In my past life as a Kinko’s marketing executive, I got an up-close look at the evolution of color printer/copier technology.
In the late 1980s, I compared Xerox and Canon copiers to Kodak and Fuji film. The American companies, I believed, put more emphasis on color fidelity, while the Japanese companies strove to produce pleasing colors. Thus, Canon copiers and Fuji film – at least at the consumer level – tended to produce warmer, more saturated colors. There was no doubt in my mind that the Japanese companies would prevail in the marketplace.
Today, digital photographers operate under the illusion of tremendous control over color, and it drives a lot of us crazy. Try as I might to describe the color issues in captions below, I know that your monitor may show them very differently from mine. Heck, I invested in an expensive color calibrator and I cannot even get my two monitors to look the same! Don’t get me started on color management for printing. For the moment, let’s focus on white balance and lighting source, which differentiate the two sets of images below.
The first of each pair is a staged shot lit primarily by electronic flash, with a small amount of ambient theater light. The second was lit entirely by theater lights. The back wall’s color looks dramatically different, but it also gets less light in the flash images, because the lights are closer to the subjects (causing a more dramatic light falloff).
Color management bedevils us lazy, disorganized, impatient photographers. Down that path lies madness. Whether you shoot in RAW or JPEG, most post-processing software affords plenty of color correction flexibility. Aperture and Phot0shop let you sample a white/grey/neutral point in the image for an automatic white balance setting, but the best that can produce is a neutral white balance. When shooting theater or dance, one is often trying to capture colored lighting designed for dramatic effect.
Keep it simple. I recommend setting your white balance for the primary light source (flash, tungsten, or fluorescent, etc.), while recognizing that you will often capture mixed light sources. In post-processing, adjust the colors until you like them (when in doubt, create pleasing skin tones and let the other colors fall where they may) and then go have a glass of wine. Or an ice cream sandwich. Hmmmm. Ice cream sandwich…