Neutral “whites”



There really isn’t “white” in most photographs.  Areas of white are actually areas of gray, the value based on how much light they receive.  These gray tones should usually be pretty close to neutral, but often they have a color bias. Sometimes the bias is too strong and it needs toned down, or even removed.

There are several ways to deal with this, but my favorite is pretty simple … de-saturate.  Basically you eliminate the color, leaving only the values, which results in perfectly neutral grays.  If the area is very simple you can often do this with an adjustment brush in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw, but if the areas are more complex it’s better to move over to Photoshop.

In the image above after getting the white balance where I liked it for the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon,  the areas of snow getting direct sunlight looked ok, but the snow in the shadows had a pretty strong blue green cast. While this is somewhat expected, I felt it was detracting in the image because when viewing a scene like this in person you don’t see “blue” snow.


(Note the blue cast in the upper right corner.  It’s a little too strong, especially when printed large.)

The first step is to get everything as close to perfect as possible for the rest of the image.  In this case it meant processing the two raw files then blending them into the horizontal pano.  (this was taken as a two shot horizontal stitch.  I was after an image of about 16000 pixels so it would hold up well to a 90″ print).  After merging in Photoshop, the image goes back to Lightroom for some additional tweaks.  For example, some of the dodging with the adjustment brush could only be done after the merge since I didn’t know which file Photoshop would use in the final merge.

Now I head back to Photoshop for finishing touches (two trips to Photoshop aren’t normal, only necessary because it’s a blend of more than one image).  One of the finishing touches is to neutralize the grays in the snow.

The first step is to select just the snow. Duplicate the layer, because you want to do this with a mask on a layer, that allows you to fine tune it later.  With an image like this it’s not too hard because for the most part we have only three tones/shades.  The various reds of the hoodoos, the dark trees, and all various shades of grays in the snow.  I used the Select -> Color Range menu option, clicked the eye dropper with the plus symbol by it and began selecting various areas of the snow.  If you click and hold the mouse button down and drag through an area it will select all the shades you drag through. If you select the black matte menu choice in the dialog box, anything you select will “show” through, everything not selected will be black. Sometimes using the Quick Mask option is better, depending on the colors of the image.  The idea is continue selecting till you have a good representation of the areas you want to neutralize.  Click OK and you will soon see the image full of marching ants showing what is selected.  At this point make sure nothing is selected that you want left alone.  You can use the lasso tool holding the option or alt key down to remove any area from the selection you don’t want.

Once you have the area selected, the selection must be feathered (select Modify -> Feather).  How much of a feather depends on how large the file. If it’s only a few thousand pixels wide then a 3  pixel feather should work.  If it’s from a 20mp camera you probably need 4 pixels, from a d800 maybe 5.  I usually use a 6 or 7 pixel feather with my IQ180 80mp files.  (Although I prefer to not feather it, but instead expand it by a pixel or too, then use a gaussian blur on the mask layer) Once you do the feather, make sure your duplicate layer is selected and click the mask icon.  Now blur it if you didn’t feather the selection, usually a setting of around 3 with gaussian blur is about right.   Now it’s pretty easy, add a hue saturation adjustment layer above the new layer, make sure you clip it to that layer (hover the mouse between the new layer and the adjustment layer while holding the option/alt key down an you will see a little arrow, click it).  Once you clip it the adjustment will only affect the layer below, not the overall image.  Now dial out the saturation.

Normally I first completely desaturate and remove all the color.  If that goes too far, I can then either add saturation back, or I can lower the opacity of that layer and allow the layer below with some of it’s color to show through.  In the final image I left a very slight amount of the blue … I just felt it looked “right” to my eye.  If there are any parts that were selected that shouldn’t have been, go to your mask and paint them black, any areas that should have been that weren’t paint them white.  That’s the advantage of doing this with a layer and a mask.

There are many variations to get something neutral.  This particular technique works well for this image because the areas are so pervasive and undefined throughout the image.  Some are easier some are harder, but if you want something to be neutral, removing the color can help you get there.

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