Master White Balance For Better Color
Auto white balance is an effective tool, but you often can do better with other, more controlled settings
Even if you set a specific white balance, you can still freely change the colors as defined by this setting in the computer, in a RAW converter and even with JPEG files (there can be a cost to doing it with JPEGs in terms of image quality, but that doesn't mean you can't do it). For me, though, having a specific setting gives me a locked-down interpretation of the scene based on how I actually experience it. It can allow me to get closer to reality or to push that reality, but all based on what I'm doing as I shoot. I'm not getting someone else's interpretation (the camera engineers') or a wimpy color balance from AWB that's designed to "please the masses."
If you want to get more from your /images, if you want to expand your color control over the image, try something other than AWB—the default setting of digital cameras. I want to be clear that AWB has made huge advances in recent years and often can give you great results, especially in tricky and changing light conditions. However, it also can give you dull, uninspired colors because it often removes color casts you don't want removed (such as the warm tones of a sunset), it may make a wrong "guess" as to what's the right color for a scene, and it can dumb down the color options because that way the camera is more acceptable to most buyers.
| Changing White Balance In The Computer |
While I strongly advocate shooting a specific white balance, there's no reason why you can't change it after the fact in the computer. The ideas presented here about how white balance can affect a photograph, either realistically or in some creative way, can be used as you change the color balance of an image in software. Easy ways to do this include choosing a different white-balance setting in RAW software and using the White Balance eyedropper (in Adobe Camera Raw or Photoshop Lightroom) or the Gray Point eyedropper in Levels (which is the same basic tool).
In addition, there's an important consideration you need to make if you often take a lot of photos in a single setting. AWB can give you inconsistent color when you're taking multiple shots in such conditions—the camera keeps changing the white balance it chooses as you change the angle to your subject, the composition and/or the focal length. The camera "sees" different aspects of the same scene, such as different colors in the background or sky, yet the camera has no way of knowing that this isn't a different scene altogether, so it reevaluates the white-balance settings for each shot. This can be a pain if you need to produce /images from this location that actually look like they all belong to that location. There's a lot of work that needs to be done in the computer to make things like skin tones match.
Below: Compare the results of Auto (left), Cloudy (middle) and Tungsten (right) white balance.
Back to RAW. Many photographers shooting RAW say they don't have to worry about this because they can easily change white balance in the conversion from RAW. While that's true, blindly using AWB causes some distinct workflow problems in RAW. If the camera has inconsistently changed white balance, you now have more work to do to match multiple shots from the same scene.
If you shoot AWB, sure, you can change the white balance, but to what? How does that change relate to what was really seen at your shooting location? Are you sure you remember? And you're adding an extra step and decision point to your workflow. I have no desire to spend any more time than needed.
An easy way to deal with white balance is to choose an actual white-balance setting based on the conditions. This can be set fairly simply—just match the setting to the conditions in which you're shooting, e.g., sun to a sunlit scene, shade to a shady subject, light bulb (incandescent or tungsten) to an indoor situation and so on.