using interesting available light & white balance options

finding interesting available light & white balance options

It’s always a feel-good moment to discover interesting available light while out on a photo shoot. Something unusual to add a new flavor to a different sequence of images.

While photographing a model with Tilo Gockel and Mike Silberreis (both from Germany on a visit to NYC), we started off with off-camera flash to help with the strong sunlight. (You might remember Tilo from a recent guest article on product photography on a budget.)

Then, while positioning Olena, I saw part of her dress had a patch of bright light on it. Turning around to see where this came from – I expected sun flare from nearby building window – I saw that it was actually the sun reflecting off a traffic sign right next to us. The light that was reflecting off this traffic sign was pretty hard, but had an interesting specularity, yet appeared flattering. So we shot an entire long sequence here, ditching the off-camera flash.


I switched over from my 85mm f/1.4 to the  Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG Art  lens that I was testing out, to shoot portraits with more of an environmental flavor. (I also wanted to see how this Sigma performed at wide apertures.)

The image at the top was shot at: 1/1000 @ f/1.6 @ ISO 64
Yes, the Nikon D810 has 64 ISO as its native lowest ISO.


choices in white balance settings

camera settings: 1/640 @ f/1.8 @ ISO 64
Nikon D810;  Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG Art lens: Canon | Nikon

The color balance here is quite warm, even though I had reduced the warm tones in post-processing the RAW file. With the Daylight WB that I shot at, the photo appeared with more red tones. Somehow the light reflecting off the stop sign was very warm.

So now I had to choose what white balance I preferred. There are always options.

The left-hand image was adjusted (by eye) for a more neutral color balance on her skin tones, by adjusting the RAW file to approx 4000K. The right-hand image was adjusted (again by eye) for more warmth, in keeping with how the scene looked at the time. Sun-drenched. But the right-hand image wasn’t as warm as the out-of-camera image shot with Daylight WB.

This again just underlines the idea for me that you are better off with the option of having a RAW file to play with, rather than sticking to a narrower (and potentially tougher) idea of “getting it right in camera”. Besides, what exactly is “correct” here?


Looking again at the image at the top: here is the version where I went for more neutral skin tones by adjusting the RAW file to approx 4000K white balance. Because the light on her was somehow so red / warm, this now pulls the background to much colder tones, similar to how you’d do it when gelling your flash for effect.

This gives the resulting image a look that slightly resembles a cross-processed photograph.


Going with the warmer color balance again, and the comparison between “neutral” and “hey, this looks pretty good with the warm colors”. Yup, that’s a legit white balance setting. It should be anyway.

camera settings: 1/640 @ f/1.8 @ ISO 64
Nikon D810;  Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG Art lens: Canon | Nikon


equipment used during this photo session

15 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 1rudy says


    These are excellent portraits. The warmer WB versions are the photos I prefer. Hard to believe that the light here was from a sign. They look just great so it is no wonder that you were excited. Nice to see you embrace the 50mm as well since 85mm is you preferred portrait FL prime. And Olena nailed the poses. Portfolio work!

  2. 3 says

    The two photos of Olena are great and work just fine. Once the lighting is sufficient on the subject and background, there are a lot of ways to process the photograph and be considered acceptable. As Neil has stated previously, there is more than one “correct” photograph.

  3. 5 says

    Hi Neil, I love these shots, and what you make with a simple traffic sign … simply wows me! Great stuff!

    I like the warm and the cold version, but would tend to the warm one.
    Cold = cool = more like fashion perhaps, more like VOGUE,
    warm = pure happyness = sunlight and warmth = just sort of nicer.
    At least for me. :-)

  4. 6Chris Falkner says


    First off, nice examples for available light and to remind us to keep looking for good light… I also prefer the warmer image myself.

    Another thought, what do you think of the Sigma Art lens so far???


  5. 7 says

    I’m loving the lens. It was a review loaner … and then I paid for it to keep it. It is built like a tank – there’s a huge difference in build quality between the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art lens, and the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G

    The Sigma is also sharper wide open than the Nikon.

  6. 8 says

    Hi Neil

    On a previous post someone asked you if you’d used a hand held light meter to get the exposure settings.

    I think you said no, but that it would have been better to do so. Did you use one here with Olena?


  7. 9 says

    I think people tend to associate “pale” or “cold” images of people with a lack of good health so they tend to like warmer images of people. The only issue is the color of the dress changes color. In this case, it went from an off-white to a light beige.

    I have a lot of professional experience in matching colors. The lighter colors are nearly impossible to match and get right. However, the darker colors become easier and black is a color that can be matched absolutely. I actually drive a black car for this reason. My car has been repaired by 3 different bodyshops. Different panels, but every panel on the car matches perfectly. This wouldnt be the case if the car was white, silver or some other lighter color.

    So if you warm up the photo you can expect color change in the clothing especially if the clothing is lighter in color. This fact might be very important if photographing for fashion purposes where the color of the items is critical. If the color of the clothing doesnt matter than warm it up.

  8. 10 says

    I’m enjoying your natural light posts even more than the artificial. Simultaneously simple and larger than life beauty with the model and your posing her. And as for the color balance, I actually prefer the unexpected cools. And great to see the d810 put to excellent use, handling the highlights so easily.

    Here’s a peek at my own natural light shoot with the original D800.

    After all this time with it, I’m STILL excited by the results each and every time.

    Keep up the interesting material.


  9. 12 says

    This is great! The BBC’s website linked to this Tangents article in their tutorial: Taking the perfect snap.

    This doesn’t have to require expensive equipment, Dr Sporea emphasises, pointing out that even fashion photographers have been known to improvise with sunlight reflected off street signs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *