Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

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I want take a photo of a scene lit by a yellow-orange street light. Unlike many of the questions here, I don't want to balance the colours in the scene, rather I want the areas lit by that light to remain yellow. The street light is the dominant light source in the scene.

What white balance settings do I need to capture the cast of a coloured light?

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I understand that if I shoot with RAW I can change the white balance after the fact. However, I would prefer to understand how to do this in JPG to better understand what is going on inside my camera. –  fmark Apr 21 '11 at 23:22
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@fmark: there's not really a difference between fiddling with the RAW image and fiddling with the JPEG AWS settings. In fact you may be able to get a better sense of what is going on using RAW data, since you can see as many white balance settings as you want for the image. –  Henry Jackson Apr 22 '11 at 0:20
    
@Henry Jackson - Actually, there is a difference between them. Bear in mind that successive edits to JPEG is lossy, so if you shoot JPEG, try to get the white balance correct because changing it will result in data loss on save. If you shoot raw, it doesn't matter, the white balance correction is part of the processing anyways, so the outcome is very flexible without data loss. –  John Cavan Apr 22 '11 at 3:39
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@John Cavan - what is the difference between a JPEG shot with white balance of 5000 K and a RAW file adjusted to 5000 K. They should give the same result, right? The main difference is that once the JPEG is shot, the white balance cannot be changed (without loosing some data). Ditto for exposure and other settings -- a RAW file can look exactly like the JPEG, except you can change more things. –  Henry Jackson Apr 22 '11 at 4:03
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@John Cavan - I think we're in agreement. The final result of the same white balance settings, applied either in-camera to the JPEG or post-production to the RAW, will give the same result. All I was saying was that there is no reason for @fmark to prefer JPEG for white balance experiments -- quite the opposite, in fact. –  Henry Jackson Apr 22 '11 at 16:05
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5 Answers 5

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Try sunlight. That'll give you a fixed setting which will assume a relatively "hot" light source, which will render the more-yellow light sources as yellow in your image. (Conversely, if you shoot actual sunlight in incandescent-wb, you'll get a strong blue cast.)

If your camera (or RAW processing software) allows you to set color temperature in Kelvin, try setting it around 5000, and adjust up and down to find the cast that looks right to you.

Aside: Somewhat unfortunately, the numbers used for color temperatures come from science rather than art, so hotter light is more whitish blue, and cooler light more yellow-red — the opposite of our natural sense of white/blue as cold and red/orange/yellow as warm. Oh well; just more functional jargon to learn. Rather than going into it in much more detail in this answer I'll just point to another couple of questions: What is color temperature and how does it affect my photography? and What is the meaning of White Balance, which have good information on the topic already.

Some built-in WB presets will also adjust on a magenta-green scale, which isn't taken into account by color temperature. This is important when photographing under some fluorescent lighting. If you're shooting under high-pressure sodium-vapor lights (like many streetlights), with their characteristic pink-orange glow, you're pretty much out of luck in getting any natural looking balance, because the spectrum is so narrow and strange. In that case, going with a daylight preset and just preserving the odd look may be best. Or, deciding not to worry about it and going to black and white.

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AD Aside thing: hotter white is toward reds, cooler toward blues. But if you set your WB to cool colour some light sources on image will be rendered hotter, because blue is white everything else is hotter. Basically it's the way that it should be. –  Robert Koritnik Apr 22 '11 at 8:00
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+1 for sunlight. It's my "go-to" WB because (1) it usually produces the image similar to how I perceive the scene (color casts intact, sort of) and (2) having constant WB might cut some corners in post. FWIW, my Canon rates its sunlight WB as "approx. 5200 K" –  koiyu Apr 22 '11 at 17:39
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For my taste, "tungsten" has worked best in such situation. The street lights are actually way more yellow than standard tungsten, but the eye somewhat adjusts to the color cast, so the photo will be quite similar to what was actually seen. For example, this shot is a (resized) camera JPEG, tungsten WB:

A bridge to the bright side

The grass and side of the bridge were lit by orange streetlights.

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Nice shot. I like how the tungsten white balance turned a blue sky into a really deep blue sky. –  Pete Mar 16 '12 at 21:52
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Set your WB to CTE (Color Temperature Enhancement)

This preserves the color-cast in the scene and actually emphasizes it a little. If you like the color-cast of street-lights, sunset and sunrise, this is purposely made for that.

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+1, because, yes. However, on my camera (a Pentax K-7), I find the enhancement effect too strong for my liking. –  mattdm Apr 22 '11 at 0:05
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Oh, also, is this a Pentax-specific thing? –  mattdm Apr 22 '11 at 0:07
    
@mattdm - The enhancement effect depends on the color-mode too. So if it is too strong on 'Bright', then on 'Faithful' or 'Neutral' it should be better. Forget Vivid, everything is too much there :) –  Itai Apr 22 '11 at 0:23
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Yes, only Pentax has it for now. –  Itai Apr 22 '11 at 0:24
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Interesting... I've never tried that on my K-5, I may have to take a look at that. I usually just leave it in auto, since I shoot raw, and then adjust after, but I'd be curious to see what the effect is with this setting. –  John Cavan Apr 22 '11 at 3:37
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Take a bunch of shots with the different settings and see which you like best! This is the great part of digital photography. Since you're intentionally trying to circumvent the camera's AWB guess, there's not going to be a single, specific right answer.

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There is no simple answer to this as it depends on what the lighting produced by, there are several gasses and metal vapours used for street lights,some, such as metal halide are full spectrum, i.e. they contain all colours of the spectrum but just colour shifted, and some i.e. Sodium vapour are not full spectrum, without all the colours they will render as monochromatic and be impossible to balance. Add to that the problem of mixed light sources you will be faced with either a best average balance or doing several conversions and working with layers and layer masking to fix the colour issues!

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