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Fixing your white balance: The ultimate solution

As I kept on playing with the Illuminati instruments incident and color light meter I’d been given a few weeks ago, I discovered that I love putting the color meter to the test. I am always in situations where colors in my camera can get a little crazy – whether I’m in a gym, outdoors or even in front of a white wall. In this article, I test different environments and lights, both with my camera’s automatic white balance and the Illuminati’s color meter. I also explain how to use the device to get a perfect read on color — every time.

Unlike fashion photographers, I don’t have the absolute necessity to provide accurate colors in my images. So to me, owning a light/color meter was not a priority — even less considering it meant a $750+ investment for traditional incident meters and well over $1,500.00 for a color meter. I shoot RAW so I always have the possibility to fix my white balance in post-production if I didn’t get it right at the photo shoot. I shoot 90% of the time in ambient light. I make little use of strobes — as I don’t want to interfere with the athletes as they are training or competing. I was pretty curious to find how the Illuminati meter could help me with my daily workflow so I gave it a try. But first, I had to get back to my basics…

Reflective light Vs. Incident light

Our cameras read reflective light to calculate exposure and white balance. That means that it only sees the light that bounces from the subject to the camera’s sensor. Simply put, the camera sees the colors being reflected at it. If you are outdoors with a lot of leafy trees and your subject is standing on the grass, your camera thinks “Hmmm there is a lot of green in here, better put some magenta to make it right!”. Well… pink and pale and skin tones are not what we are looking for, thanks but no thanks!

This problem is solved when you use a color meter: the biggest advantage of using the Illuminati meter is that it only reads the incident light. The incident light is the light that is falling on the subject. That way, I know exactly what the color temperature my light source is and that’s exactly what I put in my camera’s custom white balance setting. There’s no more guessing. I turn on the meter, point it at the light and I know instantly what my color temperature is. For example, with fluorescents, it could be something like 3450ºK or for outdoors on a sunny day in open shade it could be 10560ºK). The “K” is for the Kelvin scale used to measure color temperature. 

As I am not as nerdy-technician-enthusiast as my dear friend Bryan is, and knowing there are no risks for me to explode whatsoever, understanding the difference between reflective light (boo) and incident light (yay) is more than enough for me to grab that thing and get out there. Kevin Ames wrote an article explaining the difference between reflected and incident light.

How to “correctly” use a light/color meter

The main mistake is metering the light from where we are standing to take our picture. This will read the reflective light already influenced by the color of the subject (exactly the same as what our cameras do). The proper method is to aim the color meter at the source of light. It means that you have to stand close to your subject and direct the meter towards the main source of illumination. It is very simple… yet very important!

A few examples

Example 1 (aka gym lights + red walls)

Who doesn’t like some “pretty” fluorescent lights? I don’t. But I have to live with it since I spend most of my time in gyms. I used to shoot everything in auto white-balance (AWB) and fix it later in post-production. Well, for all the gym rats out there, I’ve got some really exciting news for you. No more green/blue/magenta skin tone for your athletes ever again! And no more time wasted in post-production working to make them look human again. In this example, my camera had a double challenge: the fluorescents AND the red walls (the school made sure nobody would EVER fall asleep at their basketball games…). My camera’s AWB went for 3400K but the real white balance (as of my Illuminati metering) was 3600K. This saved me a LOT of time on my editing workflow.

Example 2 (aka the white wall on a sunny day in open shade)

This picture was taken outdoors with a white wall behind my model. 5950K was perfect according to the camera – if the wall was indeed perfectly white. But it wasn’t! It had a bluish tint. The actual reading with the Illuminati device was 360ºK cooler than my camera’s AWB. Can you see the huge difference in the athlete’s skin tone? The wall looks whiter too.

Example 3 (aka fluorescents + dark floor + wood wall)

Wood walls are pretty popular in CrossFit gyms. And it also makes my camera’s AWB go crazy. There was a whopping 1000ºK difference between my AWB and the actual real-life color temperature reading. 1000ºK! Can you imagine how the athletes would have looked — pale and sick?! Sometimes, a yellow wall is a yellow wall and the camera shouldn’t try to fix it for us.

My wrap up

I can definitely see differences – sometimes slightly, sometimes hugely – between my camera’s AWB and the Illuminati color meter. The main benefits of using the meter for me are consistency, accuracy and time-saving in post-production, which makes it the ultimate solution for fixing my white balance in any situation. If you’d like to know more about the Illuminati meter, here is my previous article where I share my thoughts on my first look on the device. You can buy one here.

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