Capturing autumn color

When taking photos that rely on naturally colored light, you need to either manually set white balance before you take the shot, or change white balance later in post processing.

When taking photographs of autumn/fall foliage, you may find that your camera doesn’t capture the reds, browns and yellows as you saw them. This is because auto white balance is fooled by autumn sunlight, and will choose a colder (blue) white balance. The fix is to manually change the white balance.

Original image as-shot (HTC Desire HD camera phone)
Original image as-shot (HTC Desire HD camera phone)

Have a look at the image above. This is as-shot, via a cell phone (HTC Desire HD) during a walk through a wood, just before sunset, October 2012. The light was from a perfect low autumn sun, setting off the red and yellow of the leaves. Yet the photo captures none of this!

Camera auto white balance is fooled by the autumn sun and will set the white balance towards blue to compensate for the yellow cast the sun would otherwise create. The camera is not clever enough to know that you want that cast.

What to do? The solution is to either

  • Set the white balance away from ‘auto’. ‘Sunset’ or ‘Cloudy’ usually does the trick, with ‘Sunset’ being the more extreme.
  • Use an image area that you know is neutral (such as the grey hat in this case) to set white balance.
  • Simply set the white balance towards a warmer yellow until the overall image looks right.
White balance/Tint sliders as-shot (top) and after processing (bottom)
White balance/Tint sliders as-shot (top) and after processing (bottom)

For this photo, I used Lightroom’s White Balance Selector tool (keyboard shortcut, W), clicking on the hat. I also tinted the image towards magenta via the tint slider. Finally, I slightly increased exposure.

Image after white balance and tint edits
Image after white balance and tint edits

And here’s the resulting final image. The hat is now grey, but that is kind of beside the point: I now have the golden sunlight and autumn foliage as they were on the day!

More autumn Color
More autumn Color

Here’s some more photos post processed using the same white balance technique (all taken within 10 minutes of the initial photo).

Conclusion

When taking photos that rely on naturally colored light, you need to either manually set white balance before you take the shot, or change white balance later in post processing.

If you leave the camera on auto white balance, the camera tries to remove the cast caused by the colored light. Although this is desirable when you are shooting indoors (such as when you want to remove the blue/yellow cast caused by fluorescent/incandescent indoor lighting), it is rarely what you want when shooting outdoors.

Some photographers don’t realize that the issue is to do with white balance, and instead try to fix the issue using more complex color correction (HSB sliders, etc). Check the white balance first: it is a far easier setting to alter as there is only one slider.

Notes

  1. In some of the photos, I also added a small amount of clarity. If you do this, add it to foliage, clothing, hair and eyes only.  Don’t add it to the subject’s skin, as clarity has the ability to age the appearance of a person’s face.
  2. I chose to illustrate this blog post using a cell phone rather than my usual DSLR for a good reason: I have never used a cell phone camera that didn’t get auto white balance right under any outdoor condition. If you use a cell phone camera, you will typically always end up with an image that is too blue under daylight, and too yellow at night. If you use a cell phone camera often, be prepared to change white balance often if you want to capture the as-shot light ambience.
  3. The sky is blown out on some of the example photos, but this is usually unavoidable when using a cell phone: such devices have insufficient dynamic range. Available fixes for this include
  • Underexpose (although this is rarely successful as you leave insufficient dynamic range to fully capture the main subject).
  • Never make the brightest object (i.e. the sky) prominent. This is my preferred option.
  • Take separate shots of the sky and main subject, and composite them together later in post production.
  • If you have an Android/iOS phone, get a HDR app (I use HDR Camera+).