White Balance with Flash at Receptions

One of the tricky things about digital photography is that you, the photographer, now assume the duties that were traditionally held by labs: color correcting and white balance. Color correcting is one step in my workflow, and it can often be time consuming. So, anything I can do to make it easier is a good thing. So, I’m going to share a tip for getting the right white balance when using flash at a reception (or wherever you use flash!).

First things first: Did you know that color has temperature? It does. You can read all about it here. Basically, it’s given on a scale of 0 to 1,000, and for some reason, it seems opposite of what you might think. Blue and purple are warm, red and yellow are cold. I don’t get it, especially since the lower numbers are blue, higher are red. Either way, I just remember daylight (and light from your flash) is about 5500-6000 on the kelvin scale, incandescent light is around 2700. And of course you’ve got a smattering of colors and light in between.

So, white balance is just another term to describe correcting the color of the photo to the right temperature. Now, you could do this manually as you shoot–most likely your dSLR camera has a setting where you can choose white balance as “kelvin” and then manually set the temperature, depending on what light you’re photographing in. Or, you can just let the camera decide using “automatic white balance.” I prefer the latter because I don’t want to worry about switching my color temperature as I move from one light source to another throughout a wedding day. And for the most part, the camera does a fairly decent job of getting the correct white balance.

But there’s a couple of places it really struggles. One is when there are multiple light sources (generally in dark rooms with incandescent lights and fluorescent lights). Here is a recent example from Siresha and Harish’s Indian wedding. This first shot is straight from the camera. No flash was used.

That photo is way too orange for my taste. So, I manually corrected it in Lightroom to this:

Much better. It was easy to correct all the colors in that photo because I didn’t use a flash. But, when you bring a flash into the picture (no pun intended), you are introducing another color temperature. Whereas the temperature for the reception room is around 3300, let’s say, your flash temperature is 5500. Everything your flash lights up will be that temperature, while the rest of the room is another. Here is an example from a wedding last year.

The couple are lit primarily by bounced flash, but the rest of the room is dark and a different color. Here’s another example.

The photos are obviously fine looking…and I’m probably the only one to notice the color differences. But, it’s painstaking to try to color correct photos like that with two competing light temperatures. Enter gel filters!

I’ve recently begun to use translucent gels with specific color temperatures as filters on my flashes to make my job so much easier. Depending on what color temperature you need, you can find just the right gels. I recommend starting with these Rosco Cinegel filters here and here. I place them over my flash (only ones that are on-camera). Now, don’t be alarmed when everything at first looks a little yellowish/orange. This is what the photos will look like straight out of camera:

Then with a few quick clicks in Lightroom (you can either use the white balance dropper or set it manually)…

You get this:

You’ll hopefully notice that instead of just the people closest to the flash having the right color temperature, everyone has it. Without a filter, the bride and groom might have the right white balance, but then folks in the background might be a different temperature. And with Lightroom’s ability to apply one photo’s settings to multiple pictures, you can easily color correct the rest of your flash reception photos. I also often use these gels when taking formal group shots at the church, since the same principle of different color temperatures applies. Yay for things that make my job easier!

Howard - When using the gel on camera, do you shoot bounce flash or are you pointing the flash at the subject?

Mrisho - Can u tell me how to put gel on my flash? You hv demonstrated something whic I was looking for…color balance with flash. Wel done mary

David Dunton - Wow. I broke that previous comment into nice little paragraphs but the comment formatting made it look like a caffeinated stream-of-consciousness explosion. Hope it’s somewhat readable.

David Dunton - Hey, Mary, great job tackling a technical issue and making it approachable. I love the demonstration in the final three images. It’s also a great image by itself.

So you cut your own gels? I purchased The Strobist Collection of pre-cut gels that Rosco makes when I got my flash for the broseph’s wedding last month but have yet to try them out. Neat to see the theory in action here.

How are you attaching the gels to your flashes? I recently came across one option, the prosaically titled “Gel Clip”, via a mention on DTOWNTV (Episode 41). The product site is http://www.packshots.biz/goprophotouk/.

And also, why do you not gel the off-camera flashes?

Good job landing the One Light workshop. Keep up the good posts and the good photos!

mary - Abbey,
The gels are bringing all the colors in the room to one temperature. It only applies when you’re using on-camera flash. As I explained in the post, the flash temperature is around 5500, while the reception room temperature may be 2800. When you put the two together, you’re going to have things that are lit by the flash at one temperature and everything else at something else. (see first example of bride and groom dancing in room–they are more white balance while the rest of the room is orange. I didn’t use a gel in that photo. If I had, there wouldn’t be such a sharp contrast in color temperatures). When you use the gel, it brings it all to one temperature–so when you correct the white balance, it’s not two different temperatures.

Abbeydomond@aol.com - Hi Mary! Found your blog when I was looking for info on reception lighting. Thank you soo much for sharing your tips. I do have a question regarding the use of gels in reception lighting. So the picture will look orange/yellowish SOOC, but how do you adjust the color in lightroom? Wouldn’t it look better SOOC with the use of the gel? I hope my question makes sense. Thanks!

Albert - That’s pretty neat Mary. I learned something new today.

Jaimie Dee Photography - That is amazing! I never thought about using gels to help with color correction before! I think that just blew my mind a little bit! Thank you so much for posting this!

Heather - You are the Obi-Wan Kenobi of photography my friend. I love learning from you. 🙂

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