Better Color Accuracy For Perfect Fall Foliage—09/26/11
How to get the perfect color balance for shooting autumn leaves
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Color accuracy is always important, but never more so than when you're photographing something with a bright, bold color that's integral to the "story" of your picture. Take fall foliage, for example. With the wrong color balance, what in actuality is a bright and beautiful orange stand of trees could look more like a pale-green reflection of reality. So, how do you make sure your color is correct? By following these five simple steps.
1. Use manual white balance. If you put your camera on Auto White Balance, chances are it could correct for the very leaf color changes that you're out to photograph. To prevent this, instead of AWB set your camera to one of the preset White Balances—either the Daylight setting or a manual Kelvin temperature setting in the 5400 range.
2. Set a custom white balance. If the utmost in color accuracy is what you're after, consider photographing a gray card in situ under the same light you'll be shooting leaves with. This way when coupled with a RAW capture you can choose the perfect neutral gray with the eyedropper tool in your preferred RAW processing software. Alternatively, photograph a neutral gray or white card and use that image in-camera to select a custom white balance. Either approach works, but be careful not to overdo it. If you're shooting in especially warm or cool light—say a sunset or open shade, for example—setting a custom white balance could neutralize the great color imparted by the light.
3. Deliberately use the "wrong" white balance. Fall colors are warm, right? Browns and oranges and earth tones are all associated with the season, so why not impart that warmth to the images you capture. If your custom white balance is too neutral, or (heaven forbid) too blue, deliberately tweak the white balance to a higher color temperature well above normal daylight. This will create an orange shift that warms up autumn images perfectly.
4. Use a polarizer to eliminate glare. This technique always works exceptionally well for photographing leaves anyway, but during fall months when leaves are brightly colored, it's even more important that that color shines through. To eliminate glare from leaves, simply strap on a polarizing filter to the lens and rotate it until you see brightly colored leaves—not a reflection of the sky and scattered sunlight—shining back at you. Super simple and unbelievably effective.
5. Pick the perfect time of day to shoot. The magic hours of sunrise and sunset provide beautiful warm light that's the ideal companion to fall foliage. Even if you're not in place for the perfect magic hour glow, the low-angle light toward sunset enhances texture and will be inherently more golden than the midday sun. If you add to this equation ideal positioning of the sun behind the subject in order to backlight brightly colored leaves, they'll look illuminated from within as they glow brightly. Perhaps no technique works better than this to make fall foliage photographs look truly special.