The Color of Light: White Balance
A photographer friend once said to me, “Just because you shoot in color doesn’t automatically mean that you’re seeing in color.”
Color is everywhere, and it’s a big part of virtually every photograph that I make. But the presence of color alone doesn’t mean that I’m on my way to making a great color photograph. It’s only the careful evaluation of colors in relation to each other, to the light, and to the various elements in the scene that lead me to make the conscious and creative choices that help make a good image.
Color was an afterthought in many of my early images. I photographed a woman who just so happened to be wearing a red shirt. I photographed a landscape that by chance had some yellow flowers in the foreground. I was looking at the people and the objects that were within my frame, but I wasn’t really seeing what was happening with the light and, consequently, with the colors. Yes, I might have seen it and recognized it later, when I looked at the photographs onscreen or in a print, but I wasn’t seeing it when it mattered most: the moment of exposure.
As I continued to shoot, I realized that I was often responding to color. It was the color itself that was making me stop, raise my camera, and make the photograph. When I wasn’t conscious of my attraction to color, I would make a photograph, but it would include a lot of extraneous elements in the frame, which weakened the image and would make me question why I had made the photograph in the first place.
The problem was that if I didn’t understand what I was responding to in the scene, I was just snapping the shutter and hoping the camera would capture something for me. And it did capture that something ... along with a lot of other elements, which, more often than not, weren’t important to the story or the photograph.
But that changed when the switch in my brain was flipped, and I realized that I was not only seeing color but also feeling color. I was having a visceral reaction to what my eye was seeing. Now what I had to do was find a way to use the camera to capture that physical reaction within the confines of the frame.
On the afternoon that I made this image of the building, I had decided to get out of the house and just allow the light itself to lead me to my subject. I didn’t go out with any preconceived notions of things to photograph. Instead, I started with a completely blank slate, looked at where the light was falling, and let that alone dictate who and what I photographed.
So, when I saw this roofline, I first saw the light and then I saw the color, and I experienced that wonderful quickening of the heart. I had the clear blue sky and the bright white wall, but I also had the little bit of red in the shade. The contrast between those three colors and the vibrancy they provided shouted out to me for a photograph. So, I made a series of images, carefully refining my composition for line and shape until I finally felt that I had produced an image I would be satisfied with.
To everyone else walking past, I was just a guy with a camera taking a photograph of the side of a building. But as you can see here, I was doing much more than that. I was seeing the light. I was seeing the color. And because I knew what I wanted to emphasize in this image, I used the added presence of line and shape to build a strong, graphic composition.
Other times, I’m led to a subject not by the light, but by the color itself. Yet, it’s my awareness of the quality of light that allows me to make the most of the colors and subjects that I find.
With my camera preset, I was able to take time finding the ideal location for this photograph, which not only provided me the perfect background but also allowed me to use the quality of the soft, diffused light.
While walking down a street in San Francisco, I spied this young woman wearing a purple jacket and carrying a red purse. The energy of the purple and the red were exciting, and I knew that I had to ask to photograph her. Not only did she say yes, but there was a bright yellow wall right behind us, which served as the perfect background for my portrait.
Because it was a cloudy day, I had already increased the ISO and adjusted the white balance before I discovered her at the corner. She was pretty shy, and I knew I didn’t have a lot of time to spend photographing her. So, having most of my camera settings preset allowed me to quickly make a series of images of her. But the image isn’t just about a woman standing on a street; it’s also about the energy created by the juxtaposition of the red, purple, yellow, and black.
Color is an important element in these and many of my photographs not merely because they’re colorful, but because they’re allowing me to reveal how I experience the moment. I can and have made images just because they were colorful, but those images quickly become repetitive and lack the impact that I’m hoping for. Color, when used right, becomes as important a tool as light, focal length, and exposure.