I never go outdoors to take photos in the daytime without at least one flash, often two. Sometimes I use it (temporarily) overpower the sun so I can control the light. For example, here is a photo of a milkweed (Asclepias sp.) seed pod that I took in the middle of the day near Naahelu, Hawaii:
Notice the black background. I had my camera set to ISO 160, 1/640 sec, and f16. This exposure was such that the sun was providing none of the light for the image. In other words, I was using daytime flash to overpower the sun. I had my voice-activated light stand (my wife in this case) hold the flash just outside of the frame. I was also using high-speed sync (HSS) to allow me to use such a fast shutter speed. I have two ways of using HSS. One way is to use a flash extension cable to allow me to move the flash off the camera, yet still keep all of the communication between the flash and camera. I use this Canon OC-E3 cable, but equivalent cables exist for Nikon and many other camera brands. The other option I might have used is the Pocketwizard MiniTT1 and TT5, which also allows HSS. I do not remember which approach I used for this photo.
Besides being able to get a black background, using a flash in the daytime can allow you to highlight a person, so they are brighter than the sky (as a way of guiding the viewer’s eye to them). For example, here is the lovely Tasheena at sunset:
How I took this photo was to use the camera’s meter to identify the proper exposure for the sunset. I set the camera so the sunset would be slightly under-exposed (by about one stop). Then I used my flash to properly expose Tasheena, and the result is the photo you see here.
Next time you head outside to take photos, take a speedlight/speedlite and do some outdoor daytime flash photography.
Getting the color right in a photo is important. All of the light(s) that provide illumination for the photo have a color. If we take sunlight at noon as the standard, then electronic flashes are often a little more “blue”. The same is true for photos taken in the shade—much of the light is coming from the sky, which is blue. However, at sunrise and sunset, the sunlight is more red-orange, depending on the time and how much dust is in the air. Incandescent lights are much more yellow-orange. Florescent lights can have different colors, but they often have a strong green component.
Here is an example. First, a photo with a correct white balance:
The result can look like these photos:
This photo has a white balance that gives everything a blue cast. Note that the microbes on the wall are not yellow as they should be, and Diana’s skin tone is also wrong.
This photo has a white balance that gives everything a magenta cast. Note that the microbes on the wall are barely yellow, and Diana’s skin tone is also wrong. A magenta cast means that there is not enough green.
This photo has a white balance that gives everything a green cast. Note that the microbes on the wall are the wrong shade of yellow, and Diana’s skin tone is also wrong.
This photo has a white balance that gives everything a yellow cast. Note that the microbes on the wall are too yellow, and Diana’s skin tone is also wrong.
If you are not seeing a difference, or if what you see does not match the description, then you need to color-calibrate your monitor. That is a subject for a future blog post.
Most digital cameras have a way of telling it at least approximately what to expect in terms of the color of the light. These will work reasonably well, as long as your light sources all have the same color. The hard part (for me, at least) is remembering to change the white balance setting.
Most digital cameras also have an “automatic” setting. The problem with this setting is that they try to calculate the white balance. How well they do depends on how close your photo is to the ones that the software understands. A photo of uncle George might be OK, no matter the light source. However, a photo of a lungfish probably has very little in common with uncle George (however, I’ve never met him to know for sure :-). This means that the camera’s program running to calculate the white balance is probably not going to do a good job.
What this means is that, assuming correct color is important, you need to use some kind of a standard to ensure that your colors are correct. I use one of two standards. My primary standard for science photography, especially in caves or other hard environments, is the WhiBal card. This card is a guaranteed neutral gray, and the (lack of) color goes through the entire card—it is not a paint or dye. This means that it can be scratched or otherwise abused, and it will probably not only survive, but also still be the correct color. I accidentally put one of mine through an autoclave. It came out very warped, but a little time in a warm oven flattened it out again.
The second standard that I use is a X-Rite ColorChecker Passport.
This standard not only has guaranteed gray, but also standard color patches and patches for making the color warmer or cooler than standard. When I photograph people, I often use the color balance to add a bit of warmth, which usually looks a little more flattering than perfect color.
To use one of these standards, I take a photo that includes the standard, using the same lighting that I will use for the real photo. I shoot in RAW mode, which means that I need to do white balance adjustments as a part of extracting the image from the RAW file. On the computer, I open the image containing the standard. Many software packages make it a simple with one- or two-clicks to do the setting. Once the proper white balance adjustment is determined from the standard, the software allows you to apply the same correction to other images with at most a click or two. In other words, applying a white balance correction is easy.
The result of this is that the photos I produce have correct color. And, it is not hard to do.