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Trick Your Digital Camera to Emulate Film
The Color of Light
White balance is a subjective decision, and I would suggest not letting the camera make that decision for you—thus, it’s best to avoid AWB, or the automatic white balance setting on your camera. In AWB, the scene is analyzed during the exposure and calculations are made by the camera’s software, usually in less than a fraction of a second. As a result, you could literally place your camera on a tripod, set it to high motor-drive mode, and squeeze off a dozen frames—only to find that the frames are not identically white balanced. This happens because the end result is based on camera manufacturer proprietary software. This software interprets, or interpolates the light captured as it sees it in that split-second. While this interpolation is usually very good, one problem is that the auto setting can actually neutralize color casts that you want in your photos, such as the sweet, warm qualities of the Golden Hour light.
Playboy Playmate Holley Dorrough was photographed in the Moab with digital camera white balance settings at 6000 Kelvin.
This is why I normally shoot all my photographs, except maybe the kid’s birthday party photos, in manual white balance mode. I like to tell the camera the number of the color temperature, not let the camera tell me what it thinks is best. A camera is made to capture what I create, not to create and capture what it thinks logically is best.
Kelvin temperature of light will fluctuate based on many conditions. Some conditions include the actual location of the shoot in longitude and latitude, pollution, atmospheric conditions, time of day, time of year (angle of light), etc., when it comes to natural light. In the case of artificial light, age of a bulb, voltage drops, and various brands of lamps alone will cause the color temperature output to vary.
On a normal basis, my camera white balance is set manually at 6000K, or 6000 Kelvin. Kelvin is how we measure color temperature of light, and for most photographers, the only real Kelvin numbers we need to remember are 3200K for tungsten or incandescent light sources; 5000K to 6000K which represents most daylight situations during the middle of the day, and 5400K which is the temperature most top of the line studio flash units produce.
When I use the 6000K setting on my digital camera with daylight or studio flash conditions, I’m basically tricking my camera into believing the light is slightly cool, similar to light on a cloudy day or light under shade. This forces the camera just a tad bit more of yellows and reds, or warmth, to compensate for this coolness. All the camera knows is that it must ensure a given standard white, 100 IRE, is reproduced as that given white under any lighting conditions. That’s all the camera is doing, making sure white stays white.
I captured this image of Brittney using the daylight reflected off the white wall and my digital camera white balance was set at 6000 Kelvin.
By ensuring that my digital camera will introduce this extra warmth in my photographs, I’m basically emulating the days I shot saturated-warm slide film for publication—films like the now discontinued Kodak E100SW professional film. Using this manual white balance setting on my digital camera makes my camera think that I’m using a cool-colored light source. In an attempt to neutralize this, the camera’s white balance software will add the complimentary color (yellow and reds). Since I’m actually shooting under neutral lighting, this results in a warmer overall photo. This works great for models or female subjects especially for darker-skinned models and it’s especially effective for fair complexions too.
Let’s imagine, however, that your model’s skin is a bit ruddy. In that situation you might move your manual white balance camera setting more toward 5500K. With ruddy skin, you don’t want any more reds, and setting the white balance closer to the more neutral flash or daylight setting will accomplish this (i.e., the camera will not add warmth). This same principal works when shooting with light sources that are not daylight balanced. Starting with the actual color temperature of the light you are shooting under, choose a slightly higher color temperature value to warm your subject’s skin tones, or select a slightly lower setting to cool them down a bit.
The scale below provides my personal interpretation of warm to cool, with neutral being normal, noon-to-3 p.m. daylight. For example, look at “Light Overcast Day” on the chart. You’ll notice the color temperature is approximately 5800-6000K, or “Cool +1.” This means that the light is one “unit of color” cooler than neutral (which is clear, colorless, boring light).
||Warm vs Cool
|Sunrise & Sunset
||1600K to 4300K
||Warm +3 to +.5
||1800K to 1900K
|Sodium Mercury Vapor Street Lights
|Average Household Bulb (Incandescent)
||2800K to 3200K
||Warm +2 to +1.5
|One hour after Sunrise
||4300K to 4500K
|Daylight at 12 noon
||5000K to 6000K, average 5400K
|Pro Print Viewing Lamps
||Neutral light standard
|Average Electronic Flash
|Light Overcast Day
||5800 to 6000K
|Heavy Overcast Day
||5800 to 10000K, average 8000K
||Cool +1 to +3, average +2
|Daylight Fluorescent Bulb, Consumer
||Cool + 1
*Kelvin Scale notes: The only precise way to measure the actual color temperature of light is with a calibrated color temperature meter. Because of this, this scale includes approximate values.
I photographed Jenni in the Moab and this image was not captured during the Golden Hour, so for added warmth, I set my digital camera to the manual white balance mode of 6000 Kelvin.
In the days of making color prints in the darkroom, we often referred to color correction of photos in units of color, such as +1, +2 or -1, -2 of cyan, magenta or yellow—or the exact opposites: red, green or blue. With this in mind, a Light Overcast Day is +1 cool, which is almost like +1 cyan (a blue-green color). When I set my camera at 6000K white balance, as I often do, it’s the same as telling my camera the light is +1 cyan, so the camera adds the opposite. Again, the camera thinks it’s doing what it’s programmed to do, bring a known white, back to that standard white, but in reality, it’s tricked into warming the entire image.