Warm It Up, Cool It Down
by Russ Burden
Rating: 9 / 10
Russ Burden shows us how to change the mood of our images by changing their color temperature.
The color temperature of light plays a huge outcome in determining the look of a photograph. Not only does it dictate its feel, it plays a psychological factor in how the viewer internalizes it. While most subjects tend to look better in warm light, there are situations in which warm light simply wouldn’t be right. Think about a foggy day or one filled with rain or snow. These three circumstances naturally provide cool toned light and would look very awkward if one were to fool around in Photoshop trying to make them look gold, red, yellow or orange.
© Russ Burden
With regards to the psychological factor, warm tones connote comfort, heat, relaxation, peacefulness, among other feelings. For instance, even pictures of ice and snow that are created at sunrise and sunset suggest warmth regardless of the outside temperature. The photographer may have endured minus thirty degree temperatures with much lower wind chills but the viewer of the image will not feel that due to the color of the light. Conversely, the viewer of the same scene shot on a cloudy or dreary day with a bluer cool tone will perceive the reality of the frigidness.
© Russ Burden
As evidenced by the accompanying images, artificially altering the given light is not possible unless the subjects are small. In the first two photos made at White Sands National Monument, the first was taken at dawn and the color is predominately cool except for the band of pink in the sky. As soon as the sun broke over the dunes, the scene took on a much warmer tone. The same holds true for the final two pictures of the seascape and bristlecone stump. But note the large difference in the two tide pool shots. Even though the sun was the only source of light, I was able to modify its color using a gold toned reflector to bounce warm light onto the starfish and open up the shadows.
To a certain extent, warm natural colors can be enhanced using filters. The same holds true for cool tone natural colors. I discourage you from trying to aggressively warm up naturally cool toned scenes as it produces an awkward and less than natural result. If you’re going for a special effect, then give it a whirl.
To get more of a feel for how the color of light impacts a photo, experiment with the white balance presets in Photoshop to change the color temperature. Use the RAW converter to see what kind of looks the pull down options in the white balance box provide. The shade and cloudy settings add warmth to an outdoor capture while tungsten cools it down. Fluorescent cools down the blues but punches up the magentas. Daylight and flash provide very similar results.
So what is one to glean from the above? Learn how to match the light to your subject or to a particular look you want to impart. The first step is to learn how to read the light and to become comfortable knowing what effect cool and warm toned light have. This comes from experience and studying images that are predominately one tone or the other. Shoot in conditions that provide both “feels” and study the effect. If the desire is to emphasize cool hues, cloudy and blustery days are a good bet. To get the best warm light, concentrate on sunrise and sunset. The bottom line is to get out and photograph in all kinds of conditions and apply what you learn to all future shoots.
To learn more about this topic, join me on one of my Photographic Nature Tours. Visit www.russburdenphotography.com and click on the NATURE TOURS button for more information. Also, pick up a copy of my book, Amphoto’s Complete Book of Photography. You can purchase a signed copy directly from me or visit your local book store or Amazon. Contact me at : firstname.lastname@example.org to order your signed copy.