The Secret of Perfect Color in Your Photography

My neighbor placed a 20-page photo album on the counter and opened the first page for me. Staring back at me was the first photo, her little boy against a plain white background in a studio. His sad eyes looked blankly at the camera. I flicked through a few more pages, hoping to see happier, better-shot images.

studio portrait

“Isabela” captured by Anderson Sant’Ana

“Are you pleased with them?” I said, trying to sound diplomatic, knowing full well she would not catch the subtlety.

“Very pleased, it was a bargain!” she said, beaming, obviously pleased with the payment she made, but utterly unaware of the enormous technical errors created by the photographer. Perhaps ignorance was really bliss after all.

“Do you mind me asking how much you paid for the package?”

“Three hundred and eighty-five dollars,” she said proudly.

I nearly choked on my tea.

Three hundred and eighty five dollars for 20 images that looked like they’d come straight out of a little compact camera shot in automatic mode with bad lighting. It was a sad and disappointing experience for me as a professional photographer. Studios like the one that took the images of her little boy are what continue to keep the public in the dark about what good photography looks like.

The entire collection had a painfully obvious green color cast to it. This is easy to do when you have no idea what you’re doing. It’s very easy to avoid when you are skilled. It’s unseen when you are a proud mother of a two-year-old boy. Who was I to say anything? I didn’t want to make her feel bad about her outlay.

Green color casts are the result of poor color management under fluorescent lighting. Often, when there is fluorescent lighting and window light mixed together, the camera interprets this as green. All the images will have a green color cast to them if the color is managed poorly.

Fortunately, it’s uncomplicated to fix in Camera Raw. It takes a second to fix, and the problem is usually resolved.

Another blaringly obvious fault was the exposure. Every single image was sitting at the same level of underexposure. I doubted whether the most basic exposure correction techniques had been applied. The white background looked grey, the little boy’s pale blue t-shirt looked grey-blue, and his green eyes looked almost brown.

The sad thing is that this can be easily avoided with a light meter. It’s a small device that tells you exactly, number for number, what to dial your shutter speed and aperture to. You simply press one button on the side of the device, and the numbers tell you the perfect exposure. For studio work, there is no excuse for underexposed images.

light meter

Wedding photographer using a light meter. “Aja and the Light Meter” captured by Sean Davis.

Poorly exposed images will never give color their sparkle and brightness. There is just not enough light coming into the camera to be able to reflect the true color. For color to look vibrant, or even true to life, there has to be the right amount of light reflecting back to the camera. Getting exposure right is not only necessary for a well-lit scene, but also color. If there is not enough light, then color falls flat.

Getting great color is no secret. It’s simply done with a grey card. Simply hold the grey card in front of the subject where the light is falling, and make sure it’s correctly exposed. Then take a photo. Set your manual white balance using that photo and—hey presto—you have accurate color.

photography grey card

“Balance” captured by Rob Warde

Accurate color is so incredibly important. It’s the difference between dreadful photos and stunning photos. It’s how you get brides’ dresses white instead of off-white. It’s how you get skin tones looking true to life instead of washed out. It’s how you get black suits looking grey instead of black. Once your white balance is correctly set, you will see a vast difference in all your images. It’s the difference between amateur-looking images and professional images. It sets you apart from other amateur photographers.

About the Author:
Amy Renfrey writes for She’s photographed many things from famous musicians (Drummers for Prince and Anastasia) to weddings and portraits of babies. Amy also teaches photography online to her students.

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2 responses to “The Secret of Perfect Color in Your Photography”

  1. Nick says:

    Another great article. As a matter of preference, using the grey card, if I’m not planning on changing the lighting for a series of shots I use the card on the first (RAW) shot, correct the white balance with the eyedropper tool in Lightroom, copy the settings and paste into the other images.
    I’ve found that setting the manual white balance on the camera doesn’t always work for me (Canon 5D Mk 2)

  2. BIPIN B. GUPTA says:

    HI Amy, some of your surmises are a bit skewed.
    a) A DSLR is not necessary to capture great Portrait shots. I have seen wonderful photos captured by P&S and Smart Phones.
    b) Even an amateur can correct a color cast easily with todays camera automation – green, blue or what ever – by just invoking the White Balance Menu on the last shot captured by the camera and trying out all the presets or invoking his own setting.
    If this is not enough the color cast can be corrected in PP.
    Even a Dummy knows that snow turns out grey if under exposed.
    c) I don’t need a Grey Card or a costly Light Meter to give a sparkle to my color photos. I try to get them right in camera or correct them in PP. The impossible ones I convert them into dramatic B&W.
    d) And a RAW shooter as you said, should have no problems at all to bring that color sparkle in his photos.
    e) Even a Village Studio Photographer today shoots pretty decent portraits. So your example of your neighbor’s photo album appears to be a bit exaggerated.
    I have seen “bad” Pros, but never as bad as in your example.
    And I am just an average amateur with good gear to get photos that pop – not necessarily sharp or well composed – at least 50% of them.
    Appreciate your feedback.

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