To learn to create evocative light with flash, it helps to better understand how we experience the continuous light we see every day.
To do that, you’ll need to wean yourself from auto white balance, and even to abandon familiar waypoints like your daylight WB preset. Because our goal is to learn to exist in a more fluid way along the Kelvin scale.
If you remember back to entry SLC-1L-05, we’ve already talked about using flash within the continuum of Kelvin settings on our white balance. But you also can use that technique to create a more evocative color balance in your ambient light photos as well.
When I talk about balancing color, I don’t necessarily mean neutralizing color. In fact, that’s usually the last thing I want to do. When presented with a non-daylight main light source, what I’d rather do is make use of the color offset the room is giving me to create a little color tension within my frame.
A good example is the kiln photo above, made in a pottery factory in rural Vietnam. I was scouting last month for our fall 2020 X-Peditions trips, traveling in the North Vietnam hinterlands with Thu, our local producer.
Traveling Back in Time
We arrived at a factory where they make traditional pottery of various sizes, including the large vases used to keep rice wine over the winter.
And by traditional, I mean the factory receives piles of dirt and logs, and creates pots. And aside from the truck that comes to pick up the finished work, it’s a 100% human-powered process.
First, workers break up the clay-rich soil into manageable chunks:
Then the clay and dirt are separated in a slurry of water:
After the clay is partially dried, the largest pots are thrown in two pieces, then joined by hand:
The seams of the still-wet clay pots are then finished on a wheel:
The pots are dried overnight, amidst the seemingly endless piles of wood that serve as fuel for the kilns:
The firing is done in three stages, each progressively hotter:
In the last stage the pots are fired to 1,200C — nearly 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit — which yields a glassy finish that is created by heat alone. The pots are then loaded onto a truck, using straw as packing material:
It’s an amazing thing to watch. And it’s rather like walking back in time a thousand years or so. The amount of skill and continuous physical effort that goes into this fluid production line is awesome to behold.
Experiences like this expand our understanding of the world around us, and are one of many reasons I’ll never tire of visiting developing countries.
Red? We Got Plenty of Red.
Okay, so back to our lede shot at top. Here is a version as I originally found it, shot at or near daylight white balance. What we have is a palette of gray and brown and red and red and lots more red.
This is almost certainly the reddest natural light source I have ever seen. It’s that red because the kiln is raging at 1,200C. That fire keeper is stoking the heat, and pushing in logs at the rate of about two per minute.
That’s what he does, day in, day out, nonstop. He constantly watches the fire, staring into the heat, judging the heat by its color, and playing the kiln like an instrument.
Creating Color Tension and Balance
What I am going to say next is personal preference — basically the way I see and use color. And when I see a scene like this, I’d like to help that red stand out a bit.
And on a background of brown and gray, that’s not going to happen. So, perhaps counterintuitively, I am going to help the red stand out by removing as much of it as I possibly can.
And given how deep this red is, that’s not going to be a problem. Because there will still be plenty of red left in that red-hot, wood-fired key light. And by shifting our ambient color, we can steal some of our excess red and give it something to stand out against.
So I’m going to go from daylight (5600K) to, well, as far down the Kelvin scale as my Fuji X-Pro2 will let me. And that train stops at 2500K. Which is really frickin’ blue.
So everything that is not super-red is now going much cooler. Which gives the remaining red (and it is still quite red) something to stand out against. Like this:
Again, this is all personal preference. You may not like it pushed this far. You might rather split the difference.
The important thing to know is that any time you have an excess of one color, you can steal some of it to create a little bit of color tension in your photo.
But a better question is, is it appropriate? Is it wrong? Is this somehow unethical?
As an old newspaper shooter, I still internally argue about stuff like that. Maybe too much.
Here’s where I’m at. First, I definitely prefer the red-vs.-blue image. And second, if you think about it, I have chosen my primary light source to be the kiln. I mean, it’s kind of a no-brainer, right?
And my white balance has been moved closer to the color of my key light source. I can’t even come close to reaching a setting to neutralize that fire, nor would I want to.
But when my eye sees that scene in real life it automatically adjusts, both in exposure and in color balance. In a scene that is lit super red, shadows now appear to be very cool as a result of that adjustment in perception.
So the shifted photo, in turn, reads to me as more psychologically correct as I am seeing it in my camera while still experiencing the scene. This on-scene reality check is also why I don’t just spray and pray in RAW and then twiddle the knobs all day two weeks later in post.
No offense to people who do that. (Okay, some offense.)
But adjusting your white balance to partially bridge the gap between the way your camera sees a scene and the way you are experiencing it while at the scene is a good way to start to understand the differences in the way your eye and camera see light.
Which in turn makes you better at using color to create evocative lighting with your flashes when called upon to do so.