Expand Your Photographic Limits, By Using Colour Balance Creatively

Have you ever looked at a photograph and immediately thought that the colour was a bit “off”? Believe it or not, it might have been done that way on purpose. To make you, the viewer feel that something is “not as it should be”, or to help set a mood, trigger an emotional response, etc.

This is the power that colour has over us. A research study completed at the University of British Columbia concluded: “colour is important and even more so is the context used with that hue.”

As photographers, we have the ability to easily control how our images appear with a simple rotation of a dial or click of a button. We can transform a normally warm scene to cool blue. Or a comfortable and inviting interior scene into a “creepy” green room reminiscent of some macabre TV murder drama. Colour is a very powerful tool. A tool that many newcomers to the craft overlook.

The manipulation of colour using the various resources readily available, whether they be settings on your camera or translucent accessories attached to the camera lens and/or the lights, is a valuable tool that any photographer working in colour might want to consider. I routinely incorporate such techniques in my quest for more powerful images.

Let’s take a birds-eye view of what tools are available.

Colour balance setting on the digital camera body. Your modern digital camera has a variety of colour balance settings. They vary from Daylight and Cloudy to Fluorescent and Tungsten. To name but a few. Additionally, some cameras allow the more precise colour manipulation based on the Kelvin scale.

A typical setting for accurate daylight might be 5500 degrees Kelvin, for example. For those of us shooting in a lamp-lit home, it would be suggested to set the colour balance to Tungsten or Daylight Fluorescent. But, not in all cases.

For many years, photographers have been using colour gels to manipulate the light being emitted by strobes and hot lights (tungsten). They are commonly used by videographers and cinematographers in controlled environments, such as on movie and TV film sets. You will also see the use of gels in live theatre. Gels can be purchased in single rolls of several feet, in packs and individually. A couple of popular brands are Lee Filters and Rosco.

There are filters (gels) that attach to lights and others designed to attach to camera lenses. Obviously, those attached to the lens will affect the entire scene, while gels designed for the lights will only affect the light emitted by that light source.

A great feature of filters/gels is that they can be carried in a little bag along with the photographer’s camera kit. They weigh next to nothing. Attaching a filter/gel to a flash, a light or even a lens, can be as simple as sliding it into a dedicated mount or even adding a bit of clear tape to hold it in place.

Very simple. Lee Filters has a completely modular system as part of their family of lens filters. They are highly sought after by those shooting landscapes and architecture.

With these two options, photographers have the ability to completely transform a scene from what you see with your naked eye into that which creates a mood more along the line of what the photographer wants.

Case in point, in this image below we see trees embedded in a blanket of snow and ice. It is a graphic scene shot in the winter.

The scene was shot on an overcast day, the light augmented with a single speed light on a stand. The light, even though somewhat cool in its nature, lacked the impact desired. In order to really bring the feeling of “cold” across to the viewer, the colour balance in the camera was set to tungsten. Doing so, created the blueish “icy cold” feeling desired by the photographer.​


The very nature of setting the colour balance to tungsten changes the image to a cool tone setting. This is because tungsten lightbulbs burn at a much warmer colour temperature than the light produced by a typical mid-day sky, which tends to be a bit blueish.

Another way of achieving this same effect would be to put a blue gel/filter over the lens. Doing so would mean that you would have to adjust the aperture or the exposure time because the filter would absorb some light. Keep it simple, change the colour balance.

This example with the mandolin illustrates the use of both a shift in colour balance as well as a mixture of lighting temperatures. To the camera right is a flash with a red filter attached. To camera left is a tungsten hot light. A theatre light essentially.

The camera’s white balance was set to fluorescent and the shutter was dragged to about ½ second while the camera was slowly moved forward during exposure. Only a tiny bit of the instrument is in focus. This takes plenty of practice. It’s also one of the skills that separate skilled professionals from amateurs. The flash is illuminating the front of the instrument, while the hot light is shining on the background and the left edge of the mandolin.​

Experimentation is key to getting the effects you want. Changing the colour balance setting on your camera could potentially produce many different effects. Buying a sample pack of colour filters from a theatre production supply company or a pro photography equipment retailer will be an excellent way to expand your options.

Additionally, by adding a colour gel to an off-camera flash, you will add another dimension to your work. Such is the case in the photo below. The image was shot outdoors under heavy clouds. In this case, the camera white balance was set to tungsten, while a red gel was added to a single flash on camera left.

This converted the light hitting the subject to a lovely shade of purple. You may notice that the shadows are blue, where the gelled light did not hit the wall. Therefore only the effects of the white balance being set to tungsten became apparent.​

Techniques such as these can help you to very accurately control the mood of the picture. This can be the most powerful element of the image, easily achieved when the entire scene is under the control of the photographer. It might be a bit more difficult in street photography for example, where the subject matter is a more fluid one and beyond your control. But, it never hurts to try it a few times.

I would encourage all photographers working in colour to go beyond your comfort level. Play with the idea of more precisely using colours to manipulate the mood of your photos. Experiment.
Explore and see what you can come up with. If you discover a unique way of manipulating colours, please consider sharing it with the readers in a comment below this article. We are all here to learn and grow.


Mike Taylor
Mike Taylor Photo Arts

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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