Shedding light and what’s white anyway?

by Sally on February 2, 2011

This is a guest post contributed by blogger and photographer Nikkii Hall, who has agreed to share some of her photography expertise with the rest of us. In this post, she explains how you can take great photos even during the winter, when natural light is in short supply:

It’s horrible out isn’t it? Taking photos in winter is a pain because the light is terrible. And when the light is good you can leave your camera to do the rest.

For indoor photography, unless you are blessed with a beautiful bright day and the perfect window at the perfect height directing the light just how you want it, you are going to need artificial light to compensate.There are two types of artificial light you can use, internal light your camera provides (flash) and external light you provide from another source.

Flash is harsh but it can be softened with a bit of imagination….

Or in this case a hacked up milk carton. This is a 4 pint bottle but a 1 pint one would probably be easier to handle… my boys are milkaholics so we don’t waste time with piddly little bottles of milk.

If your camera has a pop-up flash this is perfect for softening the effects, just hold it in front of your flash and take the photo… the difference can be quite marked.

Try holding it at different angles to diffuse the light up or round – try double thickness – try anything to take the edge off the harsh flash. Even a bit of white card will help.

Try holding it at different angles to diffuse the light up or round – try double thickness – try anything to take the edge off the harsh flash. Even a bit of white card will help.

These two photos were taken with my daughter’s Samsung compact on Auto. The flash on a compact can be quite brutal so I used a double layer of milk bottle.

Personally I prefer to switch the flash off altogether and work with external light sources. The best place I have to do this is the kitchen where I have four halogen spotlights, a glass door and a window so lots of natural and artificial light to play with.

But you can get a weird combination from all that, so the first thing I do is get white right. White is arbitrary, which is why almost all digital cameras will have a variety of presets from which to judge correctly what’s really white. And it can cover a wide range.

All these photos were taken against a “white” background.

Using your camera’s White Balance presets you can help it to recognise true white. Now obviously most of these settings are unsuitable for indoors as they are designed to compensate for weather and sunlight, but the difference between using incandescent light and fluorescent light is quite stark isn’t it? And you have to get your white right if you want the colours to be right.

You can help your camera even more by using one of these…

This is a daylight simulation bulb. It produces something pretty close to natural light and can be bought from B&Q for £3.58 where it’s marketed as a Craft Bulb.

I clamp this onto the back of a chair and direct it from the windowless side of the room to meet the natural light coming in from that end. So long as it’s fairly bright outside I can leave my camera on Auto White Balance knowing it will get a pretty good measure of the full spectrum.

Even if you are planning to shoot against a black or coloured background, check your white balance using a bit of white paper before you shoot.

If you have a dSLR you can set white balance manually. I did this a LOT during the snow. The last option on your White Balance menu will usually be something called Preset and if you select this you will have the choice of collecting or measuring the white balance by taking a new photo. Just point your camera at something white, or for even more accurate images 18% Greyscale, and click. Now your camera knows what white is and will produce an image closest to what you yourself are seeing.

Next time: The tripod in your cupboard and makeshift backgrounds

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Domestic goddesque February 2, 2011 at 8:54 PM

I have a feeling that you should have started with ‘what camera should you use’, since I don’t suppose my camera will have most of these functions. It’s fascinating to see what a variety of settings do to the white scale though.


NikkiiH February 2, 2011 at 10:13 PM

I’m pretty certain that the first compact digital camera we bought back in the 90s had at least two or three white balance settings. I checked my daughters Samsung PL150 before writing this to make sure current compacts had this capability and hers can do Auto plus 6 presets. Have a look at your manual – you may be surprised :)


NikkiiH February 2, 2011 at 10:18 PM

Here’s a link to a comparison of Direct Flash and “Milk Bottle” Flash I actually took using my daughter’s little Samsung….


Mari February 3, 2011 at 9:50 AM

That’s a brilliant post. I love photography, I’m just not very good at it and tips like these will hopefully help me to get a little bit better and enjoy it even more. I’m doing a 365 project to try and help me understand more but think maybe I should get a book or something? Can you advise one?


Nikkii February 3, 2011 at 7:46 PM

I learned how to use my camera from online resources. Digital Photography School is probably the best all-in-one site and it’s all free – a big bonus.

It looks a bit overwhelming to start with but if you have a trawl through, especially January tutorials after Santa’s been, there’s lots of how to’s and practical stuff there for everyone from the novice to the professional.


Marylin February 3, 2011 at 11:53 AM

Loved reading this! I’m gonna buy a couple of those craft bulbs I think… :)


NikkiiH February 3, 2011 at 1:28 PM

Be warned then – you might go just a little bit insane trying to find a bayonet fitted angle poise or desk light – luckily I had an old one in the attic. But before I sent Neil up there I tried B&Q, Homebase, Dunelm, Asda, Tesco, ldh lights (sp? behind Matalan) and Terkan all to no avail!


Ellen Arnison February 3, 2011 at 2:08 PM

Thanks very much for this. It’s such helpful advice.


Mary Poppins February 3, 2011 at 2:32 PM

Super post, thanks for sharing, I shall certainly be checking out those bulbs as I take alot of Craft photrographs for my folksy shop. I am lazy though and have to say I do alot of manipulation on the computer too, but want to be able to do many things manually via my digital camera. I have just come into posession of a film SLR, going to have a play but don’t know if shall get used to not being able to see the photographs, we have it easy with all these digital camera’s ;0)


NikkiiH February 3, 2011 at 7:49 PM

Aint that the truth! My OH found his old Praktica BC1 SLR from the early 80s tucked away in the bottom of the wardrobe. I took photos OF it, but haven’t plucked up the nerve (or money) to try taking photos WITH it :)


Livi February 8, 2011 at 7:16 PM

Interesting! I’ve been wary of playing with the white balance on my camera so I’m going to give it a whirl now!


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