Monday, February 11, 2013

The Color of Light

As photographers, we spend a lot of time correcting the color of light. We, or our publishers, remove the blue cast from snow and the orange color of indoor lighting, trying to make everything look as if it were shot at noon on a sunny day. We fiddle with white balance to minimize the variation. We measure the color of light in Kelvins and call it color temperature.

As a visual artist, my reaction to this is: YUK!!!  What a loss!

Light changes color in nature. A bright, cloudy sky gives white light. A dark cloudy sky gives light that looks blue. The first beams of sunrise give light that is red or magenta, known as alpenglow. Light filtered through or reflecting from abundant foliage is green, and tints the fog in rural areas. And if the sky is neon at sunrise or sunset, those hues are reflected on earth. And we love to see the warm beam of a lighthouse contrasting with an evening sky.

In man-made environments, lightbulbs also vary. Our homes used to have the warm glow of tungsten light bulbs. Newer indoor lighting ranges from the white of halogen to the various shades of compact fluorescent light bulbs at the hardware store. Those of us who are sensitive to the color of light will notice the difference in mismatched bulbs and the change of color from room to room. 

Outdoors, the light in streets and parks varies widely. Mercury vapor bulbs give an orange light, and metal halide bulbs glow green. They are often mixed in one place, making color correction impossible.

My question is, why do we insist on "correcting" color temperature?  I looked out my window this morning and saw the scene above - a park with airport hangers in the background. The snowfield was blue with green circles. Snowbanks in the parking lots were orange. The sky was showing stripes of magenta, purple, and turquoise. There was nothing correct about it, and no way to fix it. Traditional photographers might publish it in black and white. I fell in love with the riot of color, and present it here to you. Enjoy!

And check out +Benjamin Williamson  for a real stunner!

There's information on color temperature on Wikipedia.  

Here's the same photo, converted to black and white.

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