Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

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I'm getting the hang of manual white balance and I haven't yet shot lightning strikes in a storm but I may this summer. What would be a safe white balance to deal with the fact that lightning is appears to make the scene/sky so blue (to my eyes)?

  • What is the color temperature of lightning? Sources?

  • Are there any good references about shooting lightning, especially regarding WB?

  • Will "Sunny" work (letting it come out sort of blue?), or should I go for "Flash" balance or "Shadow" balance to warm things up even more?

  • Does this even make sense since the goal may not be to make lightning look neutral? (any more than a blue sky could be made neutral -- rather Shadow WB makes the scene lit by the sky look more neutral)

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2 Answers 2

up vote 4 down vote accepted

I took some shots of lightning last night. I did not have a great vantage point, so I used the time to experiment and learn. When it came to white balance, even with AWB set on my camera, the resulting scenes came out with considerable color cast. The clouds had a deep orange hue, partly due to the orange street lights that light up suburbia where I live. The lightning bolts themselves showed up with a vibrant purple hue.

I spent some time in Lightroom trying to manually correct the color by manually setting the proper kelvin for lightning, however there is no one single correct value. After a little while I noticed a tool I had never noticed before...a dropper that lets you pick a pixel in your image that you wish to set as the 18% gray point. Using this tool, my photos instantly started looking correct. The clouds were a proper grayish tone, while the lightning bolts themselves came out to a brilliant, barely bluish, bright white.

I am not sure if other tools have a tool that lets you select an area of your image to set as the 18% gray point, however if you do, it is by far the most accurate way to properly color balance lightning shots.

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1  
The white balance picking tool usually works on the green/purple scale too, that's why it's better. I've used it a lot in tricky lightning situations. The influence of correct white balance is usually underestimated until you see the correct version. –  Karel Aug 9 '10 at 16:41
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Yeah, the correct term is probably "color balance" as it works on both axes. I totally agree, though...once you finally see a photo that is properly corrected for white balance, its pretty amazing. –  jrista Aug 9 '10 at 17:16
    
Just an example of a WB headache I worked on lately (somewhat similar to lightning strike as part of the light source is electric discharge): 2.bp.blogspot.com/_-yoT3Wnz6VY/TGBx0Ju3T1I/AAAAAAAAJPY/…. Not a promotion of any kind, just didn't want to sound arrogant in the first comment. –  Karel Aug 9 '10 at 21:35
    
Ah, I never thought you sounded arrogant. ;P Its a good point though, that proper color balance involves more than just temperature, it also involves tint (green/magenta shift). Very interesting shot, BTW...love the high rate of motion in the train. –  jrista Aug 9 '10 at 22:01
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Thanks - this is the type of environment that drives my obsession for optimal data:) –  Karel Aug 10 '10 at 13:20
  • This thread on PopPhoto has a lot of varying information about the actual color temperature of lightning (in Kelvin). This NASA Tech Memo from 1986 has a lot of charts and data about RF emission from lightning but I wonder how well the emission spectra of lightning fits the black body model and whether it makes sense to give it a Kelvin value. That memo certainly doesn't boil it down to a photographer friendly number.

  • I found this tutorial and he basically says to shoot RAW, leave it on Auto WB, or make a decision based on the scene ("Cloudy"). It looks like it depends on the scene and the effect you're going for.

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Why ask the question if you provide the answer yourself? ;) I definitely agree with the second item: shoot RAW, modify WB as needed afterwards. –  Marc Jul 16 '10 at 18:04
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So that the question can be found by other photographers that don't know the answer. Other members are welcome to enhance this answer or add other answers. –  gabr Jul 16 '10 at 18:15
    
And if my answers are wrong or not as good as other answers then they can be voted on appropriately. As I was writing the question I researched it and realized I was sort of answering it so I split it up. The question would have been too long and would have been partly answered, which is weird. –  Jared Updike Jul 16 '10 at 19:43

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