With a little help from Photoshop that is. If you are using Lightroom, you have Photoshop included in your subscription. And, you do not need to know anything about editing images in Photoshop. You will make a couple of menu choices and save the image as a PSD file.
In many cases cameras will nail the white balance, removing most, even all color cast from the image. On the other hand, there are plenty of photographs with dubious white balance and a nagging color cast. If you happen to have an area of the image that is known to be neutral, you can simply click on it with the white-balance eyedropper to fix the problem. However, it may be hard to find a neutral gray area unless you were holding one for this purpose.
I wrote about removing the color cast in Photoshop and have been thinking if there could be an equally simple way to neutralize the colors in Lightroom as well. After all, if you photograph some foliage in the shade, the color balance may be thrown off partly because of the lack of direct light and quite possibly some cyan cast on the green leaves as they reflect the blue sky overhead.
Not a Rule but a Tool
When reading the rest of the article, please consider that many things affect our color perception. From display quality and calibration to personal taste and preferences may make a “correct” white balance look less satisfying. Just as we do not want the sunset photographs without the strong warm colors all over. This article is about creating a starting point close to a neutral point from which you can deviate to convey your vision and sensibilities.
And finally, in all the comparative images you will see in this article, the only difference among the images will be the white balance. I have not otherwise adjusted or tweaked the version generated by the process I present here.
Make a Virtual Copy of the Image
You may have applied some edits for tonal structure, contrast, etc. which may disturb the process we will use. Press Ctrl-‘ (single quote) to create a virtual copy of the highlighted image in Lightroom before proceeding further. In that virtual copy, you can reset all the edits to their default position while maintaining the original image with all its edits intact. Set the white balance to “As Shot” and reset all tone and presence sliders. Make sure the tone curve is set to linear, and there are no HSL sliders active. If there are any, double-click on the sliders to reset them. I even reset sharpening and noise reduction, just in case. And don’t forget to check the calibration block in case you tweaked any sliders there. They should all be set to zero in the middle in that panel. You may be able to do all this by simply clicking on the “Reset” button, but that would also remove any cropping or perspective corrections. They might have eliminated some strong colored areas. We better start with an identical image to the original.
Open the Image in Photoshop
You can simply press Ctrl-E when the new virtual copy is selected to open it in Photoshop. If your Lightroom is set for the optimum push to Photoshop, it will likely send it in ProPhoto color space. If Photoshop presents a dialog asking whether you want to use the embedded profile or the default in Photoshop, select the embedded profile to preserve the special color space Lightroom uses.
Average the Colors
When the file is open, click on the top menu “Filter/Blur/Average” and watch the image turn into a single-color rectangle. If you are concerned about disk space, you can reduce the image to, say 25% if you like. But this image can be deleted after the target image is cleaned. Your choice. Now, press Ctrl-S to save the image, which will automatically be imported to Lightroom if it is set up to do so.
Back in Lightroom
The new file should now be sitting next to the original and be the selected image. In the thumbnails block below the edit area, make sure the new PSD file is the most selected image and you see the image in the edit area and holding the control key down, click on the original. You will see two images selected and the most selected image will have a brighter frame.
Set the White Balance
In the Basic panel, click on the white balance eyedropper and then click on anywhere on the single-color image. It will turn close to neutral gray. Click on the thumbnail frame of the actual image file and you will see the new white balance set for that as well.
Bring in Edits from the Original
Since it has no other edits applied, it may not look as vivid as the original image you started with. Now, select the original image and press Shift-Ctrl-C to display the copy image settings dialog. Since we want to bring everything but the white balance, click on “Check all” then click in the checkbox next to “White Balance” to turn it off. Click on the “Copy” button to copy all the settings. Click on the virtual copy to select it and press Shift-Ctrl-V to paste all the adjustments.
Compare Before and After
If you go back and forth between the images, you will notice that the new one may appear to have more presence and depth. It is possible that a highly dominant color may create a slight shift which you can correct by going in the opposite direction in the hue and tint sliders. If, for instance, there is a dominant green color, after the correction some areas may show magenta twinkles. To tell you the truth, I really forced the issue to show you a sample by using such images, but the results came out quite to my liking. The following set is the center area of 100% zoomed images, and all have a caption when clicked.
And these are the full-frame images that I hoped to show some overcorrection because of the dominant green color. I still like the one corrected a la Kept Light!
This process will bring you closest to seeing the clean colors of the scene. Some images may show little or no difference between the original and the newly cleaned virtual copy. The camera has done an excellent job. Give it a cookie! Other images may look worse, which may be real or perceptual. Look at what is missing and try to tweak it.
I would first turn off any HSL color adjustments coming from the original. They may not be necessary. Also consider that the image may become brighter or darker because of the change in the color balance, adjust them if necessary. And, finally, the white balance may be overcorrected because of a dominant color. Try gently moving the hue or tint sliders in the direction of the missing color. If it is too blue, slide the hue towards yellow. If too green, shift the tint towards magenta. Or the opposites if you see different shifts.
Give it a shot! Then give it a shout!
A few more pairs to compare if you like. They show the white balance set to as shot or adjusted as explained here. Their captions will indicate which is which.