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The Original is Not Always Right – The Camera/Film

When having your print film developed and printed by a lab it’s important to be able to look as objectively as possible at the quality of the prints produced, albeit by a machine with little or no human intervention. Little Johnny’s smiling face will actually look better when properly printed and processed.

The colour of the light, under which the original camera exposure was made, has a significant effect on the way colours are recorded. In theory images made between 2 hours after sunrise and 2 hours before sunset produce relatively neutral color rendition. But this assumes your subject is illuminated directly by the sun or, even better, by sun diffused by a large white cloud.

If, on the other hand, the subject is photographed in the shade, the light source cannot be the sun. Under such conditions illumination is provided by the sky. On a clear day the color of the sky is in the blue/cyan range.

This cool colored skylight is cast (like a fisherman’s net) over your subject and mixes with colors inherent to the subject (skin tone and clothing) to form new colors. The effect seems to be particularly noticeable in neutral and warm colors. Photographic blue (actually quite close to what we would call violet) mixed, in equal proportions, with red produces the color magenta. So, for example, blue light from the sky mixed with a red dress will record the dress with more of a magenta/red hue (color) than would have been the case if it had been lit with neutral color light. 

Another common example is a near white wedding dress, photographed in the shade, under a clear blue sky. The resulting image will exhibit a slightly bluish color cast. Under the same conditions yellow and pink bridesmaid dresses will appear less vivid in color due to the cool skylight mixing in, and diluting, the color purity of the dresses as they are reflected back towards the camera. To further complicate matters the subject may be illuminated by light reflected off a nearby surface. In the case of grass, the light reflected could be a blue-green colour when shaded or a more yellow-green when the grass is sunlit. 

The good news is that, in most cases, people don’t see this commonly occurring bluish color cast. The reason for that is because most folks believe that ‘light is actually white’. It is not, as the above examples demonstrate. We know that sunrise and sunset produce warm lighting, but do we know that a range of different artificial light sources produce a variety of colors that, when photographing under, can’t be seen by the uneducated eye. Actually our eye can see the color, but our brain doesn’t believe it (because we believe that light is white), so the reality we perceive is not actually accurate. And, as a consequence, the resulting image can be disappointing. Not necessarily because the customer can see the bluish cast in the wedding dress, but because the image is emotionally cooler than they’d expected. This is probably the way the brain deals with the bluish light. Not by accepting that it’s blue, but by This is a large and fundamental topic that I’II cover in more detail at a later stage.

Digital cameras include a series of White Balance options. You either set the white balance yourself, usually to neutralise any color cast coming from the light source, or allow the camera to work it out by setting it to Auto White Balance. You can also make changes to your white balance on the desktop, ideally in a RAW converter. The Develop module of Adobe Lightroom is where you’d make such a change. Alternatively Adobe Photoshop (current version CS4) comes with Adobe Camera RAW, an almost identical product to Lightroom, albeit with a very different interface.

With 1-hour photo lab prints, either from print film or digital files, the printer (machine) and/or the person operating it (when its not on full autopilot) tends to reduce the cast so as to produce a more neutral, though not necessarily accurate, result.

In the case of print film most people mistakenly refer to the first print made from a negative as the original. When used to describe a print, this is quite a misleading term. It is a reproduction or interpretation of the original film image. But, due to the orange/red mask built into color negative films, you can’t accurately see the colors in the negative. So, even when shooting under a neutral light source, you can’t use the original film image, unless it is a transparency (slide), as a means to visually check the color balance of the print. Your judgement is now based upon the relative accuracy of your own eyesight, the color of the light you view the print under and, of course, the vagaries of memory.

Light from both ends of the day produces warmer, more pictorial colour rendition. Depending on the position of the subject, in relation to the sun (eg. side light), a normally neutral coloured subject (eg. bride dressed in white) can display a warm colour caste on one side of her face and body and a cool colour caste on the other. In this case one side of the subject is lit by sunlight, while the other side is lit by skylight. If you wanted to neutralise this result you could consider taking the following action:

  •       Use a gold or combined silver/gold reflector to reduce the bluish cast on the shadow side of the dress. Now that the difference between the warm and cool side of your subject is reduced you might accept the overall warm color balance as appropriate to the desired mood or time of day. Alternatively, you could change the White Balance, either in camera or on the desktop, to produce the desired result.
  •       An alternative to a reflector, and having an assistant to handle it, would be to use an off camera flash, possibly with an amber color gel placed over the flash head, to both lighten the shadows (reducing the contrast in the dress) and adjusting the color balance closer to that on the sunlit side of the dress. 

Inclement weather covers the sun with dark clouds that effectively place a bluish filter between the sun and the subject, thereby producing a bluish and, under particularly inclement weather, monochromatic colour caste. Most people would consider clouds to be either white or grey. But what we see as grey is actually a blue/grey. The darker the cloud, the blue the color of light filtered through that cloud.

The adverse effects of Reciprocity Law Failure can cause a color shift, particularly during long exposures, with film. The longer the exposure the greater the colour shift and, in theory, the greater the amount of filtration, via the use of one or more Colour Compensating Filters, to achieve neutral colour rendition.

However, this colour shift can also be a powerful ally as the unnatural colour caste can provide an interesting, if somewhat surreal, mood to the scene. This type of colour shift is most noticeable with transparency films, as they are original photographic images. Of course the colour shift exists on color negative films, but is largely hidden by the orange/red (contrast reducing) color mask built into the film. The fact that negative films reverse the actual colour of the scene or subject pictured makes it even harder to see the actual effect the colour temperature has had on the scene/subject rendition. 

Film images shot under very long exposure times need to be carefully printed. The job of the printer (machine) is to correct for any extremes in colour and exposure, inherent in the negative, by producing as neutral a print as possible. But if you like the color change that occurs during such long exposures it’s important to instruct the lab to override any filtration changes that would otherwise be made at either the scanning or printing stages, other than those normally applied to adjust for the usual density and colour associated with the particular film type in question. On modern printers this information is encoded into the film’s rebate, between the sprocket holes, together with ISO speed and frame numbers. The printer should have the preferences, referred to as slopes, of a range of different negative films saved into its memory and identified by the DX coding on the film. 

For anyone still interested in making conventional prints in a darkroom you can produce accurate results, that tell the story of the color of light and it’s effect on your image, when making contact prints/proof sheets from the same roll of film. To do this it’s important to initially produce the best possible proof sheet you can (density and colour) from a roll of film of the same film type and speed as the one in question. The images should be of relatively normal scenes that include neutrals (black, white and grey) and a range of skin tones, taken under relatively low contrast conditions, at colour temperatures as close as possible to 5500 Degrees Kelvin. For those not using studio flash (strobe) lighting, try making these images under a white cloudy sky. You now have a whole range of colours, including skin tones and neutrals from which a quite accurate proof sheet can be produced. Move your enlarger head up and away from the baseboard and then, with the focus light on, turn the fine focus control so that the light source projected onto the baseboard produces a large, soft light. Make a note of the height of your enlarger (either above the easel or above the baseboard), exposure time and lens aperture for future reference.

In future, when making proof sheets from the same film type, simply re-apply these settings to produce a calibrated result. If exposure remains correct and color balance consistent from frame to frame, your photography skills are to be applauded. If not, the proof sheet will indicate variations in exposure and color balance from neg to neg. Hopefully you can see that a properly produced proof sheet can be a very objective tool, telling you a lot about your camera handling skills that is likely hidden from you by the heavy orange/red mask of the film and the automatically adjusted, and often, face-saving prints produced for you by your lab. In future, when shooting with the same film type, it’s easy to produce proof sheets that accurately display the color of light you shot under. Simply re-set your enlarger height, exposure time and lens aperture, to the same settings employed to produce your original proof sheet, and you’ll produce a new proof sheet that accurately displays the colour temperature of the light source under which you shot, even if the light source varied from frame to frame. Of course this assumes your enlarger globe hasn’t been changed (they get warmer as they age), you haven’t changed brands of paper and your processing chemistry is stable and used in line with manufactures specifications. For optimum print uniformity it’s important to refrigerate your paper, particularly if you’re an infrequent printer. However, when its time to print, ensure your paper is at room temperature. Two to three hours is recommended to bring paper up to room temperature, after it has been removed from a refrigerator. If the paper is taken out of a freezer it should be first stored in the fridge, with it’s somewhat warmer temperature, for several days prior to the usual two to three hours outside the fridge to bring it up to room temperature.

For the most accurate colour reproduction it’s important to take care with the choice of film for the application at hand. Films that display extremely high levels of colour saturation are less likely to be able to reproduce delicate pastel tones, skin tones and neutrals accurately. In such circumstances a portrait featuring Caucasian skin tone may result in the subject’s cheeks appearing a rosier red than is desirable. Professional films, specifically those manufactured with accurate colour reproduction in mind, are a good start for such photography. It’s then important that the film is stored (refrigerated), exposed and processed according to the manufacturers instructions.

Images made with digital cameras introduce a new variant. Many such cameras include a variety of ways of rendering the scene. Canon’s version is called Picture Styles and includes options such as Portrait and Landscape. These settings vary the way the scene is rendered by altering the contrast, sharpness and color saturation of the original RAW data, captured during exposure, in the resulting camera-processed JPEG file. This is either good or bad, depending on your point of view. My point is simply that any such setting, other than the one that doesn’t alter the original data (‘Faithful’ in the case of the Canon system), will produce a different rendering of the scene than would otherwise have been the case.

The next problem relates to folks who want to take control of their images by processing them on the desktop, possibly prior to printing them out as either inkjet or traditional chemical prints. Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop are two wonderful programs well suited to this purpose. But, regardless of your image manipulation skills, the preparation of a quality file for printing is dependant on a range of issues including the following:

  • The quality of your monitor: Eizo monitors are regarded as industry standard for Professional photographers and graphic designers.
  • Whether your monitor is accurately and regularly calibrated. Devices such as the Spyder 3 Elite from Datacolor are excellent products for these purposes.
  • The application of what is referred to as an ICC (International Color Commission) Color Print Profiles. These profiles provide the information needed to ensure that the colors you see on a quality, accurately calibrated monitor match the color on your inkjet or traditional print. They take into account the paper, printer/chemistry or printer/ink in question and calibrate you monitor to that output.

Monitor quality, calibration and ICC color print profiles are all huge topics, critical to digital photographers. I will address these topics, over time, with one or more articles beginning in the near future.


© Copyright All Rights Reserved

Glenn Guy, Blue Sky Photography


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