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Portrait Tips: Remember the White Balance, Forget the Histogram

A popular way to make portraits is to place the sun behind your subjects (often done in a field of tall grass at sunset). It’s a pet peeve of mine, however, that these pictures are often the wrong color.

White Balance for the Faces

Your camera’s white balance control helps you make portraits with great color by correcting for the color of light illuminating your subject’s face. The common problem with backlit portraits is that the photographers thinks to himself, “My subjects are standing in sunlight, so I’ll use the Daylight white balance,” but even though the people are standing in the sunlight, their faces are illuminated by the blue sky behind the photographer, not by the sun shining on their backs. Your camera set to Auto White Balance (AWB) will probably choose daylight, too. That blue sky is casting a blue light on their faces, and that makes many of these otherwise beautiful backlit portraits appear to have subjects who were just checked out of the hospital. That blue light puts an insalubrious color cast on their faces and they simply look sickly.

The solution is to set your camera white balance for shade. It counters that blue light by adding warm tones. Not only do faces look better, but the whole picture ends up with a warm and summery glow. It’s a win on both counts.

Forget the Histogram

I’d better mention this here, too. When you use the sun as a backlight without adding to the light in the front, you’ll end up with bright highlights that are totally blown. That means there is no detail in those areas and they show as clipped on the back of your camera with the highlight warning turned on or as shown here in Lightroom.

But who cares? Do the highlights ruin the subject of your photo? If so, make an adjustment to your settings. If not, move on and shoot something else. Sure, the highlights on my friend’s head are clipped in this picture, but it doesn’t make me like it any less. If the whole front of his face were blown, then I’d make an adjustment. As it is, it just reminds me how the light shines down the streets in the morning in Chicago.

The histogram provides information, not value judgments. It shows me that there are blown highlights, but it can’t tell me I’m doing anything wrong. Fuggetaboutit.

Conclusion

Making portraits with the sun low behind your subject can be really dreamy and warm and emotive. But if you leave the camera shooting on daylight white balance or auto white balance (AWB), you’re likely to end up with sickly looking subjects. Switch to shade and you’ll like the results. And don’t let your histogram dictate your creativity. Get out and shoot while the summer lasts!

Portrait Tips come out each week, and you can see them all right here.

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