in this article. We want our whites to be truly white, because then the other colors will fall where they belong. As a result, the red (Citadel “Blood Red”), green (Citadel “Scorpion Green”), and blue (Citadel “Ice Blue”) look very close to the real thing. If you own these paints, grab them now and check them against your monitor. I think you’ll find that the image on your monitor is pretty close to the real colors of those paints.
Remember this: getting the white right makes the colors bright. Okay, it’s not real technical, but it rhymes.
Incandescent Lamps on Daylight Settings (photo #2)
This is the most common screw-up in photographing minis, so we’ll begin here. If you are using table lamps to shoot your minis, you must tell the camera that fact. In photo 2, I deliberately set my camera for “daylight,” then shot the paints under incandescent lamps. As you can see, the white card is too “warm” — it has too much red in it to produce a true white. Consequently, all the paint colors also are too warm. Consequently, your mini will look like it has a fever. Red is still red, but green takes on a sickly yellowish hue, and blue moves toward gray.
Incidentally, if you’re still using a point and shoot camera… well, you need to read article 1 in this series. Because point and shoots are factory set to shoot in either daylight or flash settings; they have no option for “incandescent” lighting, and photo 2 probably looks like every photo you’ve ever taken of your minis.
Flash (photo #3)
I shot my paint pots with direct flash just to prove the point that I raised in Article 2 (or whichever it was). Yuck! Simple rule: don’t use flash.
Fluorescent (photo #4)
As I mentioned in a previous article, fluorescent lights produce a very greenish color cast. They are horrible to use and require some very aggravating and nearly impossible color correction later–so don’t use them. In this image, you can see that the white card is too warm. Unfortunately, red is not the issue here. Getting it to a true white is very difficult.
Open Shade (photo #5)
I mentioned in a previous article that shooting outdoors in open shade produces a muddy, low-contrast image. This example demonstrates that (although I forgot to use the white card). It’s not bad overall; you could bump up the contrast in PhotoShop and gain a useable image–but it’s not your best choice. Remember: get the photo right when you click the shutter, and life will be more happy as you prepare your final image.
Incandescent Lamps (photos #6 and 7)
These two photos illustrate my next point: a decent SLR will allow you to tweak your white balance beyond choosing the light source. I shot both of these images under gooseneck hobby lamps using regular frosted light bulbs, and I set my camera to “incandescent” so that it would know what I was doing. Both images came out within the “okay” range.
However: notice that photo 6 is slightly warmer on the white card (more red tones) than photo 7. My Nikon allows me to tweak my settings from -3 through 0 to +3 on any light source. Photo 6 was set to “incandescent +0,” while photo 7 was set to “incandescent +3.” On my Nikon, adding a few “plusses” to the setting adds some blue at each step. This means that my Nikon is adjusting itself toward the blue end of the spectrum when I add a “plus” to the setting, which is why photo 7 is slightly more “cool” (blue) than the warmer (more red) photo 6.
Your camera might not offer this feature, but if you’re using a name-brand SLR, I’ll wager that it does. And when it comes time for the PhotoShop article, I’ll be using the +3 setting (photo 7) as my starting point–because the white card is just a trifle closer to a true white than it is in photo 6.
Daylight (photo #8)
In this image, I simply told my Nikon that I was shooting in “direct sunlight,” and it did the rest. For single minis, this is by far the easiest way to go. Notice that the white card is a true white–something that we have not seen in any of the other examples. This makes our final touch-up painless and quick.
However, I have yet to try this for multiple miniatures. It’s entirely possible that shooting a diorama in direct sunlight will be the cat’s meow–but I doubt it. I’ll let you know in a future article, once I’ve tried it myself. My gut feeling is that, for multiple minis set up in a diorama, you’ll need artificial lighting. (Notice, for example, the harsh shadows behind the paint pots.)
Please remember that all our fussing about camera settings really does matter. It will make our job so much easier color correcting in PhotoShop once we’ve taken the initial image. My goal in these articles is to help you get it right when you click the shutter, so that you will be doing little if anything in PhotoShop afterwards.
Take some test photos using reasonably bright red, green, and blue (RGB) paints. Place them in front of a white sheet of paper for the background (I used some Staples photographic paper in these images, using the non-gloss backside to avoid hot spots). Place a photographer’s grey card under the paints if you have one; if not, don’t worry about it. Experiment using different types of lighting and different camera settings, then examine the results on your computer.
Cardinal Rule: Whenever you’re experimenting with your camera, write down what you’re doing on each shot. Once you upload those shots to the camera, you can give them meaningful names, such as “Incandescent light on daylight settings.jpg” or whatever works. Then you can easily see how the different lightings and settings have affected your images. This is the only way to learn.
Next article: Exposure Settings