Worldwide Photographic Journeys

Achieving Accurate Colour in Wildlife Photography

27th March 2019

Whether it is a Wild Images photography tour to Africa, Asia, The Americas, The Arctic or The Antarctic, one thing is certain, you will want to capture mother nature’s spectacular colours as accurately as possible.

 African elephant (Loxodonta Africana). Image as captured in South Africa (Image by Andrew Sproule)

Regardless of lighting conditions and with no effort, your eyes have the unique ability to see white as white, as well as colours correctly. Regrettably, this cannot be said for your camera. However, through the deployment of some extremely clever algorithms, your camera will try its hardest to automatically evaluate the light and present you with, what it thinks, is a correctly colour balanced image. This is called white balancing.

There is no doubt that modern cameras are incredible. Nevertheless, they cannot see what you see, no matter how intelligent and or sophisticated they become, and left to their own devices will frequently deliver images with unusual, and often, unreal colours. These inaccurate colourations are commonly referred to as ‘colour casts’ and can be yellow, blue, green or pink.

The good news is that built into most cameras is the ability for you to tweak the camera’s white balance settings manually in order to more closely capture the colours that you see in the real world.

So, What Exactly Is White Balance? 

Simply put, white balancing refers to the process of setting up your camera to achieve the most accurate rendering of colour under varying lighting conditions.

If the appropriate white balance setting is used for the existing light source, then the colour correction should work perfectly ensuring your images look exactly the same as seen by you. And, if not, there will be a colour cast.

All light, whether indoors or outdoors, has a colour temperature, and this temperature is expressed in degrees Kelvin. Sunlight, for example is generally blue while interior artificial light is more often orange in colour.

For example, the light outside on a nice sunny day will be around about 5,200-5,400 degrees Kelvin and can be thought of as neutral. With most cameras you can set your white balance to any value from approximately 2,500K (orange artificial light) to 10,000K (Very blue natural light, cloudy day). This allows the photographer to make fine adjustments to the colour of an image, sometimes “warming” the picture up or “cooling” it down.

Colour temperature scale (Image courtesy of Digital Camera World)

Therefore, to make sure you are able to capture a true representation of a particular scene, as it is presented to you, you may have to provide your camera with a gentle steer and make some in-the-field adjustments.

Select Auto White Balance And Correct In Post Production

Favoured by many a wildlife, travel and adventure photographer, a camera’s auto white balance setting generally works well, is convenient and eliminates the need for you to have to think too hard about white balance while on location with us.

Select White Balance Presets In The Field

It goes without saying that these days corrections to RAW files can be colour corrected in photo editing software, such as Adobe Lightroom, nevertheless it could be argued that by properly capturing the image at source, you will save yourself a lot of time in post production!

Furthermore, there will be times when the image just doesn’t look quite right and this is when you may want to experiment with alternative white balance settings.

Most cameras come with the option to select from a number of standard white balance alternatives such as Daylight, Cloudy, Shade, Fluorescent, Tungsten (Incandescent) and Flash.

The image as captured in the field using the cloudy white balance preset (Image by Andrew Sproule)

And here is the same image if I had used my camera’s auto white balance (Image by Andrew Sproule)

 From the left, the same image using Daylight, Cloudy and Shade presets (Image by Andrew Sproule)

Daylight white balance on the majority of cameras will be around 5,500 degrees Kelvin with cloudy around 6,500 Kelvin and tungsten around 3,000 Kelvin.

With this method, you will have the opportunity to shoot in JPEG, however, you will need to remember that you may have to select another white balance setting when you move on to shoot a different scene.

Select ‘K’ White Balance In The Field

If you find that none of the six presets works for you, you still have the possibility of using the ‘K’ white balance setting. With ‘K’, you have the option to set your camera to record anywhere between 2,500 and 10,000 degrees Kelvin. For example, punch up the colours of a cool sunset by setting your camera’s ‘K’ to 6,500 Kelvin or higher to bring out more yellows and reds.

And, if you are able to utilise Live View mode, then you will be able to observe, in real time, the effects your selections are making.

Select Custom (Preset Manual) White Balance In The Field

If the opportunity presents itself, you could always reference a white object. All that you need to do is, find an object, in your scene, which is white, such as a white wall, white car, etc. Then use the custom white balance setting to lock and store the Kelvin temperature of that white subject/object (please refer to your own camera’s manual for details).

Custom (Preset Manual) and K can be a tad cumbersome in the field, and as a result are often reserved for studio work. Nonetheless, if you have the time to experiment, it can be worth the extra effort.

In Conclusion

Nature’s magic moments are often fleeting. And in those special moments, the last thing you need to be is anxious about whether or not your camera’s white balance setting is appropriate for the scene.

Therefore, selecting auto white balance, shooting in RAW and adjusting colour in post-production, is the most practical solution for most in-the-field situations, and favoured by a lot of photographers.

Nevertheless, by accepting that your camera is not perfect at capturing a scene accurately and by having a fundamental grasp on the science of colour temperatures, you will be better positioned to make a judgment call in the field if you are not happy with what you are seeing on your LCD screen.

And here’s a little tip for when you are making your colour adjustments in post-production. Assuming that your screen is regularly calibrated, ensure you take regular breaks from the screen. It is a really important part of the process and ensures that you regain enough objectivity to decide whether you have nailed it, gone too far or not far enough.

Author and Photographs:  Andrew Sproule