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Portrait Tips: The sneaky secret of white balance

White balance is always trying to pull a fast one on you and sneak by with the wrong color in your photographs. Here’s the case in point, today: It’s a sunny day, not a cloud in the sky, so you set the white balance to Daylight, which is just what the camera manufacturer advises you to do.

But then you end up with a picture like this that has significantly too much blue in the skin tones. What the heck?

Shade is sneaky

The trouble is that although the subject is standing in the sun, the light shining on her face is actually coming from the blue sky above. The sky is blue and the light shining on her face is blue, which is the situation when you stand in the shade of a building or under a tree, too. She is technically in open shade, and that shady white balance snuck in there even though she is standing in full sun.

Whenever you have subjects backlit by the sunshine the chances are that they need shade white balance on their faces. The Shade setting in your camera increases the warmth of the colors and helps your subjects look more healthy and adds a lovely warmth to the whole scene which is summery and nostalgic. I often see this scenario in family pictures made in the later afternoon in a field of grass and the family’s faces are often far too blue.

You can fix it while you’re shooting by switching to Shade white balance (it’s the setting that looks like a little house with lines next to it indicating that you’re standing in the shade next to the house), or you can choose the Shade setting in your photo editing software.

Conclusion

When your subject is backlit by the sun, the white balance should probably be set to Shade instead of Daylight (unless the light on the faces is shining off a building or a reflector). If you shoot RAW, then you’ve got good control of this color situation available when you’re processing on the computer, but it’s helpful to get it looking right on the camera, too. Watch out for that sneaky shade white balance while you’re shooting and you’ll become more aware of the color all the time.

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

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