Selecting White Balance for Better Photos

Your camera does many things extremely well. It meters the scene and selects the correct exposure.  The newest generation of cameras can select and focus on a face in the scene.  It can sense when the light is too low and a flash is needed to compensate.  In all this guessing it does it is remarkable how often the camera “gets it right”.  One of the things the camera doesn’t do well consistently is choose white balance.

Different sources of light have different color tints, even different times of the day have different color casts. For example, a standard light bulb (Mr. Edison’s kind) casts a yellow tint, a florescent tube casts a blueish-green tint, a flash (pop up on your camera or separate unit) has a closer to white hue.  In order to get the colors on you photograph correct you have to tell the camera which light it is looking at.  It has to correct or balance the color of the light.  Armed with this selection the camera is much better at making a good guess how to select and display true colors.

Fortunately it isn’t hard to select the correct white balance. You will probably have to go to your camera instruction manual to find it the first time.  Go to the index and look up “white balance”.  It may be obvious (a button on the camera that is labeled “WB”) or it may be hidden in a menu.  When you find where it is all you have to do is move it from “A” for automatic to the specific lighting you are going to be under while taking pictures.  If you are outside look up.  Do you see the sun or are you under a cloudy sky?  Are you in the shade?  The same is true inside a building.  Do you see a regular bulb or something else like a CF (compact florescent) or LED?  If you are in an office building the odds are you will select florescent (the company is saving and being green because they both take less electricity and don’t put out much heat.)  Your camera probably has icons to represent the type of lighting/white balance selection.  A light bulb means tungsten, clouds for a cloudy sky, and etcetera.

I realize you may think I’m pulling your leg here. So don’t trust me go do a little experiment.  Take your camera and the owner’s manual and select an area to take a picture.  It could be a person or a flower if you wish.  Take a picture on “A” auto white balance, a second on the correct type of light, and a third that is purposely the wrong light.  Download all three photos to your computer and take a look.  Surprised?

See you next month. Keep taking photos!

Endless Summer Pose-wEndless Summer-tungsten-w-1


The attached images are in Santa Cruz. The first photo has a daylight white balance, the second is set to tungsten.  The first image is the correct color.

Check the screen before pressing the button

Leaving space in the frame helps lead the viewer
Leaving space in the frame helps lead the viewer
Daytona opps
Who is that guy in the background? Keep the frame clean by isolating your subject, in this case the motorcycle

Triumph Daytona

            In the digital age it is easy to take hundreds of pictures and hope for one or two good shoots.  I’ve heard it referred to as “spray and pray”.  While that is one strategy for getting good pictures I would like to recommend another that will result in taking up less memory on your camera card or phone’s internal memory and will result in you feeling better about your skills as a photographer or chronicler of events.  Here it is: Look more closely at the screen before you push the button.

Sounds elementary doesn’t it?  Of course it is but let me be a little more specific.  Before pressing the shutter button look at three areas within the frame: the focus point for the main subject, the space you leave around the subject, and the edges of the frame.  Since the advent of auto focus cameras software designers have had to refine what the camera will decide is the subject of the frame.  Today’s cameras have the ability to focus on multiple points; multiple focus technology is built into the newest smart phones and works well at providing sharp focus for multiple faces within the frame.  The chooser of the focus is you!  Sometimes the camera focuses on the wrong thing and something insignificant is sharp but the main subject of the picture is fuzzy.  Look up online what the focusing options are for your camera and make sure it focuses on the right thing.

Second, leave space in the frame for the forward motion of your subject.  Are you taking a picture of your kids running on the soccer field or playing in the park?  Where are they going?  If your child is running from the left side of the frame leave room on the right side to let the viewer anticipate where his running is going to take him or her.  This works for pets too. The anticipation will make for a more dynamic picture.

Third and last, make sure things that distract from your photo are not in the frame.  We all have a tendency to “bulls eye” our subject and ignore anything else in the frame.  Later, when the photos are viewed someone comments about the tree coming out of your spouse’s head or a cute child in the background that steals the show.  Two methods for eliminating that object or person is to move in for a closer photo (zoom in) or change your angle so the distracting element is out of the frame.  This means you have to slow down and look at the edges of the frame.  It means you have to purposefully look away from the subject to see the rest of the image.  Believe me it takes practice!



Update-March 29, 2017.

While we were taking this picture in February, 2016 a crew from the PBS series Nature was filming a future documentary about Yosemite.  They talked to several people during the hours we were all waiting for Horsetail Falls to put on it’s show.  The episode aired this past Thursday in the SF Bay area (KQED).  Here is a link to the show from WNET:

It’s a great show.  The Horsetail falls portion starts at about minute 50.  Did I mention I was selected for a few seconds of tape?

I first saw a photograph of Horsetail falls at a local Art and Wine Festival taken by local photographer John Harrison. He was in the booth and I asked him a few questions about the photo.  At the end of our conversation I knew I had to capture this fall for my wall.  So six years ago I grabbed my camera, tripod, and polarizer and headed to Yosemite.  My wife and I figured the worst that could happen was we would get a weekend in our favorite place on the planet.  We were all set up with about 50 of our newest friends at one of the two spots in the park to see the spectacle (Rowell’s View).  We were watching the light fall across El Capitan, turning from silver, to gold, and anticipating it’s orange glow.  We are maybe a minute or two away and a cloud goes in front of the sun.  No colors, just shade on the side of the cliff.

The next year we drove into Yosemite amidst a snow storm. Yosemite was beautiful covered in white.  It got better as overnight it dropped another foot of the white stuff on the valley floor, on cars, all over the roads.  I took some amazing photographs that trip but no Horsetail Falls.  It can’t snow without clouds-the same ones that block out the sun for the firefall.

A couple more years along the way we have been in a drought. One of those years there was a waterfall and sun but it wasn’t really a spectacle, my photos look like a mistake on the negative.  Last year there wasn’t any water.  By the way the same light that makes the water turn gold and orange does wonderful things for Half Dome at the same time of the day.

The first year we went to capture Horsetail Falls we arrived at the location at about 3:30pm, roughly two hours before the waterfall turns orange. At our location we were with about 50 people.  This weekend we drove past the second spot to take the picture on the south side of the valley at 2pm and there were already around 100 people set up waiting for the 5:30pm photo shot.  By the time the waterfall turned gold there were probably about 300 people.  The sun was blocked by a cloud at the last minute and we were all disappointed once again.

When we went back on Saturday, February 20 I estimate there were about 600 people on the same spot. As you can see, Horsetail Falls has become an event.

Enough of the wait already. Now that we have a picture I can tell you there are not words to describe seeing the water turn from silver to seemingly molten gold to bright orange.  It’s hard to describe.  The best I can do is this photograph.

Horsetail Falls part 5 or 6


Ever since Galen Rowell captured a little sliver of light falling off El Capitan in February that resembles a fire fall in Yosemite National Park, photographers have been seeking to recapture this amazing natural phenomenon.  I you put Horsetail Falls into your favorite online search engine you will see some amazing pictures.  This year is my 5th or 6th attempt to capture something I can proudly put on my wall.

Five or six tries? What are you talking about you say?  Here is the set up.  For about eight days a year and for about 5-8 minutes during the eight day window, a very small stream on top of El Capitan falls down the face of that granite wall.  Due to the angle of the sun in February and October, a small sliver of orange light highlights the area of the waterfall turning it into a golden and orange ribbon of molten eye candy. The window is about eight days.  Of course there is a catch.  First, there has to be snow above the cliff, something that hasn’t happened for the past few years, to feed the waterfall.  This of course takes out the October dates because there is no water left.  Second, the sky has to be somewhat clear allowing the sun to shine on the side of El Capitan.  Just think snow has to have fallen recently enough to feed the stream and the sun has to be shinning to allow the light to illuminate the cliff face.  And of course it has to have been warm enough on top of the cliff to melt some of the snow allowing it to make the waterfall.  While clouds help add extra atmosphere to the picture the need to stay away from the sun.  Third, the total time to capture the photograph is from 5-8 minutes just before the sun drops behind the opposite side of the valley.

This takes me to my multiple tries. The first year or second year I was set up with two cameras, one film and another digital.  We were there at 3:30pm for the 5:30pm photo.  I had my spot picked out, made sure the focus was spot on and was anxiously awaiting the orange color.  I even have a few pictures of the light moving across the face of El Capitan.  Then a cloud came in front of the sun and poof! No picture.  The next year we had clouds the entire time we were there.  Last year there was no water in fall.

So here I am in an El Nino year with snow on top of the cliff, beautiful sunsets here in San Jose with orange colored clouds just before sunset and predicted snow on Thursday to add to the snow already on top of El Capitan.

This photo at the top of the page is the closest I have come to capturing the phenomenon.

Wish me luck. If you would like to read a little more about Horsetail Falls I recommend you skip over to Michael Frye’s blog at .  He helps all us wanna be’s track the viability of capturing the picture.  I expect to be with about 100 of my closest “friends”.

Remember, practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.


IPhone’s Burst Mode…You won’t believe this!

I like big boy cameras, the kind I can change lenses on, the kind everyone sees when I pull them out. I also like look-at-me lenses, the ones where people say “He must know what he is doing.”  I don’t like them for that reason, well not for only that reason.  I like them for what unique things they do.  Wide angle and telephoto lenses have unique characteristics beyond just getting more in the frame or getting closer.  But I don’t always want to be noticed and I don’t always have a big boy camera with me.  Until recently the only way to capture fast motion activities, like my kid’s soccer game, has been to have a video camera or an expensive DLSR.  Guess what?  My iPhone has a new feature (iPhone 5 and newer) called burst mode.

Burst mode takes a fast series of still pictures and lets you sort out the one(s) you want later on your computer. Need to make sure you get the exact moment when junior is kicking the ball?  Here’s what you do.  Take out your iPhone and put junior in the frame.  When the action gets close hold down the shutter button (in the bottom center of the screen).  Don’t let go until you have the shot you wanted.  What’s that you say?  The camera will take one still shot after another until you lift your finger off the button, or you run out of memory.  What’s going on?  The camera takes rapid fire, machine gun like, Mel Tillis’s trying to say a word with a hard consonant pictures one right after the other.  That’s right 20, 30, 40 frames right after one another.

There are a few cautions so here ya go. First, don’t forget to pan the camera (follow the action) or your subject will run right out of the frame.  Second, you have to down load those pictures and select the one(s) you want.  You will run out of memory on your phone very quickly if you leave them on.  Use your favorite post production app on your computer to select the few frames you want and delete the rest. Third, use the burst mode when you don’t want a video of the event.  Take a few moments to think it through.  Do you want to post to your media site a single frame or a 20 second video?  The video aspect of the iPhone works well to.  Which one of the two will suit your needs better?

That’s it for this month. Next month we’ll take a look at my favorite phone/tablet app for post processing.


Vacation Camera-iPhone-check!

Man taking sunset picture on boat-w

It wasn’t so long ago that the vacation check list included film for our camera.   For many of us there is no need to even put a camera on the check list thanks to the iPhone in your pocket.  You might be surprised how many features are in your new iPhone camera.

Your iPhone is a networkable, digital, instant point and shoot camera that is compact and always on you. Here are a few tips to help you fine tune your vacation pictures.  The first thing to tackle is making your phone focus on a point in the frame you choose (taking the focus decision away from the phone).  To focus your iPhone do this: point the lens in the direction of your subject; put your finger on the person or item you want to be the focus (the sharpest) of the frame and hold it for about 1 second.  The camera makes this the focus.  Now take your picture.  When you view it later you will notice that items in the background are a little “fuzzy” making your subject stand out a little more.  Speaking of taking the picture, have you ever been frustrated at trying to push the button on the screen while holding the phone?  Skip it!  Use either one of the volume controls on the side of the phone as you shutter control!

To help you with the rule of thirds in your composition be sure to turn on the grid. This little trick will overlay a “checker board” in front of the image to help you put things in their rightful place.  Go to “settings” look for “photos and camera”, turn on the slider for “grid”.

Your phone can do more than snapshots. You can choose the function by looking at the bottom of the camera app. Look for the horizontal scroll for the functions of the camera (right above the shutter button).  Be sure you have the right app ready to go.  Swipe right to left to choose between time-lapse, slo-mo, video, photo, square, or pano.

Now go out and take great winter/spring/summer break vacation pictures!