One of the trickier parts of night photography is having to deal with white balance. If you aren’t well versed in this topic, you can read about it here below. I’ll link to a few of my previous posts.
When taking photos in Live View mode and looking at the scene through your camera’s rear LCD screen, if you camera is set to AWB (auto white balance), you can sometimes see the camera filter through its white balance different options. I see this all the time when I engage in food photography. The rear screen gets whitish, then yellowish and then it usually settles on something that looks somewhat normal.
The issue when it comes to night photography is that the camera sometimes has difficulty determining what type of light it’s actually dealing with. Oftentimes at night, there’s light from the moon and stars, which would require a Daylight white balance setting. If you’re walking around a city street though, or if you’re in an area where there are incandescent lights, you’re camera has to deal with what’s referred to as “mixed lighting.” This type of situation can make it tough for a camera to choose the best setting. It might want to go with the Tungsten setting. It may not get it right though and your photos might look terrible as a result. That’s why it’s important for you to constantly monitor the situation and review your photos as they’re taken.
In today’s post, I’d like to offer you a few tips on how to best set your camera when dealing with mixed lighting at night. There are some things you can do to minimize the risk of taking lousy photos and once you get the hang of things, your photography can be set on cruise control. It’ll be effortless.
Okay, here are some tips for you.
Shoot in RAW
If you set your camera to take photos in RAW, you can always alter what the white balance is for those photos in an image editing application such as Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom. I, along with so many others out there, have done this about a zillion times. While white balance is adjustable with JPEG images, the depth of data that’s being worked with isn’t nearly as extensive, so RAW really is the way to go when the situation calls for it. It’s important to note that white balance ins’t tattooed into an image, which is to say it’s not a permanent aspect. It can always be moved around and altered in post processing. If you have a photo that’s blurry beyond repair, that’s permanent. White balance isn’t permanent, so don’t freak out if you’re shooting at night and the color of your photos looks strange at the time. Those colors can always be corrected, as long as you’re shooting in RAW.
Use Auto White Balance
The Auto white balance setting does an incredible job of picking up on and choosing the correct color temperature for any given scene, especially with the newer cameras. Tons of photographers work with the Auto setting because of this and only adjust the setting if need be. That’s if they see an image that’s out of whack while reviewing them on their rear LCD screen.
Use the Daylight White Balance Setting
While color temperatures change throughout the day, from the temperatures at high noon being around 5780 Kelvin to the color temperature during a warm sunset being 3200 kelvin, day time color temperatures are relatively cool. The interesting thing is that night time color temperatures fall into this range as well. When you consider that any light that emits from the moon is simply the same light that’s being reflected from the sun, you can easily wrap your head around the idea of what white balance settings your camera might call for in these types of situations. Moon light has a color temperature of around 4100 kelvin, so setting your camera to take advantage of the Daylight white balance setting would be a good move. Again, you can always edit the temperature later on in post processing if you shot in RAW mode.
Use a Custom White Balance
Sometimes you just can’t get away from mixed color temperatures. At night, there are usually many sources of light and oftentimes, the light from the moon and stars gets washed away by man-made lights. During times like these, your camera can’t decide which white balance setting to use. Even if you change the mode to something like Tungsten, things might not look right. It’s for this reason that the Custom white balance setting is available.
When dealing with mixed lighting, it’s helpful to set your white balance to a kelvin temperature that’s specific to your scene. From what I’ve seen and worked with, these temperatures usually fall between 2600 kelvin to 3700 kelvin. It’s the yellow/orange that generally needs to be cleaned up, but again, the final arbiter will be what you see in Adobe Camera Raw or something like it. If you want to be really accurate, you could always use a white balance grey card to assist in post processing. I talk about those cards here.
As you can see, setting the proper white balance in photography can be a moving target. Even under perfect conditions, you’ll likely have to make adjustments in an editor later on. If I had to give you only one suggestion, it would be to shoot in RAW. Doing so will offer the most flexibility for you moving forward.
I hope I clearly gave you tips on how to handle and set your camera’s white balance for night photography. If you have any questions regarding this post, please let me know in the comment section down below. Thanks for reading!