Stage lighting: Revealing hidden details with white balance

…or, This is Totally Why I Shoot Raw

Concerts and other stage performances are often lit by colored gels or LEDs that change quickly. Even auto white balance won’t know what to do as the lighting pattern changes and goes to extremes, such as deep blue or red. Faces can appear as as one solid color with no detail, as in the first picture below.

Fortunately, raw format brings us a nice surprise here. I shot the following raw image during the American tour of the French retro-synthpop band Yelle, and at first glance it looks like the faces are nothing but blue blobs. Happily, it turns out that shifting the white balance value in a raw processor (I used Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3) reveals dramatically more detail; it’s like a completely different picture.

Raw, white balance As Shot

Raw format, white balance As Shot: Faces are blank

Raw, white balance adjusted

Raw format, white balance adjusted…and details are magically revealed

What I think is going on is that they were in the blue light’s shadow but the warmer red light was at a better angle for their faces. Warming up the white balance de-emphasized blue and dug more red out of the raw file, so that the red light became the primary light source. If I’m right, it means this trick works only if at least one of the differently colored light sources is at an angle that’s favorable to the subject.

This technique doesn’t work at all with the JPEG version of the image shown below, because the RGB color values are already baked into the file. You can no longer get more red, you can only lose blue, so shifting the white balance of the JPEG image doesn’t reveal any useful new details.

JPEG exported from raw with As Shot white balance, and then adjusted

JPEG version also starting from As Shot white balance: Adjusting WB doesn't help

In a situation where white balance holds steady or changes slowly, you might be able to achieve the same quality in JPEG format by doing a custom white balance in camera. However, in an environment like a concert or even a wedding where the light and the action change so quickly, there’s simply no time to rebalance, so shooting raw is the only way to get the most out of your images later.

You might notice that for the JPEG format image, the WB scale is centered at zero and adjusted positive and negative to that. It’s a relative adjustment instead of the absolute color temperature value that’s available in raw, because for a JPEG image, the original white balance is now baked permanently into the image, providing less flexibility when editing. That’s a big reason I shoot in raw format. I even prefer pocket cameras that record in raw format (like the Panasonic DMC-LX3 I used to take this photo), so that I can rescue images like this one when needed.

What if you’re shooting with a camera that records only in JPEG format, or with a video camera? You’re stuck with what the camera gives you. The best white balance setting will depend on the white balance of the stage lights before colored gels are put on them. Older incandescent lights may be closer to tungsten white balance, while some LED lights may be balanced closer to daylight. You’ll have to try some test shots using the daylight or tungsten white balance presets, and see which setting produces more appealing images. Or, if you’re able to light up a white surface with pure white stage lights, you can try setting a custom white balance off of that.

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