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Digitally, Now It's Easier Being Green

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Lucky Strikes were always a good choice. Old, no-filter, Camels might do in a pinch, but Luckies really were the white balance of choice.

Wha? Bet you thought we were talking about smokes here. But, hey, this is a photography column. Besides, I'm an ex-pipe and cigar smoker who probably hasn't smoked even one pack of cigarettes in more than a half century of living. [In that vein it amazes me nowadays to see people paying for a pack of cigarettes what they used to pay for a carton not all that long ago.]

But I digress.

What I remember about those old predominantly white Luckies packs is that newsreel cameramen and technicians routinely used them to set the white balance for the all-manual cameras they would lug to news conferences, hearings and other events around Washington in the 1960s. Most often the sound or lighting guy in a typical three-person crew would stand at the podium beforehand and hold the Luckies pack by his face while the cameraman (yes, back then they were all cameramen) adjusted his camera so that it would accurately render the white of the cigarette package under the existing lighting – and therefore all the rest of the color spectrum as well.

It was a tedious but very necessary exercise to make sure that the pictures made at the event were not too blue, or too green or too orange.

Sound familiar?

For years, one criterion of whether a photographer was a pro was how well he or she could produce natural-looking pictures under mixed lighting conditions. These could include a heady melange of stage lights, mercury vapor lamps, tungsten floods, you name it. For most amateurs, though, mixed lighting meant either orange-based incandescent lighting (from your average 100-watt bulb) or green-tinged fluorescent lighting coming from all those god-awful tubes that seem to be everywhere.

Taming such beasts as the green fluorescent monster on conventional daylight-balanced film once took some technical know-how, not to mention extra equipment. Today, though, digital photography is turning the monster into pretty much of a pussycat, even when we use flash.

But first, some history. How many of us started out being delighted that we had progressed enough to make pictures by available light (sometimes with the help of a tripod), but chagrined that they had a hideous green cast (from fluorescence) or an almost equally bilious orange cast, from tungsten-balanced household lightbulbs?

Then we learned about two magic filters – one magenta to compensate for green fluoresence, the other slightly blue to overcome the warmth of tungsten – that, when placed over our lens under the right available-light circumstances, would magically banish the off-looking color and render everything as white, pristine and color-corrected as a fresh pack of Luckies.

For many amateurs, the learning curve ended there. But placing a CC (for color correction) filter over a lens didn't help much when using flash. In fact, it could hurt. Placing, say, a magenta filter over a lens and then shooting flash in a room lit by fluorescence would render a pink subject against a normal-looking background. Why? Because the light hitting the subject from the flash was balanced for daylight, meaning that the magenta filter had no compensatory work to do on the subject. It had no choice but to turn your subject pink. [Conversely, since the flash was not hitting the background of the photograph, which was being lit by greenish fluorescent light, the 30-magenta filter (so-named because of the degree of color it adds) worked like a color-correcting charm.]

To shoot flash right under circumstances like these required an almost counter-intuitive leap of faith. Sure, put a magenta filter over your lens, but also add 30-green plastic gel to your flash.

Wait a minute. Add green when we are trying to eliminate it? Yes, because adding green will shower your flash-lit subject with just enough color to allow the 30-magenta filter on the camera lens to do its job.

I admit: I have been taking pictures seriously for more than four decades and I still have to think almost out loud when I work with filters, making sure I am compensating for, not compounding, my lighting problems.

Which is why I am grateful that today's digital cameras have removed at least one lighting headache for me.

Almost any digital camera these days – from cheapo point and shoot to high end pro model – features an "average white balance" or "auto white balance" setting that seemingly magically renders an acceptable picture under damn near any light.

But the more sophisticated models also allow one to achieve the same effect as CC filtration – but this time with the flick of a finger. [That is to say: no more fumbling with expensive and fragile glass filters. The same internal electronics that can set white balance also can offer the digital equivalent of, say a 30-magenta filter.]

What this also means is that, instead of trusting "average white balance" to render a passable version of things, one can fine tune one's results by playing with different filtrations and different flashes.

Thus, when shooting under fluorescence, I can push a button and have my camera set for the equivalent of a 30-magenta filter and use a 30-green gel on my flash or studio strobelight as before.

But even here there has been progress – at least for portable flash units.

The folks at Sto-Fen products have introduced a green version of their classic Omni-bounce attachment that fits over a hand-held or camera-mounted flash unit, thus obviating the need to carry strips of green plastic gel material and gaffer's tape.

Pass the Luckies.

[For more information, go to www.omni-bounce.com]

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

©Frank Van Riper
OK, this is not art. But it does show pretty well the bilious nature of fluorescent light. The pic was made on a digital camera set for daylight: the equivalent of shooting daylight film under fluorescence.

©Frank Van Riper
Now, if I had been shooting with daylight film, in order to get a normal-looking available-light picture like this I would have had to slap a 30 magenta filter over my lens to counteract the green cast of the fluorescent light. In this (digital) case, however, all I did was push a button to correct the white balance.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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