That’s a big ole title for a big ole photo editing job. When I teach photo editing workshops, I ask students to find a favorite photo that they’ve struggled to edit. So many times, it’s a photo of a child blowing out the candles on her birthday cake.

birthday candles white balance on wall

Why are these so popular? Well, many people take this photo. And most of them realize that they can be a real bear to edit. They are a perfect example of the need to correct for mixed lighting that I talk about in my classes.

Mixed lighting is a common situation in photography. Think about a room that’s lit with window light as well as an overhead light. Different lights have different colors, so if you have multiple colors in your image, you want to balance the colors in the photo the way our minds do in real life.

Why are birthday candle photos so hard to edit?

  • A candle is a very warm colored light, and it shines on the area just around it – the cake and the subject’s face. That makes the cake and the face much warmer than the surrounding image.
  • Add to the mixed lighting the fact that the candle shines very brightly and can cause the face to have hotspots.
  • Finally, if you turn the lights off when you blow out the candles, most of your photo is going to be very dark – this can wreak havoc with your colors. If you leave the lights on, the flames will disappear and the candles won’t look lit.

This quandary illustrates how so much of photography and photo editing is a balance – expose for the candles or for the rest of the photo. Set white balance for the majority of the photo or for the candle and the face.

Even when editing, we have to make decisions about how far to take our corrections. Technically correct white balance, for example, removes the warmth that our eyes expect to see around the candles. We have to find a balance between “correct” and appealing.

It might be that the best way to get one of these photos is to take it in full natural light and then play up the flames using Photoshop. In the meantime, here is how I edited this photo.

Here is my original:
birthday candles before

As you can tell, the original is much too warm and dark, except for those blown highlights where the candle is shining on her face. I fixed that by reducing Highlights to -100 in Lightroom. (Because this is a Raw photo edited in LR, I’m able to darken highlights much better than if it had been a JPG.)

birthday candles reduce highlights

You can see in the above photo that the highlights are better but the white balance is still crazy. It just so happens that my walls are painted a perfectly neutral gray, so I can grab the White Balance eyedropper in Lightroom to set WB off the wall on camera right. The problem here is that the light in the background is not the same color as the light on my daughter’s face – this is that mixed lighting I was talking about. When I measure her skin, the Green & Blue values are way too low because of the warm candle light shining on her.

birthday candles white balance on wall

This white balance adjustment combined with a slight Exposure increase makes the photo look much better here, but it’s still far from perfect. I have two equally valid options. I could leave it as is, celebrating the warmth of that candlelight and the funny (and not fixable) shadows on her face. Or, I could correct her skin to be closer to normal range. It’s all about what you, the photographer, think is right for the photo.

Tweaking the image further, I paint some blue and green onto her face and the table, avoiding the candles themselves. This puts my daughter’s skin more in line with her “usual” RGB measurements, but it doesn’t necessarily look better on the photo. The table, her hair and shirt are closer to their true colors, but her face is starting to look ghostly.

birthday candles final

So, in this case, I decided to stick with the photo you see at the top of this page. Raccoon eyes, funky skin tone and all. This photo is about how, at 7 years old, she insists on wearing a stack of hair ties on her wrist rather than in her hair.It’s about remembering that she wanted the “teacup” cupcake for her birthday this year. And mostly, it’s about that sweet smile that you can see even as she blows out the candle.

In the end, this edit is perfect enough for me, in spite of all its technical problems.