Master white balance in your night photography
How do I avoid ugly color casts?
Most of the time, your DSLR is quite capable of capturing accurate colours whatever the lighting. It's the job of the camera's white balance system to adjust the colour of the image, replicating the way our eyes see the scene (check out our in-depth guide to common white balance problems - and how to solve them).
The standard Auto White Balance (AWB) setting, however, is much better at getting the colours right in daylight than after dark. Shots taken of floodlit buildings or in your living room, for example, can have a slight but unpleasant orange-yellow colour cast.
This is a sure sign that the white balance is wrong, and this discolouration can be easily corrected in Photoshop, particularly if you shoot using the RAW quality setting.
However, it's simple enough to get the colours right at the time you're shooting. All you have to do is set a Custom White Balance. If you're taking a sequence of shots of the same building, or in the same lighting, this is especially effective. The standard technique is to use a white or grey object and use this to set the white balance.
Is there a simpler way to avoid colour casts?
Even if you set the white balance manually, the colours of some areas of your night shots can still look wrong. The problem here is that a building may be lit by several different light sources, each with a different colour signature.
You can adjust the white balance for one, but adjusting it for them all is a much less straightforward task. A simple solution is to convert these troublesome images to black and white.
Shoot in colour, and then convert them to monochrome using your photo-editing software; this gives you the best control over the contrast and tonal range of the image. It's a good technique to use on your party portraits, too!
How do I set manual white balance?
All digital SLRs enable you to set the white balance precisely, using a reference shot you've already taken. The following steps show the steps for doing this with a Canon DSLR, the exact procedure may vary if using other brands…
- You know when it's time to act when your pictures start to look orange.
- Take a picture of something white or grey. Choose the Menu button and select the Custom WB option. Ensure the reference shot is on screen, then press Set.
- Now change your White Balance from AWB to the Custom option (denoted by a black rectangle above two triangles). Subsequent pictures will have no colour cast. Remember to recalibrate the white balance setting when you shoot a different scene.
An alternative method
The traditional method is to use a sheet of white paper or a grey card for your reference picture when setting a custom white balance. But you can get away with just using a picture of the subject itself.
This shot of Krakow Castle is much too orange. We then used this image as the reference for a Custom White Balance setting.
Using this lesser-known method results in a much better final image.
SEE MORE: How to take photos at twilight
Creative flash effects at night
When should I use flash?
Flash shots can often prove disappointing because the flash itself tends to kill the atmosphere, making the subject too bright and the background too dark. For this reason, it's often best to switch the ISO setting to a higher value.
However, when increasing the ISO still doesn't give you a fast enough shutter speed or a narrow enough aperture to capture the subject sharply, your camera's flash can come in handy.
Flash is often essential for low-light portraits, for instance, because a live subject can't be captured sharply with an exposure measured in whole seconds.
The secret is to try to make the fact that you've used flash less obvious. A great way of doing this is to combine a burst of flash with a long shutter speed.
The advantage of this so-called 'slow-sync' flash technique is that it's easy to set up on your DSLR and it works remarkably well with the camera's built-in flash unit.
When should I use a bounce flash technique?
Bounce flash is another great way of getting natural looking pictures in low light. It works particularly well with portraits, giving a soft-lit approach that disguises the fact that you've even used a flashgun.
The flash is diffused and weakened as it bounces off a nearby wall or low ceiling, so you lose the harsh shadows caused by direct flash.
Unfortunately, you can't use the camera's built-in flash, so you'll need an accessory gun with a tiltable head that fits on to your camera's hotshoe.
How do I set my camera's slow-sync flash function?
With slow-sync flash, the camera sets a long enough exposure for the background to be fully exposed while simultaneously firing the flash to light up the subject in the foreground.
The subject is caught sharply thanks to the short burst of flash, while the background is not the under-exposed black expanse of a normal flash shot.
To activate slow-sync flash on a Nikon DSLR, you set the flash mode to Slow. On Canon SLRs, all you have to do is set the main mode dial to Av and flip up the flash. For other brands, check your manual.
Unless you're using a tripod, you'll need to use the thumbwheel behind the shutter-release button to set an aperture so that the accompanying shutter speed isn't so slow the background becomes blurred.
Master your camera's autofocus - which AF points to use (and when to use them)
Conquer underexposure: how to rescue shadow detail and how to deal with noise
Manual Focus: what you need to know to get sharp images
Download free photography cheat sheets