White balance, digital photos of paintings, bushfires and Olympus dSLRs

Written by Gary on April 5th, 2009

Yesterday I had a couple of hours to kill in Brisbane, Queensland and so I thought a trip to the State art gallery would be worthwhile.

Fortunately, photography is allowed in permanent collections of most of Australia’s National and State art galleries, and for this, my favorite kit is the Olympus E510 (you could use E520/620/E30/E3 as they all have image stabiliser built in) and the Olympus ZD 50mm f/2.0 macro lens – you usually do need f/2.0-f/2.8 for hand held shots with IS at ISO 400 and the flat field of the macro dedication helps ensure that even at f/2.0, the corners remain in focus. In addition, this lens is one of the sharpest around, and has minimal barrel distortion.

If you have a Nikon dSLR then you could use their “VR-micro” lens which has image stabiliser built in.

If you use Canon, then you will have to resort to using a higher ISO – perhaps ISO 1600 with their 60 or 100mm f/2.8 macro lenses as unfortunately image stabilisation is not available either in the camera or in a Canon macro lens. If you use the 24-105mm f/4 IS L lens, you will probably need to use ISO 800 at least and then you have the issues with all the distortion this lens creates.

So, when I visit art galleries, I bring my Olympus E510 with 50mm macro lens.

As all paintings are lit by artificial light, and often do not contain any true neutral gray or white tones, you are unlikely to get accurate color renditions using auto white balance or white balance presets.

Luckily the Olympus dSLRs have a REALLY easy mechanism for doing custom white balance.

In the menu, set the Fn button to be custom WB.
Press the Fn button an it will tell you to aim camera at neutral subject (eg. white balance card) which is in the same lighting as your subject and take a photo. You will then be prompted to accept this.
Custom WB is set (don’t forget to revert to AWB when finished taking photos – just press WB button on rear and select AWB).

So let’s do a demonstration of what we can achieve:

Quite topically, there just happened to be a bushfire painting by Australian painter Russell Drysdale which was painted in 1944, so here is the first effort with auto white balance (AWB) on:

Drysdale awb

Now these colour look great but they are NOT how the painting really was – the sky was much more yellow in the painting. Time for custom WB. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to bring along my White Balance pocket cards so I had to do with using the white wall (almost certainly not photographically neutral but close enough hopefully).

Drysdale custom white balance

Now we are talking – although it still did not look exact on the camera’s preview, but on my laptop monitor it looks pretty close.

As an aside: unlike my Canon 1DMIII LCD screen, the Olympus LCD screen tends to correlate quite closely with how the jpeg will be, and usually I do not need to post-process the Olympus images as their in-camera jpeg image engine is superb – I can’t say the same for my Canon 1DMIII jpegs – I rarely use them and have to do lot’s of post-processing of Canon RAW files.

So here is a tip: if you don’t want to spend lots of time in front of a computer post-processing RAW files or you don’t know how to, strongly consider getting an Olympus dSLR just for that reason – not to mention a whole host of others – built-in image stabilisation, edge-to-edge image sharpness, compact & light size outfits, tilt-out LCD and with electronic spirit level (E-30) and weather-proofing (E-3).

None of these photos have been edited in Photoshop other than to crop and resize for web. You can click on them for larger view.

Lastly, here is a close up shot showing the beautiful detail in this work:

Drysdale custom white balance

There is a commentary on this painting provided by the NGV here.

More Australian paintings of bushfires:

More of my photographs of my favourite famous paintings – see here.


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