Photographing the arts: colour balance as an artistic choice

Andre de Vanny in Swansong, at the Old Fitz Theatre in Sydney

Andre de Vanny in Swansong, at the Old Fitz Theatre in Sydney

I was working recently with actor Andre de Vanny on a promotional image for a show he's working on, Swansong, which opens tonight at the Old Fitz Theatre here in Sydney - and it got me thinking about something that isn't talked about so much in photography, the use of white balance as a creative tool, to control or alter colour in an image.

Sure, there are a number of settings on pretty much any camera bigger than your phone (and even some apps) that let you choose the 'correct' colour that best matches your situation, from daylight to tungsten or fluorescent lights. But of course, lots of times there are many sources in an image - so how do you know which is the the one true white balance for your image?

It's something I touched on earlier in another post, but this time I was deliberately choosing to change the colour during the RAW processing of the image. Because this was a studio shoot, and I had control of the lighting myself, I could decide what I wanted the sources to look like, and also what colour they should be. I wanted a mix of warmth and coldness for the image - hard cool edge light, but a warm fill - and there were a few ways I could look at doing that, with lighting gels over the lamps and so on.

Here you can see what the original was like in camera, and how it could have looked if I'd gone to the other extreme. [Click the images for a bigger version with more details!]

In preparing for the shoot, we'd talked a bit about the character he's playing in the show, and it felt to me like this mix of warm & cold could represent something about that person - a hard exterior with an inner softness. I wanted Andre to be showing that as well, so we worked on finding physical expressions of strength, combined with a gentleness in his eyes and mouth that could play against this outward bravura.

What I chose in this case was to be a bit tricky - knowing that my lights were daylight balanced, I used a gold reflector from the front to just fill in a little on Andre, while the main lights were coming in over his shoulders; then, I changed the white balance so that the white lights went a bit blue, and the gold became just a slightly warm glow. It's not a complex thing to do, really - and flipping the reflector from silver to gold can be pretty quick on set - but it can be quite effective without the need to set up another light, or find the right gel colour.

And here's how it looks in the promotional banner they've created for the production - there are only five shows here in Sydney, so I hope to see you there this week - and best of luck with the show, Andre!

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