This post comes from Jon Woodbury.
This is NOT a Racial Post! – WHITE BALANCE – Photo IQ — WEEK 4
I am going to start out this way, if you want the cheapest, easiest way to make more professional-looking photographs, THIS is it. White balance is extremely important in quality images.
I hear people all the time lamenting their out-dated cameras and low-grade lenses, wishing that if only they could get better gear, their photos would look better. To all of you I say, don’t upgrade until you master white-balance. It will give new life to your images.
What IS white balance and why do I care?
White balance refers to the color cast given off from different light sources or picked up by light reflecting off various surfaces. It is measured in degrees kelvin. Typical temperatures of light are as follows.
Color Temp. Light Source
1000-2000 K Candlelight
2500-3500 K Tungsten Bulb (household variety)
3000-4000 K Sunrise/Sunset (clear sky)
4000-5000 K Fluorescent Lamps
5000-5500 K Electronic Flash
5000-6500 K Daylight with Clear Sky (sun overhead)
6500-8000 K Moderately Overcast Sky
9000-10000 K Shade or Heavily Overcast Sky
There is a range given because white balance is a very imprecise science when it comes to photography. It changes all the time with clouds and different colored light bulbs…in fact, very few lightbulbs are yellow enough to fall under the traditional tungsten range.
With film white balance was a matter of choosing indoor or outdoor film then using filters to equalize colors and remove a cast.
Digital is easier because we can switch whenever we want, set custom white balances, and in mid to higher-end dslrs custom-tune the temperature.
Why white balance?
Just pay attention to the photographs that really move you. They will very rarely have odd color casts. Our eyes are very good at compensating for white balance differences naturally so we don’t usually notice it. That is why so many amateur photographers don’t pay attention to it. But it is an elements that when it is done right will elevate your images even if viewers can’t put their finger on the reason.
RAW vs. Jpeg
Shoot Raw. Okay, just kidding, you can choose what fits your style better, there are still a few photographers that shoot jpeg out of the camera (See Jerry Ghionis) but more and more the consensus is to shoot raw.
If you don’t get it right on location, any editing you do later on is simply photoshop’s guess as to what it should be. I prefer to shoot raw so the original data is preserved. Then in editing the program knows exactly how the color should be rendered with each tweak of the white balance slider.
If you are a jpeg shooter, white balance should be your obsession, if you shoot raw, it is still a time saver since getting it right saves time in editing but you can miss or forget to change it and there is no harm done.
I went into the last couple of weeks of shoots to find examples of white balance shifts so you can see the difference between an average white balance and a good white balance.
Below is Christian Burridge at the Salt Lake County Democratic Convention. The convention was held in a large multi-purpose room lit entirely with florescent lights. You can tell they’re florescent by the characteristic green tone in the auto white-balance example on the left. It’s not bad, per se, but you can see the difference in skin tone when the compensation was introduced. It’s a much more pleasing, more professional-looking image. I love shooting men in suits and white shirts because white shirt collars are just about the best sample for white balance. They are minimally reflective and are near the face so they are almost always included.
The next example comes from an underwater set. Again we see the influence of the mostly florescent lighting. The corrected image (right) is much crisper and cleaner.
The next example is from a set I did with hiphop artist Kosha Dillz. I was there to assist the amazing Andrea Hanks but she let me do a little shooting on my own as well.
The cloudy, twilight sky (oooh, he said Twilight!) gives a naturally blue cast but I was mixing in a daylight-balanced flash. I actually wanted to warm up the skin tones so I moved the white balance towards yellow by shooting on the Cloudy setting. The goal was to warm up the whole scene and really pull out the yellow in the little sunlight left. I think that “true” white balance is not always the ideal. I like things a little warmer than normal. “Correct” white balance means neutral–and neutral is, well, neutral. It can feel very clinical and unemotional. I almost always cheat a little warm, especially when it comes to portraits. Typically, “correct” skin tones on men are too pink for me. Skin tones look much better warm than cool. The corrected white balance is on the right so you can see the difference and judge for yourself.
So how do you set white balance?
Every camera is different but typically you go into your menu and choose the one that is closest to your conditions. Some preset white balance settings are good. some really aren’t. Auto white balance typically works pretty well and is a good choice most of the time but will be fooled by scenes where there is one dominant color, such as a frame full of autumn leaves. The camera will see an overall red/orange color so it will compensate by moving the temperature towards blue. I keep my camera on daylight/sunny balance most of the time. By NOT using auto white balance I at least have consistency in my images and if I need to correct them I can often apply the same correction to many images, saving me time. That only works in a situation where the color cast is consistent. I will go to auto if the white balance is changing often.
The Kelvin temperature comes into play when the preset values don’t work. For me, this is almost always in an artificial incandescent situation. MOST tungsten/incandescent presets are too blue because they use the same temperature settings that have been used for years and years. The problem is that we aren’t using the same bulbs we’ve used for years and years. Light bulbs have moved closer to daylight temperatures so often the tungsten setting will be overkill and be too blue. I keep my Kelvin selector at about 3100 degrees so I can flip over to it when the tungsten setting doesn’t work.
Custom white balance is set by shooting a frame of a neutral colored subject then telling the camera that whatever is in that particular frame is the base neutral color. The camera then calibrates that color as neutral and bases all the other colors on that neutral example. For setting custom, gray is actually used more often than white.