Are your long exposures the "right" colour?

Everyone loves a nicely-composed crisp sunrise/sunset, right? And how about those colours? Aren’t they awesome?! Especially the long exposure shots; the colour on those seem to really pop.

Like a magician spilling the beans on how a trick is performed, ie a traitor, I am about to show you how it’s all faked. In doing so, I will also say I am pretty sure a lot us landscape long exposure practitioners are not aware that those purples, pinks and mauves we’re getting are not because of the length of the exposure, but instead due to the camera’s Auto White Balance (AWB) not coping with the length of the long exposure.

So, if you are interested in how you can adjust the colour of your long exposure to reflect the blue of that dawn you actually saw and not the awesome purple the long exposure gave you, read on.

Malabar Dawn as my camera saw it

The above image was shot at ISO 200, f6.3 over 150 seconds. The filters used were a Hoya ND x400 filter and a Lee 1.2 Soft Grad ND filter. The latter was an unsuccessful attempt to cope with the cloudless sky. Importantly, the shot was taken with the WB set to Auto. The only adjustment I made was to sharpen it. The colour is not what my eyes saw.

Malabar Dawn as my eyes saw it

The above image is exactly the same shot as the one above. Only this time, whilst the image was in its RAW format, I changed the White Balance, and I did it with a simple tool that made it easy to get that more “correct” colour because this version pretty much is what my eyes saw.

I’ve found the variance in colour obtained in such long exposures increases when your shot is in such an exposed position and the light is rapidly changing during the exposure. Naturally, this is the norm with a lot of sunrise/sunset seascapes with a lot of sky in the frame and hence when the effect is more noticeable. And there is no doubt in my mind that the brand of ND filter used will also play a significant role in the colour obtained. On that score I’m not exaggerating when I say that 9 times out of 10 I can spot a particular brand of ND filter from an RB thumbnail.

This Journal is not a case for not using AWB. If you’re shooting long exposures in RAW there’s probably no point in shooting in other than AWB mode. Time is normally of the essence and WB is something that is adjustable in conversion. It’s just that so often we like the “version” we captured that we run with it (to RB).

The tool I personally use to correct the AWB is provided in the standard Canon (sorry other camera users) RAW conversion program – Digital Photo Professional – which comes with every Canon digital camera with RAW capabilities. (Other manufacturer’s programs should also allow this step to be taken when working on your RAW files. Edit: From the comments to this Journal it is clear that Nikon’s Capture NX2 has the exact same tool, as well as the Olympus program, at least.)

This is the Tool Palette in DPP for working on your RAW files:

(Notice the settings for Saturation and Contrast? Those are my custom settings in-camera for shooting in Landscape mode. Interestingly, the maximum Sharpness setting I can select for the Canon 5D Mark II is 8, not 10) Anyway, about a third of the way down the palette, click on Shot settings. A menu should appear, like so:

Select the bottom choice on the menu, being Click white balance, like so:

Now, click on the eye-dropper icon immediately above that menu:

Your mouse cursor should now look like that eye-dropper. Now, choose a place in the image where the image is white and click on it using the eye-dropper. This should change the colour of your entire image.

For the “blue” version of the my sample image above, I clicked on the white immediately above the top of that long flat headland blocking the sunlight. Try different places and see the change each time to the colour. This, for example, is the colour result from clicking the eye-dropper further up into the sky:

Not as oomphy is it?

Here’s a tip. Forgetting long exposures and filters for a moment, if you are wanting to obtain a photograph, say a portrait, with the WB absolutely spot on, set the shot up and shoot it firstly with a pure white card in frame. Then open the image in DPP and use the Click white balance tool to click on that card in the photograph to obtain your custom WB, then “register” that WB setting for the conversion of the actual portrait shot. See the Register icon on the Tool Palette?

When you click on Register a little new window should open, thus:

Right now, DPP doesn’t allow you to name any particular custom WB setting and only allows you to store up to three such settings at any one time, but it still can be worthwhile.

Final tip. Getting your WB “perfect” is not really my aim here. It’s more to do with simple awareness of what we actually capture and the power of RAW allowing us to make voluntary adjustments according to taste. Sometimes that taste will turn to wanting an accurate representation, and sometimes of course that taste will influence more “creative” outcomes. There’s no rule in my book at least that instructs an accurate WB.

That’s a good thing, as DPP also caters to that more creative, anarchic, side in us all. Instead of using the eye-dropper tool, we can cick on the Tune icon immediately below the Register icon and get freaky.

Another little new window should open, thus:

All you do is click-and-drag that dot in the circle to wherever in that circle to go wild with colour. The further from the centre of the circle you go, the more extreme the result, like so:

Fake Malabar Sunset

Malabar Tripping

So there you go. RAW power. And the good news is that the eye-dropper tool can be used for any RAW file to “correct” White Balance, not just long exposures.

Before I go, I will note that I was going to add the contents of this Journal by way of an update to my Guide to ND Filters, but the character length of that is maxed out, so I am restricted to a link. And one more thing. Many RBers use specific types of filters in or on the camera to achieve a certain colour outcome, so when you see a Description of such an image that includes a reference to a particular type of filter , we are more or less being told this was achieved without having to doing any fancy computer work, and that, I believe, is a good thing.

For a complete list of all my photographic tutorials and journals, along with links to each, go here

Acknowledgement: I wish to thank Tatiana for sharing her knowledge of adjusting WB with me.


Legal stuff. This Journal is © Peter Hill 2011. All rights reserved. Reproductions of DPP extracts are © Canon Inc and are used under fair use permission. The author reserves the right to delete any Comment. Questions or queries can also be sent to

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