Thursday, November 26, 2009

Looking out the front door at night

For the past few days most of my pictures have been of the open water in the Moose River resulting from some unseasonably warm weather. There were still boats in the water on November 26th and probably will be for a day or two more.
It is a bad idea to focus on one subject to the exclusion of everything else and while I do want to document the unusual conditions on the river I wanted to get pictures of something else.
I looked out my front door tonight and was impressed by the view across the river. The clouds over Moose Factory were lit up and were reflected on the surface of the Moose River.

Took a few shots.
Nothing hard about taking these, camera on tripod with exposures of a few seconds and focus at infinity.
When I take shots at night the choice of white balance makes a big difference. Setting the proper white balance for a pictures is basically deciding which object should look white (or gray) and making sure it does in the picture. Most cameras come with a variety of preset white balances for common situations such as daylight, cloudy, flash, fluorescent and tungsten light bulbs.
This works pretty well when you have a scene that is lit up by a single type of light (e.g. daylight or flash). It gets trickier when there are lights of different types shining on objects in the scene.
Night time pictures in town are often illuminated by the ugly light of street lights. The worst are sodium yellow lights.
At nighttime the source of light can be the moon. That one is easy since the moon is, mostly of the time, pretty close in colour to sunlight, just softer and much weaker.
Tonight was cloudy and there was no moon visible. Everything in the foreground of my pictures is lit by street lights. What about the rest of the scene?
For one picture (the one that looks bluer) I decided that the clouds should be white and set the white balance that way. That is not the way the scene looked but it does a reasonable job on the grass in foreground.
I wondered why it works and realized that the clouds which were providing most of the light in the middle and background were lit up by the street lights in Moose Factory which are likely pretty similar to the ones in Moosonee. Taking white balance off them is almost the same as taking a white balance off the street lights here.
The funny thing with light from street lights is that things look yellow to people. Our eyes have a limited ability to compensate for the colour of light that is present and sodium vapour lights are just too far away from normal for this to work.
My camera choose a white balance that produced a picture that was much more intense than what I saw (the reddish picture). I changed the white balance in the other shot (first one in this blog) to make it look more the way the scene appeared to me.
You can fiddle with white balance in most image editing programs but the most flexible way to do is to shoot RAW pictures and do the conversion to JPG on the computer. RAW pictures do not have a defined white balance. The camera suggests one but you can set it to anything you like. Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) cameras almost always can take RAW pictures. Some point and shoots can as well, e.g. the Canon S90. The drawback of RAW shooting is that the files are much bigger since they contain all of the data that camera picked up instead of a particular impression of it. I started out to write that there is no image compression but realized I needed to qualify that and say that it is a lossless compression. All of the data is preserved and just stored more efficiently. JPGs are compressed and the more you compress them the more data is lost.

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