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The Many Colors of the Night

Most of us describe the colors of the night as either warm or cool, but it is also important to understand that color evokes emotion. Blue can be calming as well as melancholy. Red may be bold, but is it with love and passion or with frustrated tension? Your interpretation of the light conveys your visual message. Take a look at your favorite photographs—is the color of the light helping evoke the emotions you feel?

Color Primer

The boldest colors with the most impact are the primary colors: red, yellow, and blue. In Figure 4.1 the red and yellow letters stand out strongly against the blue of the sky. Mixing two primary colors yields the secondary colors: Red plus yellow equals orange. Add red to blue and you get purple. Blending yellow and blue results in green. What’s important to recognize is the relationship that colors have with each other. This can easily be viewed on the color wheel (Figure 4.2).

Figure 4.1

Figure 4.1 The red and yellow letters make this a bold and graphic picture.

ISO 160 • 2 min. • f/5.6 • 80mm lens

Figure 4.2

Figure 4.2 Opposites attract—cool and warm colors live opposite each other on the color wheel. They complement each other when used together in an image.

Complementary colors lie opposite each other and bring out vibrancy and contrast when used together in an image. A common complementary combination at night is the blue of the sky and the yellow/orange ambient light from streetlights. In Figure 4.3 the red/orange taillights provide a nice warm pop in an image whose main color is the cool blue of the sky.

Figure 4.3

Figure 4.3 The car taillight trail brings balance to this shot. The warm color complements the blue sky and brightens up the darker half of the image.

ISO 400 • 4 min. • f/5.6 • 21mm lens

Analogous, or harmonious, colors are adjacent to each other on the color wheel and produce a softer, subtler look. They can appear monochromatic because their contrast and tonality don’t vary that much. The main colors in Figure 4.4 are orange, yellow, and green. They provide a smooth background for the black and white bike to hang from. The yellow adds the strongest contrast because it is the brightest. Our eyes are always drawn to the brightness and most colorful part of a picture.

Figure 4.4

Figure 4.4 Using colors that are next to each other on the color wheel gives an image a soft, painterly feel with little contrast.

ISO 3200 • 1/20 sec. • f/3.2 • 50mm lens

Light Sources and Their Color Temperatures

All light has a color temperature (how warm or cool the light source appears). The standard unit of measurement for color temperature is Kelvin (K). The lower the Kelvin number, the warmer the color appears; the higher the number, the cooler it appears. Figure 4.5 is a standard Kelvin chart that shows the colors as well as their common sources. Learn to recognize color temperatures so you can capture them accurately. We have all seen the wonderful warm light of candles on a cake, but have you captured it successfully or did the flash’s white light blow it away?

Figure 4.5

Figure 4.5 Light sources and their color temperatures.

We are actually approaching a new age in nighttime color: In the United States, the orange glow of sodium vapor streetlights is quickly disappearing as more and more cities replace them with eco-friendly LED lights, which are cooler and have less character. The common incandescent light bulbs that were in every household have been phased out in favor of CFLs (compact fluorescent lights). At least CFLs come in three flavors: soft white, bright white, and daylight. Have you ever shot an office building and noticed a green or magenta color cast coming out the windows? That is the light of low-cost fluorescent bulbs. In rare instances you might see the greenish blue light of the metal halide or mercury vapor in light sources in parks, streetlights, parking lots, and industrial sites. Figure 4.6 shows a high-pressure sodium vapor light and a metal halide light on the same post.

Figure 4.6

Figure 4.6 The orange high-pressure sodium vapor light shines on the street, while the blue/green metal halide light is pointed in the opposite direction to illuminate the park.

ISO 3200 • 1/4 sec. • f/8 • 35mm lens

White Balance

How your camera reads color temperature depends on its white balance (WB) setting. This is one of the most important buttons on your camera. The default is Auto White Balance (AWB), which does an OK job during the day. However, a typical AWB range is 3000–7000K, and it is heavily influenced by the strongest light source. AWB struggles at night, especially when you have multiple light sources with varying temperatures.

One of the benefits of digital is that every camera has several source-specific white balances. Each setting applies varying degrees of the opposite color temperature, so any color cast is neutralized. The two most popular settings at night are the Tungsten, or Incandescent, setting and the K (for Kelvin) setting.

The symbol for the Tungsten or Incandescent setting (the name varies depending on the manufacturer) is a light bulb. This is a good setting to start with in most night scenarios. Streetlamps and moonlight tend to warm up the night, so by setting the WB to Tungsten, you can cool the image down and give it a nighttime feel.

The K setting lets you take even more control over the color and mood. You can dial in temperatures from 2500–10000K to suit your needs. This setting is very important when there is a mix of several different colors in the image. The combination of metal halide and high-pressure sodium vapor in Figure 4.7 made it difficult to choose the correct WB setting. I turned on Live View in my camera and toggled through the WB settings before settling on one that best represented the image. If you are new to WB or the light is tricky, this is an excellent technique to employ. Turn the temperature up or down to see which one looks best to you.

Figure 4.7

Figure 4.7 I used Live View to balance the colors from the metal halide light (left) and the sodium vapor light (right).

ISO 200 • 2 min. • f/4 • 50mm lens

The WB setting influences the overall mood of the image. You want to incorporate, not neutralize, the colors of the night. Sometimes they just need a little adjustment to tone them up or down. If you shoot raw, you’ll have more leeway to adjust your WB in post, but I like to get as close to the color I’m trying to achieve in the field. I can “read” the scene better, and it influences the other adjustments I make.

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