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Thread: Color Meters for Landscape Photography?

  1. #1

    Join Date
    Nov 2004
    Orange, CA

    Color Meters for Landscape Photography?

    In the July/August 2005 issue of View Camera magazine, Charlie Cramer has written an article advocating the use of a color meter for landscape photography. He provides examples (primarily of forest or canyon floors illuminated almost exclusively by reflected or overcast light) where a substantial warming correction is required, including one case using an 85 filter (considerably stronger than the 81 series filters carried by most landscape photographers I know) to achieve a reasonably natural look.

    Color meters are expensive (around $1,000 U.S.), require a set of warming filters to use fully (Cramer carries an 81A, 81C, 81EF, 85C, 85 and KR12), and apparently can be tricky to use (readings require interpretation if the primary light source is not obvious, e.g. is your reflected light coming primarily from the hazy blue sky or the red canyon walls?). This is a far cry from my basic kit of 81B and Tiffen 812 warming filters (as suggested by Jack Dykinga).

    I have encountered situations where my basic attempts at color correction of diffused or reflected lighting did not produce the desired results, and am potentially attracted to the idea of a tool which eliminates the guesswork in responding to such cases. But I wonder how practical such a solution would be for a dedicated but still amateur photographer such as myself who does not shoot every day. I am also concerned about how well differences between film emulsions are handled; the Gossen ColorPro 3F (Cramer's favorite) can be programmed for film type (daylight, tungsten, etc.) and apparently customized within film types (I assume to accommodate differences between, say, "warm" Velvia 50 and "cool" Provia 100F?), but I'm not clear how well this works for the average shooter.

    How many of you use color meters for landscape LF photography? What are the trade-offs and pitfalls of using such a meter? What type of learning curve did you encounter and how much does the meter enhance your work? Could you recommend such a meter to an amateur like myself, who goes on shooting trips maybe 4-5 times per year?


  2. #2

    Join Date
    Feb 2002

    Color Meters for Landscape Photography?

    Eric, if you plan to scan your film, just put a tiny grey card 1" square in the scene and hit the grey balance button in the software, and voila, you just balanced the color perfectly. Of course this assumes the light is the same color temp in the entire scene.

    If you can't put the grey card in the scene, like shooting on a pier over an ocean.... take 35mm tiny camera with same film type and shoot the grey card and scan the 35mm film... use the same corrections it took on the 35mm film to acheive grey balance, and apply to the LF scanned film.

    I use the gossen color Pro3 color meter.... and a ton of color filters as well as adapte rings for every lens, etc. I use the Lee system. Its quite a big investment, which if your on a budget and don't like carrying a huge pack of filters and rings, well, the method above is pretty good alternative. It's all about time and money here. My meter and associated filters, rings, lee system, etc. was an easy $5k, this affords a very nice scanner and its better to put money in scanner and software as there is other ways to acheive color balance. The Gossen meter is simple to use, plug in color film temp, then press button, it tells you what filters to balance the current light to match the films color temp. It doesn't get much easier. These things are tempermental though, and do not always produce the same readings when in the same light. Nothing beats a perfect grey card, run a search for WhiBal.

    For landscapes, I prfer to use the grey cards. Also, its not always this easy, as the color temp in different parts of the scene can be radically different, due to reflections from other color surfaces. If the areas are within reach, two grey cards would not hurt, then mask the different areas off and use grey balance for each area.

    Also, you need to consider if you really want to color balance as sometimes the scene looks better with the color cast. Of course at high altitudes this is not the case, as our eyes see everything normal but the film sees the higher color temp and the images have varying degrees of blue cast based on altitude and film type. This is a good example where color filters are useful in landscapes. But as usual, more than one way to skin a cat!

  3. #3
    Resident Heretic Bruce Watson's Avatar
    Join Date
    Sep 2003
    USA, North Carolina

    Color Meters for Landscape Photography?

    It's an interesting question.

    I recently returned from a trip to Yosemite and Sequoia. While the majority of what I did was B&W, I did shoot about 40 sheets of 160PortraVC. I don't own and therefore didn't use any type of warming filter on any shot. Some of this was at altitudes as high as 2500 m (8200 feet) and at peak sunlight conditions in June - should have been very blue indeed.

    Of these, I've found about 10 that I want to work on, and I'm done with four. All of these scanned a bit blue, but the color corrections were really quite small. I have bigger issues with my inks (Ultrachromes on Hahnemuhle Photo Rag) not having sufficient gamut to handle the saturation of the film -- I often have to back off the saturation by at least 25%. But this doesn't have anything to do with color temperature and warming filters.

    Now, I've held several of Mr. Cramer's prints in my hands in galleries. The guy is, well, brilliant. I've never encountered anyone have this level of control over color, nor anyone who is so consistently spot on with color balance. So I have no doubt whatsoever that he knows whereof he speaks.

    So how do I reconcile my experience with what Mr. Cramer teaches? I suspect that it's mostly a chrome thing. Architectural photographers often note that negative film does much better in mixed lighting than chromes. This seems to be true of the mixed lighting in nature also.

    My first foray into color landscape (I had only used it for flower closeups before) hasn't made me want to go out and buy a color meter, or even a warming filter. It has confirmed, for me, that negative film is better for what I want because it can handle the large SBR of landscape in full sunlight, and it can handle mixed lighting conditions better.

    I'm not saying that negative film is your answer. But it works for me. Clearly, YMMV.

    Bruce Watson

  4. #4
    Whatever David A. Goldfarb's Avatar
    Join Date
    Mar 2000
    Honolulu, Hawai'i

    Color Meters for Landscape Photography?

    I've sometimes used an old Gossen Sixticolor meter for outdoor color photography. These simple, inexpensive 2-color meters are often adequate for determining the degree of warmth to add in overcast conditions, shade, or deep shade. I find it less useful for artificial light, and it's not useful at all for fluorescents. Eventually you just come to recognize what light needs how much filtration. I prefer the KR series of filters to the 81 and 85 series, but I use both, depending on what filter size I need.

  5. #5

    Join Date
    May 2001

    Color Meters for Landscape Photography?

    Hi Eric

    I have the Minolta color meter IIIf and he is bit cheaper ten the Gossen and I find the handling better then the Gossen. Minolta was anyway the first producer wich really produced a spot on colormeter for flashlight and all different thungsten lightings at a time Gossen only could dream of an precise one! So just a bit history!
    But I use it only for architectural shootings inside and out to be spot on if needed and it is most of the time needed. But for landscapes I never used it or only if I'm working out of the car!
    But if the full controll is needed its the only answer! But then you need also more filters.

  6. #6

    Join Date
    Nov 2004
    Orange, CA

    Color Meters for Landscape Photography?

    Thanks for your input, guys! For now, it seems that using a grey card as Bill suggests might be the best approach for someone like me. I do indeed shoot chrome film, which is then drum-scanned into Photoshop, so adding a small grey card to my kit and then cloning it out would not be a hard thing to do. Down the road, if I find myself doing reflected light photography more extensively, then I might revisit this; I enjoy sharing my transparencies displayed on a light table, and the only way to be fully successful in that case is to get white balance right at the time of exposure. But I'm not there yet.

    Bruce, Mr. Cramer indeed shoots chromes (he describes chrome photographers thusly: "Not unlike vampires, we arise at dawn, do our work, and then seek shelter before the sun gets too high in the sky...") and doesn't address the relative susceptibility of chrome vs. neg for color balancing issues. I already carry some Portra 160VC in reserve for mixed lighting, so it's good to hear that changes likely won't be as noticeable when using that film.

    Thanks again!

  7. #7

    Color Meters for Landscape Photography?

    Having had the good fortune to see Charlie operate in the field, I can confirm that he does use negative film on occasion in especially high contrast situations. He “proofs” the negatives on his Epson 4870 scanner, which he finds does an admirable job of interpreting negative film.

    In addition to his use of the color meter in the field, one of his favorite tools in Photoshop is to use the middle eyedropper on a Curves adjustment layer. The method is LAYER>NEW ADJUSTMENT LAYER> CURVES. With the preview box checked, select the middle eyedropper and then try clicking on various parts of your image that should be neutral tones. The image will color balance based on what you select. This is a wonderful way to explore various color balance alternatives quickly, because, as Bill noted, perfectly neutral colors aren’t always what looks best. A little color cast, such as bluer shadows can make a huge difference in the viewer response to the image.

    The other nice thing about making the Curves Layer, is that you can adjust the opacity of the layer after the fact, and, its effect on your image, fine tuning the color balance even further.

    As for the use of a color meter, IMO, it really depends on the final intent of your image. If it is destined for the light table of a photo editor, making the extra effort at the time of the exposure will work to your benefit. If it is solely destined for a print, it is less critical, since color correction is so easy in today’s world via Photoshop or the like.

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