Join Seán Duggan for an in-depth discussion in this video Using neutral guides to set white balance, part of Enhancing Night and Low-Light Photos with Photoshop.
In this chapter, we'll be taking a look at some simple but essential adjustments for improving your night or low-light images. And actually, these techniques can also be used on pretty much any type of photograph since they're centered around some very basic concepts for image adjustments. We'll begin by taking a look at white balance, and there are a couple of reasons why we're starting there. First, it happens to be the very first adjustment that you'll see in the basic tab of the camera raw dialogue. Second, for night images in particular, it makes a lot of sense to address the white balance issue right from the start.
Very often, night images, especially if they've been photographed under artificial light sources, will have a strong color cast and it's hard to ignore this as you go about making other improvements to the fie. Although on non-night images I typically begin with overall brightness and contrast adjustments, with night photos shot under artificial light, I almost always try to fix the white balance first. So we're going to open up three files from the Chapter 1 Exercises folder. I'm going to open up dresden_01. I already have that selected here.
I'm going to Cmd+click, or Ctrl+click on Windows, on dresden_02. And then Cmd or Ctrl+click on the eat file. Then I'm going to use the shortcut of Cmd+R on Mac or Ctrl+R on Windows to open those three files up into the Adobe camera raw dialog. So as I mentioned earlier, the white balance settings are the very first adjustments that you see at the top of the basic panel here, in the camera raw dialog. And, if you open up the white balance menu you'll see that there are a number of presets that based on common lighting conditions.
By default it's going to be set to as shot, which is as your camera recorded the white balance, and by the way all these photographs here are unadjusted and straight out of the camera, other than the fact that they've been converted to the dng format. So the first thing that you can try is the auto setting, and that often does a very good job, as it has with this image here. Whether or not the auto setting is going to be successful or not really just depends on the individual dynamics in the photograph at hand.
I'm going to set this back to, add shot. Because I want to talk about the concept of looking at an image, and seeing if you can find, something that I call a neutral guide. A neutral guide is an area in the image that should be neutral, meaning that there should be no color cast associated with it. So a neutral guide is something that should be black, white, or some level of gray tone. Middle gray values and whites that aren't too bright are the most successful areas to use as a neutral guide.
Sometimes the problems with areas that are black is that you can't really see that there may be some other color lurking in the darkness. And that's just because the area is so dark. So, in this image, there's a lot of potential places that could serve as a neutral guide just because of all of the stone surfaces of the building. So I'm going to grab the white balance tool up here in the toolbar of the camera raw dialogue. And I'm going to click in a couple of places. I'll start over here on the white part of the building underneath the glass dome.
That's okay, it's looking a little bit cyan, so I will undo that by choosing Cmd+Z or Ctrl+Z on Windows, and let's come over here and try clicking up here on the top of this building, on the left. Now that one looks, a lot better, and I think I could probably live with that. Perhaps a little bit too blue, so I could always just adjust the temperature, right over here. Now one other thing I want to point out here, is that you need to be careful where you're clicking with this tool, because a lot of times there may be other color casts that you're not seeing right away.
So, right here, there's this circular area that looks kind of cyan green, whereas everything around it is a little bit more, either regular grey or more of a magenta grey. What's happening here I think, is that this is a little bit of lens flare, and it's being caused by this bright light that's shining up here from this section of the building. So just make sure that you are not clicking on an area that has some sort of a color cast already, because that's going to influence how the white balance tool corrects the white balance in the image.
Let's switch over to the next file, dresden_02. And this is particularly challenging because there really are no obvious neutral guides in this image, now we could of course try clicking on the cobblestones, presumably they're made of gray flagstone, but this is an urban environment, and the cobblestones are old, and very likely they're also pretty dirty. The reason I chose this image is to show you that where you click in the image, is going to have a big influence on how significant a correction to camera raw will apply.
So in this shot here if I click on some of the cobblestones that are closer to the illumination source, so they're brighter and more yellow because they're closer to the light. We're going to get a change that's a lot more blue. Now, you may like that, from a stylistic or aesthetic point of view. But, that's a little bit blue for my taste. So, I'm just going to undo that, by choosing Cmd+Z. If you click on one of the cobblestones that's farther away from the light source, you're going to get a much more even and neutral adjustment.
So this here looks a lot better than that blue look that we just saw. So if you don't like the white balance correction for one place that you click, consider looking for other places in the image where you might try out another white balance adjustment. All right, one last image to take a look at. Traveling from Dresden, Germany to a lonely alley in a small town. The obvious place here to click for the white balance would be the sort of white or grey areas around the letters in the sign.
And let's just take a look at what that does. That does an okay job but it's looking a little green to me. Another place that you could click is this window here, because this window is essentially a neutral tone. Although it's not neutral now, because it's reflecting the yellow light and also the yellow side of the building. But if we click here, we get a much better white balance adjustment that actually looks pretty good. And I think if we just add in a little bit of darkening by lowering the exposure slider, and maybe bringing the clarity up, that's going to look pretty good.
Since night images taken under artificial light very often have strong and objectionable color cast, adjusting the white balance may be the very first thing that you want to take care of. Explore the auto white balance settings and also see if there are any neutral guides in the image that can serve as a reference for the white balance eye dropper tool.
In this course, photographer and educator Seán Duggan explores a range of post-processing techniques aimed at expanding your creative options for night and low-light photography—and even "shooting" stars. He'll begin in Camera Raw for general enhancements (white balance, tonal and contrast adjustments, and noise reduction) and then turn to Photoshop to capitalize on its Merge to HDR feature, which can create spectacular high-dynamic-range images. Last, he includes techniques specifically for star photography: stacking layers to create star trails, removing and replacing blurry stars, and using luminosity masks on photos of the Milky Way.
- Using neutral guides to set white balance
- Applying lens profile corrections
- Reducing noise
- Working with 16-bit and 32-bit HDR images
- Stacking layers and combining exposures
- Improving star photography