Filters for correction

You can use some gels (colour filters) for correction, Here’s an example.

Take this: I am lit pretty much OK by my flash, and with the camera set to FLASH white balance,, but the background is a tungsten light, so it looks red. I happen to like that, but what if I want that background to look normal, white, the way it looks to me?

Well…  can I not just set the white balance to Tungsten?

No, because then, while the background would look good, the parts lit by the flash would look all blue, like this:

Part 1 of the solution: make the light on me come from a tungsten light source too, so we both look red. We do this by adding a CTO (colour Temperature Orange) to the flash.

Part 2 of the solution: Now you can set the white balance on your camera to “Tungsten”, and both I and the background will look neutral:

Done. Now we both look normal.

So, in summary:  when you are dealing with a colour-cast ambient light, gel your flash to that same colour cast, and then adjust your white balance setting to that colour cast.

You can learn all about this, and much, much more, from my e-books. Now available from — the checklist book even as a printed manual now,

Cool colour

I shot some demo product shots with my student Merav today, and I thought I would share them here to underline the importance of colour.

Here’s one, a simple one. Lit by a softbox on the leeft, an umbrella on the right, and against a grey backdrop. That gives us this:

Bit boring? Yes it is. So I add a gridded, “egg-yolk yellow” gelled speedlight aiming at the background. (I use the excellent Honl Photo grids, gels, and other small flash modifiers):

Product Shot (Photo: Michael Willems)

Much better. Then we added another light – a green-blue gelled speedlight shining in from the left:

Product Shot (Photo: Michael Willems)

Then we reversed the gel colours:

Product Shot (Photo: Michael Willems)

Then, tried another background colour, rose purple:

Product Shot (Photo: Michael Willems)

And finally got to a background coloured Just Blue, which had been Merav’s idea all along:

Product Shot (Photo: Michael Willems)

Which one did you prefer? Can you see how different they all are?

To shoot this I used this setup:

Product Shot Setup (Photo: Michael Willems)

This works as follows:

  1. Put the bottle on a table, with white paper underneath
  2. Put up a grey backdrop, far from the bottle so it does not get any light
  3. Get the main lights right – use a light meter to set them to your desired values (I used f/9 and 1/125th second at 200 ISO). Main strobe is fired with Pocketwizard; secondary strobe by its cell.
  4. Add a background light: a small flash also fired by a Pocketwizard, through a Flashzebra cable. Set to 1.4 power. Equipped with a 1/4″ Honl grid and a gel.
  5. Add a side light: a small flash also fired by a Pocketwizard, through a Flashzebra cable. Set to 1/4 power. Equipped with a gel.

Simple. Once you know!

Why the rum? It was the only bottle I had in the house. Amazingly, for the first time I can remember, I had not a single bottle of beer or wine or anything else available in the house. Time to hit the liqor store!



The Importance of being colourful

Colour is an interesting thing. It can help or hinder your pictures. It helps if you are using it where it is wanted; it hinders if you use it when it is not, or if you fail to use it when it is.

The Caribbean is all about colour. People are happy, the sun is hot, and everyone uses wonderful bright colours. So a scene like Philipsburg, Sint Maarten, needs colour:

Philipsburg (Photo: Michael Willems)

Technique needed:

  • Flash: I needed to use my Canon 580EX flash for this sign.
  • Exposure: I made the colours vibrant by exposing the rest of the image down a little: 1/200th at f/13 at 100 ISO.

In the following image, I needed no flash – or rather, it would not have done anything:

Sint Maarten (Photo: Michael Willems)

In the next example, I needed the flash just to light the plants that make up the roof, or they would have been black:

Sint Maarten (Photo: Michael Willems)

And one more, where I used the flash:

Sint Maarten (Photo: Michael Willems)

One more – a street grab:

Philipsburg vendor (Photo: Michael Willems)

And one more, again showing wonderful Caribbean colour:

Philipsburg (Photo: Michael Willems)

I suppose this all boils down to a few simple rules:

  1. Decide if color is needed; is it an important part of the image?
  2. If so, expose well – underexposing ever so slightly will make colours more. saturated; overexposing leads to washing out. (Note: you are allowed to “expose to the right and fix in post – you get better quality).
  3. Use a flash if needed to light up areas that need lighting up.
  4. Use the right white balance.
  5. Consider a polarizer on sunny days.
  6. Add a little saturation in post if you have to.


All very logical once you think about it.


Set it yourself

Each light type has its own colour temperature (the redness or blueness of the light, where redder is “warmer”, and more blue is “colder”, in photographers’ terms). This colour is expressed as a temperature, which is measured in degrees Kelvin (after Lord Kelvin). Physicists and engineers know this.

Our cameras need to adjust to the light’s colour temperature. In the film days we used to do this by selecting the right film, which is sensitive to match the colour temperature of the light used (Tungsten film for incandecsent light bulbs, daylight film for daylight).

On digital cameras we use the White Balance setting. Set it to “Tungsten”, “Fluorescent”, and so on. Or we can set it ourselves, and that is today’s tip of the day.

On many cameras you have a “K” setting. You can now adjust the white balance by setting it to the colour temperature of the light used:

  • Blue sky: 10,000K
  • Shade from blue sky: 7,500K
  • Daylight shade: 6,600K
  • Summer daylight: 5,500K
  • Flash: 5,500K
  • Mid afternoon daylight: 4,500
  • Evening sunlight: 3,500K
  • Tungsten light: 3,200K
  • Sunset 2,500K
  • Candle light: 1,600K

So setting those white balances makes light look white. Is that what you want? Then set that white balance to match the light. That is the simple method: to get white to look white, select the colour temperature of the light illuminating your subject. And by using the Kelvin scale, you can make this pretty exact. So if a light is too red for you, adjust K until you are happy.

But there is another method: If you do not want white, then set the white balance to a different value from the value of the light hitting your subject. I.e. you can shift white balance. So if I set my white balance to 5,500 on a sunset evening, I get not white, but red  – which presumably is exactly what I want for a sunset.

Yes, you can do this on your computer if you shoot RAW, but I still recommend getting it right in camera.

And that was today’s tip!


About colour in photos

In my series of “travel tips”, here’s a thought or two about colour.

Colour is often nice when used very deliberately. And the good news: there are tricks to doing that.

Like using single colours. Whenever you see a strong primary colour dominate, consider whether this might contain a picture:

Blue Vegas

Or when you see opposite colours – like blue and yellow together:

Speed Humps!

(Can you see the use of flash in that image?)

Warm colours are good too – think about a sunset. Think of adding a little CTO filterin front of your flash (a gel – I use the Honl gels, which like the rest of the Honl range of modifiers, has made my life much easier).

And I especially like the combination of all three main primary colours, red, green and blue, all in the same image:

Sedona Afternoon View

You will see this in many of my images: here’s another one, an on-request snap of a couple of tourists in Sedona, AZ (can you see I used a long lens for this? Why?)

Sedona Tourists

Finally, candy colours can be fun too: we look at them, our eye is drawn to them:

Candy Cane Colours

So my lesson for today is: think about colour: how are you using it? Are you getting the best out of it?

Foot note: I mentioned David Honl above. Dave is coming to Toronto – he is my special guest in a three-hour course on “Event Photography and Creative Light”, on Saturday, 19 March 2011. The location is to be announced but it will be in, or right next to, Toronto. Let me know right now if you want to reserve your space.


Sunday, I spent the afternoon walking through Oakville with ten students for a Creative Urban Photography walk.

A few pictures here. I thought I would concentrate on colour. And even on a very cold fall afternoon, there is colour.

Like contrasting colour, in this case red and green:


Or harmonious pastel colour:



Or subtle single colour:

Coffee Beans

Coffee Beans

Or simple single colours:



Or beautiful fall colours:

Fall colours

Fall colours

Or colour warmed up by a gel on the flash:



So if a cold afternoon can show colours like this, so can anything else. As long as you spot the colours.

Your assignment, therefore, if you wish: Spend an afternoon shooting in the environment of your choice, looking only for colours.

And remember to:

  1. Set the correct white balance
  2. Expose well (do not overexpose; use your histogram or a Hoodman Hood Loupe)

Enjoy your outing!

Colour combinations

There are some colour combinations I always look for. If you see those, think “could there be a shot here?”

They include Red vs. Green, a combination that contrasts on the colour wheel:

Red and Green

Red and Green

But also:

  • Yellow vs. Blue, ditto, another contrasting combination.
  • And the following harmonious combination we find a lot in nature: purple and green.
Green and purple

Green and purple

And this one, shot in yesterday’s “Creative Urban Photography” walk that I did with nine students in Oakville:

Harmonious Colours,photo by Michael Willems

Harmonious Colours

So any time you see any of those combinations, ask yourself “could there be a picture?”. And if you see lots of green, look for some red; if you see lots of blue, see if you cannot find some yellow to add to it.

Update: two more notes. First, remember to set your white balance properly (e.g. on a cloudy day, use “Cloudy”). Second, the upcoming autumn is a great time. Cloudy, overcast days provide wonderful saturated colours, and of course the leaves are turning. Get Out and Shoot!

Bad light

Have you ever thought, or said, the following?

Waah. It’s raining, I can’t take pictures.

There’s no sun, I can’t take pictures.

Don’t you believe it. A cloudy, rainy day is better than a sunny day in so many ways.

  • No harsh shadows to wrinkle clothes (or faces)
  • No squinting eyes
  • Saturated colour
  • No impossible contrast to handle
  • Those great raindrops

The other day, I took a few snaps during the Henry’s Creative Urban Photography walkaround. Here’s a few of them: are those saturated colours not beautiful?

Leaf in the rain, by Michael Willems

Leaf in the rain

Flower in the rain, by Michael Willems

Flower in the rain

Turning Leaves in the rain, by Michael Willems

Turning Leaves in the rain

Oakville in the rain, by Michael Willems

Oakville in the rain

Tired Flowers, by Michael Willems

Tired Flowers

Oakville plants in the rain, by Michael Willems

Oakville plants in the rain

Oakville door, by Michael Willems

Oakville door

A rainy, overcast, dreary day: provided you expose properly (remember exposure compensation. Hint: it’ll likely be “minus”), there’s really nothing quite like it.

Calibrating your screen: why?

I received the following question:

At the Henry’s Show, you made reference to the importance of calibrating your monitor. Would you mind discussing that one day on your blog?  I’m utterly clueless about it. Thanks.  Enjoy your daily emails immensely!

Welcome, and the pleasure is mine. Solet me answer your question.

What does “calibrating your monitor” do?

It ensures that the colours it displays are as accurate as possible. So that white is real white, and so on.

How does it work?

You buy a “spider”: a light sensor that you temporarily hang right in front of your screen. Like a “Huey”, or various larger spiders. The software that comes with the sensor then makes the screen flash all sorts of colours. The sensor looks at these and can tell whether, say, red is a bit brighter than green. It then adjusts the output of your screen accordingly tp correct for this, and creates a new “monitor profile”. That ensures your colour is accurate.

Why should I do it?

Ah, good question.  Well, to understand this, imagine your monitor shows a bit more green than it should. When editing your images, say with Photoshop, you would decrease the green to make your images look good.

Now you send that edited image to a friend. Or you put it on a web site. The viewer look at it – and thinka it looks red (the absence of green makes it look too red)! Or if you print it, it would come out looking too red.

That is the reason you should really calibrate your monitor. It’s important!