Take Control Of White Balance

white balance changes
Changing the white balance can dramatically alter the look of any photo - by Spiritia

The subject of white balance can generate some resistance because some elements of the topic are quite technical. Instead of talking about the technical details of color temperature and black body radiation, I’m going to give you a few tips to hack your camera’s white balance functions to get more interesting pictures.

Automatic White Balance

When set on automatic, your camera’s computer reads the scene in front of it, takes an approximate reading of the color temperature, then sets the white balance accordingly. Auto white balance is far from an exact science because a scene can have a range of color temperatures and light sources.

In some situations, like outdoors on a sunny day, the automatic white balance does an admirable job. In other situations, like mixed light, it may perform poorly.

In most camera brands, I’ve noticed the auto white balance seems to err on the blue side. That might be more noticeable to me because I prefer a warmer (red or orange) cast with a bit more contrast. Really, the proper white balance is in the eye of the photographer and not all brands are alike and can even vary between camera models within a brand.

Take Control

Almost every camera, from point and shoot models to the highest end DSLRs, has a way to manually select white balance. Your user manual, which you should be reading anyway, will have a section on how to manually adjust white balance.

For some cameras, like the Canon 7D, you’ll have to select a shooting mode other than Auto or Creative Auto, to get access to the white balance controls.

You’ll notice many cameras don’t have a “daylight” or “sunny” setting for white balance. That’s because everything about your camera is optimized for shooting in daylight and everything else is an adjustment.

Once there you have a lot of options for getting different results. Even on a sunny day try selecting the “cloudy” setting and notice that your photos look noticeably warmer. Basically you’re fooling the camera into thinking the light is shifted more to the blue end of the spectrum than it really is.

You can experiment and try the fluorescent setting under tungsten lights, or the tungsten setting in daylight. Mix it up, try different combinations of lighting and white balance settings. You may even discover that you want to leave your camera on the “cloudy” setting all the time.

The great thing about digital photography is if you don’t like the results, you can push a button and start over.

Taking Better Holiday Kid Pictures

kid picture
The photographer caught this winner on film - One wonders how many it took?

Some of you are coming back from Thanksgiving vacation a few weeks back to discover that the family pictures you took were less than stellar examples of kid photography. Fortunately, you still have time to rally before Christmas, the premium moment for kid pictures all year. This time be prepared.

Kids and Animals

Working with kids and animals have gotten many Hollywood directors and photographers to consider a career in real estate, so don’t feel bad if your turkey day photos weren’t that great. It’s a tough shooting situation, even for pros.


– Plan picture time just before meal time. The kids will be dressed for dinner, still relatively clean, and animated in anticipation of eating.

– Have a supply of toys on hand, particularly anything small that walks, rattles, or makes noise. Wind up toys that walk around are perfect.

– Ask the older kids to help with the younger ones. In my experience kids respond better to their older peers than whoever is taking pictures.

– You can also use the older kids as translators for the younger ones. A lot of time you as an adult might not understand what a child is saying, but the other kids will know.

– Put the wind up wiggly toy on your head when you’re ready to shoot. You’ll have about 10 seconds of full attention.

– Pictures when they’re engaged in an activity are almost always better than posed pictures.

– A puppy or kitten will almost always provide a great group shot.


– Don’t have another adult standing behind you trying to help. That’s almost always more distracting than helpful and it’s really annoying to have a choreographer standing behind you.

– Don’t try to pose kids, it almost never works. It is better to get involved doing a song they learned in school. It puts them at ease, gives them an easy task they can manage, and gets everyone smiling.

– Don’t drag it out. You have maybe 10 minutes of quality shooting time before someone starts getting fussy.

– Don’t let kids wear shirts with logos or printed designs. Bright, bold, solid colors are best.

Bracketing In The Digital Age

photo of exposure bracketing - by SmialSmial
Bracketing still has value, even in the digital age -

Bracketing started back in the days of film photography because film was cheaper than trying to find new clients. The only way to make sure you got a tricky shot was to take five or six shots, constantly bumping either the shutter speed or aperture, sometimes both, to make sure you had at least one good shot. After that you sent the film to the lab and crossed your fingers.

Bracketing in the digital age takes on a different context and technique. When working with RAW images there’s no incentive to bracket white balance. White balance is a notation in the headers of a RAW file and you can change it at your leisure, along with sharpness, contrast, and other color settings determined by the compression algorithm.

If you’re not working with RAW or your camera doesn’t support it, then think about bracketing white balance. You can get some interesting effects deliberately using the wrong white balance for the scene.

I still bracket on exposure, partly out of habit, partly because in these days of digital photo manipulation, you might like the sky better at one exposure and the subject at another. You don’t always have to go full HDR, but that’s another good reason to bracket.

Along with that, exposure by itself can do a lot to change the mood of a shot. The optimum exposure is not always the best for the scene and, in my experience, the closer to perfect coming out the camera, the better the photo will look in the end.

Another time I still use bracketing is when I’m shooting with a flash. I don’t completely trust the LCD screen, even with the histogram. It’s really pretty easy to go a half-stop on either side when shooting with a flash and the difference can be hard to see in the LCD. But that half-stop can make quite a lot of difference in post.

While you may not need to bracket as much in the digital age, there are still good reasons to do so. Besides, it’s not like you’re spending a lot extra on film. Some of you have cameras that have automatic bracketing. Take advantage of it. If nothing else it will help you determine what exposures look best to you.

And, for us old dogs, maybe old habits are just hard to break.

Photographing Lightning Storms

eiffel tower lightning strike
Photographing lightning is part skill, part dumb luck. - by M. G. Loppé

One of the greatest challenges in photography that’s also the most fun when it works out is catching pictures of lightning.

The challenge is getting a snapshot of something moving 140,000 miles per hour and generating temperatures upwards of 54,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Once you solve those two problems, it’s a breeze.

There are 16 million lightning storms in the world every year, so with a little patience and pre-planning, you’ll get your chance.

Some basic safety rules, which are mostly common sense. You want to get pictures of the lightning, not get up close and personal with it. That means being careful when working in open areas and elevated vantage points. Aluminum tripods make great conducting rods and you don’t want to become the path of least resistance. I was covering a series of devastating storms in western Tennessee, getting some great lightning shots, when I noticed my tripod started tingling with static electricity. That was my clue that it was time to go.

Another basic precaution is a rain sleeve for your camera. A tripod that’s light enough to just grab and run is another advantage. A cheap plastic tripod is better for lightning photography than high end aluminum or carbon graphite.

For camera settings I leave AWB on and turn auto-focus off. Auto-focus has a hard time in poorly lit scenes and rain drops can fool some of them into shifting back and forth looking for a focal point. Just turn it off.

You’ll want to use your camera’s “B” or Bulb setting and I’d recommend a remote release  instead of trying to hold the shutter release button with your hand.

I generally start with ISO 400 at f/5.6 and make adjustments based on what shows up on the LCD screen.

If you’re working in the dark, the process is simple. Point the camera, set the focus to infinity, open the shutter and wait until you get a couple good bolts in the right area.

If there’s enough light for a long exposure, you won’t need to use the bulb setting, just let the camera handle the exposure and notice how the best lightning flashes seem to be able to sense when the shutter is closed. I’m kidding, it’s all the luck of the draw.

Just be careful, stay aware of your surroundings and when you can’t count three between the flash and the thunder, get under shelter.

Staying Motivated In Photography

photo walks
Photo walks and TFP shoots are great ways to network with other photographers

Staying motivated to take pictures is harder than it seems just sitting around thinking about it. When you first get a new camera, like many of you will this Christmas, taking pictures is easy. You’ll want to shoot everything in sight.

A month or two after the holidays, once the newness has worn off and the demands of daily life reassert themselves, your motivation will get worn down. It won’t happen all at once, it will be a gradual process that will sneak up on you. One day you’ll need your camera and the battery will be dead. It will dawn on you the camera has been in the closet for two years. That’s how it happens.

Whether you can keep your motivation for taking photos will determine if you make it as a photographer. There’s no better teacher than experience.

Here are some tips to maintain your motivation after the holidays.

Get Together With Other Photographers

Many local and regional photography professional associations have regular meetings where you can get together with professional photographers in your area and talk about equipment, technique, and the realities of the business. I would strongly encourage anyone thinking of going pro to do this. You will get a much more realistic idea of the realities of the business.

Many cities have photography clubs that meet regularly to take pictures.

Photo Walks

Photo walks are really just people getting together and walking around taking pictures. They can be free, group walks sponsored by a local club or the type you pay a guide to show you around.

Paid guides offer a lot of advantages, especially if you’re in a new city. They’ll know the best places to shoot and the right times to get the best looks. They’ll also sometimes know people and can get you into places you wouldn’t otherwise have access.

Photography Vacations

There are companies catering specifically to photographers for special events and photography vacations. Some combine the vacation with workshops to make it a learning experience.

Many times photography vacations can be had in exotic locations and come with accommodations and a local guide. Sure, it costs more but the peace of mind is invaluable. If I’m out taking pictures, that’s all I want to think about.

Take a Class

Another way to keep your motivation up is to take a class at a local university or community college. Many offer photography classes as adult education at night and on weekends. You’ll learn a lot and, in the process, meet other photographers in the area.

You might not need these tricks to keep your motivation up and, if you don’t, good for you. Otherwise, get out there and mingle with other photographers and you can help one another.