Auto White Balance, a Cautionary Tale

Author: Ken Brown

AWB is a pretty neat (I am trying to avoid color temperature terms like “cool”) concept.  Set it and forget it.  Right ??  WRONG !!  I should start by saying that if you shoot in RAW, you are somewhat immune to this issue, as you can always adjust the color temperature in PS or LR.  However, even if you are shooting in RAW, don’t you want to try and get as close to the desired image right out of the camera? Of course you do, and there are other reasons to at least use a Camera Preset WB – one of those little images that you can dial in (a cloud, or a flash, or a tungsten light, etc.)

Reasons to use a Preset EVEN IF you are shooting in RAW:

  1. If you are shooting all day. Why would you want to make so many color temperature adjustments when post processing your images?
  2.  If you are taking multiple images and stitching them together for a panorama. You do not want different color temperatures in the different shots you’re blending, and with non-uniform lighting conditions, that can definitely occur.

But the major reason NOT to use AWB is, if you are shooting in JPEG or using the JPEG processed image, certain conditions can lead to poor results.  The camera tries to apply the right adjustment, but it simply cannot, or overcompensates due to the conditions.

What follows is a great example to convince you…  The photo is not great, but you can see what I was trying to do, shoot a hay bale in the background, framed by an old trellis leaning up against a tree in the foreground.  I won’t tell you what camera I shoot with, as I don’t want to turn this into a comparison of AWB between different cameras (although I’m guessing that there are some differences there as well).  I will tell you that this was shot with a pretty high end body and excellent lens – that is not the issue. The issue is the limitation of AWB, and that the camera is trying, really, really hard to assess the condition of the light and automatically apply the right electronic signal to the image sensor data and achieve an accurate color.  In this example, and in many other cases where you don’t have great lighting, it really missed the mark.

Shooting conditions – Heavy overcast sky

Camera Settings – ISO 4,000, f/13, 1/80 sec, 100mm telephoto

1 - The camera set on full AWB, shot in RAW, but opened as a JPEG.

1 – The camera set on full AWB, shot in RAW, but opened as a JPEG.

You can see that in the first image (full AWB), the camera adjusted and created a much “cooler” image (now I’m talking color temperature).  The whites have taken on a blue tone – the camera has added blue based on its interpretation of the lighting conditions.

2 - The camera set with the "Cloudy" Preset for WB, shot in RAW, but opened as a JPEG

2 – The camera set with the “Cloudy” Preset for WB, shot in RAW, but opened as a JPEG

The image with the camera using the “cloudy” preset has the correct, warmer tones, even just opened in JPEG with no adjustments to the RAW image.

3 - The first image (full AWB), but this time opened in RAW with the WB adjusted in Photoshop and saved as a JPEG

3 – The first image (full AWB), but this time opened in RAW with the WB adjusted in Photoshop and saved as a JPEG

For the third image, I opened the first one (with full AWB) in RAW, but adjusted the color temperature to roughly equal the cloudy preset.

If there had been snow on the ground (there was a few days ago in Vermont) the full AWB would have been much, much worse, and given all the snow a blue color as well.  Maybe you have shot images like this on a cloudy/overcast snowy day with your camera on AWB.

So to conclude…  Yes – You can use AWB and make an adjustment to the RAW image to “fix” the color.  But 1) If you shoot in JPEG or just open your images in JPEG this won’t help you.  Even if you shoot in RAW and open and adjust the color temp, why do this if you don’t have to.  As mentioned earlier, even this might cause you a problem under certain shooting conditions.

At least use a preset – they were put on your camera for a really good reason, and they are easy to use.  Many cameras allow a much more precise setting of color temperature, either to dial in the specific Kelvin Temp, or to create a preset for your images using the actual ambient conditions.

This  latter approach works really well for example inside dimly lit halls, like a church with really warm (temperature) lights.  Each camera manufacturer has a different approach to creating this type of preset.  But if you are going to do a lot of indoor photography of this type, I highly recommend learning this.  It’s generally very simple once you know how.  For my camera, I click the preset WB setting, take a shot of what “should be white” in the image, and White Balance is set.  Now I can get really accurate color, REALLY important with people in the image.

Happy shooting, and hopefully I’ve convinced you to at least use one of your camera presets.


Ken Brown is a Trip Leader with Arizona Highways Photo Workshops



Farewell Acadia – One Subject, with many points of view

Author: Ken Brown

After an amazing adventure, it was time to leave Acadia.  However even on our way back to Portland we found time for one more shoot !
Just past the large town (ha) of Damariscotta, Maine lies the Pemaquid Point Lighthouse.  It was commissioned by John Quincy Adams in 1827, and is just a marvel to behold. It has one of only six Fresnel Lenses still in service in Maine, and shows itself well when lit.
This particular lighthouse also enables and invites many different points of view for the photographer.  Sometimes we get so wrapped up in trying to shoot what we consider the perfect composition that we don’t move.  It is almost as if our tripods become immovable objects, like the 400+ million year old “rock” that this Lighthouse sits on.  But please remember to pick up your tripod and move !!
There are so many great ways to view this lighthouse that can be captured from all sides.  No, one composition, is right or wrong and many are striking.  Here are just a few…

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Also once you have several compositions, you can do something fun/cool and even create your own Poster…
Never get stuck in a rut, in this case literally and figuratively.  Move around and explore multiple compositions.  Yes, work to make sure you’ve captured your vision for the shoot, but remember that you don’t need 1000 snaps of the same view !!  This Lighthouse provides an excellent lesson on why it’s important to explore multiple points of view.  You might find something you hadn’t expected if you look at your subject a different way.


Ken Brown is a trip leader with Arizona Highways Photo Workshops.

Autumn in Acadia – Here comes the Sun, but thankfully, not too much for this shot !

author: Ken Brown

As  our Acadia workshop was coming to an end after a day or so of rain,  we were happy to see the sun emerge, but in the case of this shot, not too much of it !!
This area is called Duck Creek, and the weather could not have been more perfect.
What helps this photo…   First, after 2 days of rain and wind, there were a lot of fallen leaves in the creek.  Second, since the storm system was still clearing out, we arrived in the early morning with overhead clouds and absolutely perfect diffuse light to show off the running creek, the rocks, leaves, and surrounding trees.  Strong sun would not have appeared nearly as good, and would have created many spectacular highlights, bright reflective areas, on the rocks and water.  The last element that makes this photo work is the sense of the moving water, created with a 1 second exposure with a tripod mounted camera.  So the main message is – while everyone loves the sunshine, sometimes you really don’t want too much of it.
Ken Brown is a trip leader with Arizona Highways Photo Workshops.

Autumn in Acadia – Don’t let the rain keep you from heading out !!

author: Ken Brown

Our Arizona Highways Photo Workshop, Autumn in Acadia, kicked off this past week with 15 excited participants from both Arizona and around the country.  Autumn here in Maine is in full swing, but despite all our planning, one thing we can’t control is the weather.  One day there was a steady, mostly soft but regular rain, but it didn’t slow us down one bit.  What we were able to capture is a great reminder to never let the weather get you down or keep you inside !  Get out, enjoy the day you have, and capture something amazing.  We saw some stunning colors and had a magical experience on Little Long Pond.  The rain helped to bring out the color, and the raindrops brought a certain abstract pattern to the water.
Facing more difficult shooting conditions is also a great time to try the unconventional, or as our Pro Photographer, Colleen Miniuk-Sperry, would say “Break The Rules”.  Sieur De Monts, our second shooting location of the day (we had three) is a very special place, with a mix of old, original growth Acadia Forest, new trees, and an incredible diversity of vegetation, shown to us today seemingly as a Rain Forest.  A broad mix of colors, so many different greens, light, dark patterns, and everything in between.  If you do an image search on this location, you will see a lot of photos of the walkway shown in this photo – really pretty with surrounding tall trees and covered with a tapestry of Autumn leaves.  A perfect Fall scene.  However, you might not see something like what’s shown here.  A very abstract, soft, almost watercolor-like view of the walkway and surrounding forest.  This was shot handheld (not tripod) with a 2 second exposure. Once again, inspired by the day and location.
Don’t let anything, especially not the weather, ever stop you from going out to shoot.  You never know what you can create.
Ken Brown is a trip leader with Arizona Highways Photo Workshops.

Kicking Off an Amazing Week in Acadia National Park

Author:  Ken Brown

AHPW Trip Leaders, Amy Ganske, Christina Heinle, and Ken Brown arrived into South Portland in time to get ready for the arrival of 15 participants for a 5 day workshop shooting the most iconic scenes in Acadia National Park with Pro Photographer Colleen Miniuk-Sperry.  Colleen has served as Artist-in-Residence several times in Acadia, so you could say she knows her way around here !
Since we arrived a day ahead to get ready for the workshop, the three Trip Leads decided to go out on our own sunrise shoot, you know just to make sure the vans were ok and such  With a little bit of research, we discovered that we were within 30 minutes of the oldest lighthouse in the state of Maine – Portland Head Light, built in 1791, in Cape Elizabeth.
Arriving before dawn we found a beautiful vantage point to shoot from and waited until we had the most beautiful light.  The concept for this photo was to capture the sunrise just kissing the lighthouse and the surrounding rocks.  Casting some shadows to make clear the time of day, direction of the light, and some of the beautiful features of the lighthouse and surrounding scene.
 Since this is a workshop, we also wanted to highlight an important technique for this type of shooting situation – the use of a Graduated Neutral Density Filter.  Looking at the two images below, besides the change in composition, you can see the results of one with the Filter and one with no Filter.  This filter transitions from a darkened (but optically clear for shooting) area to a light, totally clear area.  Correct placement of the filter over the lens allows the photographer to dramatically reduce the exposure of the brightest portion of an image like this, the bright sky, and regions in dark shadow.  More light can get through the filter where it’s clearer, and less light through the filter where it’s darker.  While the photo without the filter is not terrible, it completely lacks the drama, intensity, and visual contrast of the image that was shot WITH the Filter.
 In addition to using the Split Neutral Density filter, both images were shot with an added FULL neutral density filter (yes – you can also stack filters !!), this was done so that the image could be shot with an exposure time over multiple seconds, giving the water a nice, smooth, appearance of flow – also being targeted for this photo.
Finally the last item to mention is composition.  Now putting aside the lighting for a moment, there is a very clear difference in composition between these two images, and it makes all the difference in the world.  It’s the fence…  The first instinct was to capture some of the green low shrubs in the foreground.  But after looking at this a bit, it became clear that a much more important feature was that fence, leading to the lighthouse.  It brings the viewers eyes through the image to the central theme – the Lighthouse.  Now also add in the lighting and filters, where the brighter, more reflective features (like the fence) pick up more of the light, and the features in shadow remain a little darker, and we’ve got a wonderful leading line for the eyes.
We’re off to a good start for our week in Maine and we haven’t even officially started yet
Ken Brown is a Trip Leader for Arizona Highways Photo Workshops.

Anatomy of an Indoor Portrait Shoot

Author: Ken Brown

It’s Summer in Arizona, so although I have done it, it’s a bit too hot outside for a Portrait shoot.  I’d like to use this Blog to describe the mechanics of an Indoor Portrait Shoot session we held.  It was for a Meet-up event, but I approached it the same way I would any Portrait session, and there’s a lot to making one of these successful !!

My Location
I have had an idea in the back of my mind for a couple of years (it’s good to catalog your ideas – you’ll use them eventually), and that was to do something in a bar.  I like the backgrounds, the ambiance, the possible props, and the posing opportunities available to use with a model.  Fortunately I had a contact at Desert Eagle Brewing on Main Street in Mesa, and when I asked them about using their interior on a quiet Summer night, they were all in.  Although I had been there before, I next visited the location, “per-visualizing” how I would do the shoot.  Where I would position the model, what I would use as backgrounds, where and how I would use my lighting and run my power lines for the lights.
Here is a “before” picture I shot of the bar, just with my cellphone about a week before the shoot.
The existing setup was pretty good for a start, but there were a number of things I wanted to modify.
What I wanted to keep:

  • I decided to use the right side of the bar.  I liked the Route 66 sign and the rack of bar glasses
  • I liked the Coke Machine
  • I like the bar taps

What I wanted to eliminate:

  • I didn’t like the TV to the right of the Route 66 sign
  • Right below the Route 66 sign was a Bar license certificate that would be a distraction
  • On the bar rack with glasses, there were a bunch of glasses stuffed with napkins

I pre-visualized two main shoot angles.  The model would be positioned at the bar, and I could see using the Route 66 sign and the bar taps as a background.  I could also see switching shooting angles and using the bar rack and glasses.

Here is my sketch of what I wanted to keep (check marks), what I wanted to eliminate (circled), and how I wanted to position my shot angles.
It’s nice if we can work with the existing environment, but one of the jobs of the photographer is to create the environment.  In this case, it meant doing something about the background elements I didn’t like.

  • Eliminating the napkin stuffed glasses were easy.  I just asked the bartender to remove them, and replace them with more empty glasses or bottles.  No problem – they were happy to help.  We also removed all other distracting elements – the little signs on  top of the bar, the stacks of napkins, a few other items you can’t see in the background.  Control the image and background– It’s your job.
  • Covering the TV and the bar certificate.  I make a habit of going to antique shops, remnant shops, and have a few favorites.  I quick trip let me find the perfect coverings – a U.S. Flag and a small patriotic looking banner.  Once again, the bar didn’t mind that I do some temporary coverings with push pins.  I always bring pins, tape,  and plastic clamps.  You can cover just about anything with these.  You’ll see the results in the images to follow !

Based on where I wanted to position my model, and the two different shooting angles I had in mind, I decided to use two lights with softboxes to get the effect I was looking for.  For this, given the need to shoot rather quickly with a big group of people, I wanted the model just evenly lit.  I used a third light with a long throw reflector to provide all the background light – to light up the background and the side bar rack.  For a different shot, I also had in mind moving the background light behind the model, to provide some good lens flare and create some back lighting on the model.

My Model
There are a variety of resources to use for finding a model.  In this case, I used a website (I’m a member) called Model Mayhem.  It’s a great resource for finding a variety of talent – models, hair and makeup artists, set designers, costumers, image editors, and more.  After finding a model on MM, I chatted with her about target outfits.  I sent her some photos, just finding them through simple google searches, of the types of outfits I was interested in.  She shared some ideas with me, and we decided to go with two outfits – a red cocktail dress, and a jeans/midriff outfit.  Two different, but good looks for her.  I also told her that I would be using a model photo release form – this is pretty standard, and you can google search this also and find several good ones.  We negotiated an acceptable fee, and lastly we arranged a time for her to be on set.
As it turned out, we also ended up with a male model joining in the shoot.  That was a last minute call – a friend of my assistant on the shoot.  He was just getting started as a model, and was happy to help out and participate.  We of course had him also sign the release forms.

Parameters of the Shoot
I arrived about 90 minutes before the shoot to set up my lighting, prepare my background, and to take some trial images.  I wanted to be all set when the model, and all the Meet-up participants, showed up.  I positioned and targeted my lights to get her evenly lit, roughly planning to shoot at ISO 200, 1/200th of a second, and f11.  I used a main light (36×48 softbox) and a fill light (24×36 softbox), each positioned about 10-12 feet from the model.  I positioned my backdrop light far enough back to get the coverage I was looking for, at about 1-2 stops below my main light.  I wanted to use this difference in foreground versus background lighting to create some separation and give a nice multidimensional effect.
Here’s an image with one of our participants shooting, in this case our male model.
You can see the two black softboxes, and should just be able to make out the backdrop light close to the wall.

Now the results !
bar7Here are a few images from the shoot.  You can see how I’ve used the two different angles I had pre-visualized.  The Route 66 sign, with my added U.S. Flag and small patriotic-looking banner.

You can also see the coke machine with it’s own lighting   as well as the bar taps.  There’s one of my male bar5model as well using just the modeling lights, at a higher ISO setting in the camera.

These shots would not be nearly the same with a TV in the background and that white Bar License certificate.
Once everyone in our Meet-up had a chance to shoot with this setup, I moved the background light on the other side of the bar to create backlight on the model and to flare into the lens for a more edgy look.  All in all bar6a GREAT shoot.  Our Meet-Up participants had a great time and got some excellent images.  You can see how I use the bar rack and glasses for this shot.  She was also happy to get up on the bar.  A great angular look for our bar4model !
Keys to success – An interesting location, pre-visualize the shoot, control the background, preset your shooting angles, prepare with the model ahead of time, great lighting.


Ken Brown is a trip leader with Arizona Highways Photo Workshops.