Man at the bottom of Tower 42 in London, in the morning

artificial light for atmosphere –
white balance and metering

You don’t have to travel to the city to come across a wide range of different coloured artificial light sources, or to make the most of the multi-coloured displays they put on for the photographer. Unless you live in the middle of a field with no electricity in your hut, and no fire either, you will come across artificial light every day. These are lights such as street lights, the neon of the chip shop window, the warm glow of a domestic bulb or the green fluorescents on the office floor.  Your camera will render their illumination in different hues, and they play a very large part in your emotional response to the night or the place. In fact, there won’t be a night where an artificial light source doesn’t cast it orange, yellow, green or cool blue rays upon you, the sky or the place you happen to be.

There are so many different types of light that camera manufacturers can’t possibly make a white balance setting for each one. Your auto white balance will help you to get rid of some of the caste, but if you are interested in photographing what you see, and in showing the viewer what a certain place is like at night, it is a much better idea to think not about neutralising these colours but about making the most of them. And to do that you should always shoot with your white balance set to ‘daylight’ or the sun symbol. Your eyes and brain see using their own daylight white balance mode, and for your camera to see what you see this is the only setting to use.

In this shot I’ve used the colours of the lights in the scene to create a stage-like and slightly mysterious atmosphere. Remembering that photography is about photographing the light and not just the objects in front of the camera, I set my exposure to capture the colours. While the person in the middle of the scene is important as the eye-anchor, we don’t need to see what he really looks like – his silhouette is enough. The real reason he is in silhouette is that I dialled in a -0.3EV of exposure compensation to ‘under-expose’ the lights, which in turn increased the saturation and strength of their colours. And that is an important point. Left to think for itself the camera would have created a much lighter exposure and the colours would be much weaker and washed out.

Leading lines and colours

I was lucky here that it is not only the lines of the place that lead us into the scene, but also the graduation of colour from the warmth of the foreground and the railings, via the lighter yellow/greens of the middle ground, to the cool blue/white of the gap in the centre of the frame. Our eyes are drawn to cooler colours more quickly, and the warm surroundings only get looked at once the main attention-grabber has been dealt with.

I am pleased with this shot because the message it delivers is very clear and there are a number of elements that lead us to the same conclusion. There is only one place you can look when you first see the picture, as the passage of the lines, the structure of the place and the colours of the lights take you straight to the strong clear lines of the neatly posing human situated on the left-hand vertical third of the frame. He is looking out of the frame, creating a tension that you have to notice – even though he occupies a tiny section of the image area.

The scene looks to me like a still from a spy movie, so I cropped the photo to 16:9 widescreen proportions to deliver the viewer a subconscious sense of being at the cinema.

Black and white morning shot at the base of Tower 42 in LondonThe picture does work in black and white, as it has enough graphic character to remain strong and compelling, but in colour the sense of atmosphere, mystery and tension is so much greater and the scene ends up being far more interesting.

Canon PowerShot S95, f/3.5@1/125sec and ISO 3200

Learn more about this subject on one of my Street Photography at Night classes

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