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Photographing Subjects in White Clothing: From Disaster to Joy


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Do you dread when customers show up for their photo session wearing white clothing?  Do you wonder how wedding photographers deal with brides in white dresses? Irene Jones has some tips to help you deal with your fears.

Some photographers wince and mutter something impolite under their breath when they see a client show up on location dressed in a white t-shirt and blue jeans  The reason behind the mild profanities can be different. If you are like me, you are annoyed at the cliche’ and utterly out of date fashion statement, while others are fearful that their images will be filled with washed-out skin tones and blown highlights. I can’t do anything about the choice of 1980’s attire, but I might be able to help relieve the apprehension some feel with a few simple guidelines that I use when shooting anyone in white.

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  • Meter for your highlights. In this instance they happen to be pretty easy to identify since they are standing right in front of you asking you to take a picture. I know some photographers like to spot meter for a person’s skin tone (which only works on pasty, sun deprived, Seattle natives like myself) but I don’t recommend this even with colored clothing. You run the risk of overexposing your highlights (the white shirt) and making your subject look like the newest cast member in the Twilight movies. Always spot meter for your highlights. If the skin tones are too dark, fill with a reflector, flash, or both.
  • Reduce the contrast range. On bright sunny days photographing subjects in white can be especially troublesome. The harsh sun light bouncing off a white wedding dress for example can completely confuse a cameras internal meter and create darkened backgrounds or total underexposure. The cure for this dilemma is to reduce the contrast range, or put simply, move into the shade.
  • Create your own shade. When no shade occurs naturally from a tall building or tree I create my own with a large Gobo or Scrimir Photographing Subjects in White Clothing: From Disaster to Joy Guest Bloggers Photography Tips Photoshop Tips & Tutorials , a few light stands, and the help of an assistant. My first choice is to use a semi-translucent material which will allow some light to pass through but works to disperse the sun’s hard rays like a puffy cloud. I then will often use flash to light my subject, creating a directional quality to the light, and more accurate color balance.
  • Applying these principals to studio light. Similar principles apply in studio lighting. With any shoot I first set my main light’s power for the aperture I wish to use in my final exposure. I then use another light or two for my background. With white backgrounds I always set the power  + 1 stop from the main light to overexpose it and get a clean even look. Then a third light or fill card is used to soften shadows and decrease contrast as necessary. For example, in this image there are three whites, the model’s shirt, the background, and the butterfly chair. (Incidentally, my first piece of furniture I ever bought.) I metered for the white of her shirt first since I wanted it to be the brightest white with detail. I then set both the background lights slightly brighter so the white vinyl would be overexposed, but not so bright as to wash out my subject. And then I added a fill card on the left to brighten the underside of the chair keeping it from looking too dark. The white background on the floor also acts as a reflector, so the challenge in this image becomes more about keeping some shadows to show dimension. To do this I simply increased the angle of my main light so it would skim her body, adding shape and interest to the light.

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  • Post processing with Raw for better detail in white clothing. If the perfect exposure still escapes you there are some post processing techniques that are very helpful. The key is to shoot in RAW. Thanks to a wider dynamic range it is possible to restore some of the highlights that appear to be lost on the image’s histogram. Personally I am an avid Lightroom user. In post-production my saved preset add + 30 to the recovery slider. This works almost without fail to pull any blown highlights back within an acceptable range. Be careful with this tool; adding too much will create thick, ugly highlights, reduce saturation, and destroy contrast.
  • Post processing in Photoshop. If you did not shoot in raw and your whites lost some detail (but are not fully blown), you can recover them in Photoshop.  If they are fully blown, you will need raw data and processing to regain them.  Using the MCP’s Magic Recovery Photoshop action from the Bag of Tricks set, the white areas recovered some lost details.

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  • Even if you have the correct exposure the biggest problem with white clothing is color shift. When overexposed even slightly white clothing will get a yellow/orange cast that is unattractive. Or whites often turn blue/green in the shade. Solving either problem is fairly easy. I like to first adjust my color balance in Lightroom to reflect an accurate skin tone. Then I edit the image in Photoshop with the desaturate Tool. By simply selectively desaturating the white clothing the overall color is improved and my skin tones remain warm and friendly. MCP’s Color Safe Bleach and Bleach Pen actions from the Bag of Tricks Photoshop action set can also easily achieve this whiter effect. Jodi, MCP, did this video back in 2008 on getting a white dress “white” in Photoshop for the [b] school.

Hopefully these tips will lead to better exposures, more accurate color, and happy customers.

Irene Jones owns Irene Jones Photography in Everett WA. Visit her website at her studio’s blog at or her personal weekly photography tutorial at


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  1. Trude on April 9, 2010 at 5:10 pm

    She makes it sound so easy! 🙂 Really loved this post, lot of good tips. Thanks!

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