Saturday, February 5, 2011

White Balance Blues

If you had asked me a few years ago if I could tell the difference between a photo shot with Auto white balance and one with a specific setting.
Text & Photography By Rob Sheppard Published in Shooting
White Balance Blues

If you really wanted a cold-looking scene, then the AWB shot of these mountains near Mammoth, California, would be fine. But most people prefer the warmer shot done with Cloudy white balance.

It often doesn’t affect the scene so much that it’s immediately obvious. The image may look “okay.” You may think that the picture is fine. You then live with an image that doesn’t have the best color and doesn’t show off your subject or your photography at its best. I’m not really interested in “okay” results. I want better for my subjects and my photography.

Regardless, if you’re shooting Auto white balance, you’re always needing an extra step in your workflow, namely adjusting white balance. I rarely adjust white balance because I set my camera specifically for the conditions—that locks it in and means one less thing to think about and deal with in the computer.

Taking Control Of White Balance

Setting white balance isn’t hard to do. We all had to learn to choose ƒ-stops, shutter speed and ISO. That’s part of the craft of photography. Setting white balance is also a part of the craft of digital photography.

Radishes in the shade at the Farmers Market in Los Angeles. This comparison is dramatic. The reds and greens of the radishes are seriously contaminated with blue in the AWB shot.

You only need to set white balance once for the conditions. You don’t have to keep changing it unless there’s a big change in the conditions. I do pay attention to the review image that comes up on my LCD after the shot. This is a reminder to see if white balance looks correct. This is why I always change my camera’s review time from its usually way-too-short default to about 8 seconds. Press the shutter lightly, and the review turns off at anytime.

There are basically two ways to use your camera’s preset white balance options:

1. Set the white balance to match the conditions. If the sun is out, set white balance to Daylight or Sunny. If it’s cloudy, choose Cloudy. If you’re in the shade, choose Shade. If you’re indoors with incandescent lights, set white balance to Tungsten. If you’re indoors with fluorescents, choose Fluorescent.

2. Set the white balance to modify the conditions. Slide and print films typically made colors a little warmer than what they were in real life (Paul Simon’s song “Kodachrome” was based on that idea). Many photographers like to warm up images slightly because of this tradition from film, so you may find that sunrise and sunset look best with Cloudy white balance, or that daytime scenes look better with Cloudy white balance.
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