Lyme Gym Syndrome

This is an image from a recent basketball game "right out of the box," completely unedited. You can see a preponderance of yellows and greens in this image. In situations like this, there isn't really a correct in-camera white balance setting.
This is an image from a recent basketball game “right out of the box,” completely unedited. You can see a preponderance of yellows and greens in this image. In situations like this, there isn’t really a correct in-camera white balance setting.

Basketball season is in its peak, and my newspaper and I cover a lot of games. We have a great sports scene in our area, competitive and exciting.

I wondered as I was photographing one of those games last week, a tournament-heavy week with lots of games, how many photographers face the same thing I do all the time: overwhelming color casts in certain gyms.

Here is a screen shot of some of the tools I use to fix those hard-to-fix images.
Here is a screen shot of some of the tools I use to fix those hard-to-fix images.

In fact, there were at least six other photographers in last week’s mix:  Steve Sisney, Josh Clough, Jeannie Neal, Courtney Morehead, Glen Bryan, and Lonny Dorman. I am always glad to see them.

The lighting problem comes from a combination of lights that are designed to be efficient (instead of color-neutral), and floor and ceiling colors that create a sort of color feedback loop. For example, several of the gyms I photograph have yellow school colors, painted on courts that are finished in yellowing varnish, reflected by yellowing ceiling tiles.

These are nice places to work, and I love the opportunity to work at these schools, but the color balance in my photographs requires some very aggressive correction. How do I do this?

  • I always, always shoot raw files. We in the photographic community probably preach about this too much, but it really is a game-changer. Raw files contain thousands or even millions of times more color values than standard JPEG files.
  • I don’t bother adjusting white balance in-camera, because…
  • I will use Adobe Lightroom to fix the color, first with the eyedropper tool, which I click on a neutral spot; sometimes this is all the fix I need. It’s pretty dramatic, actually, sometimes accompanied by the word, “wow.”
  • I use additional color adjustments in Lightroom’s excellent Hue/Saturation/Luminance (HSL) dialog, which allows me to change not only the amount of the offending color, but also the brightness and the hue of it. I can use this to take a bright lime green basketball court and make it appear a very natural pale tan.
  • The most important aspect of this, of course, is to create normal-looking skin tones of the players and fans. This can sometimes requires some very aggressive application of color sliders in Lightroom or Photoshop.
  • As tempting as it is to use the pop-up flash instead of existing light at these venues, you will always be happier with existing light for sports.

I see other people’s image from some of these places, and they all exhibit a common thread: difficult color balance. Take it from me: raw files plus aggressive editing can fix these problems, and result in very satisfying images.

Here is the image as I submitted it for publication, cropped, filtered for noise, sharpened, and with the lime green and yellows dialed way down, resulting in better skin tones and an overall better image.
Here is the image as I submitted it for publication, cropped, filtered for noise, sharpened, and with the lime green and yellows dialed way down, resulting in better skin tones and an overall better image.
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