Some Thoughts on White Balance

Ahhhh, white balance. Where should I start? There are so many millions of how to technical info-mercials out there I will dispense with starting at the beginning and just jump right into the thick of it.

If you shoot RAW you can do anything you want to WB in post, most of what I am going to talk about regarding white balance assumes that you want to be efficient when it comes to corrections and enhancements when it comes to post with a couple of exceptions towards the end. If you shoot JPG most of the things discussed will be pretty darn important because the color is baked into your files and major corrections or enhancements will not give you wonderful results. So here we go.

The two white balance methods that I use the least are auto and custom white balance modes. Of course I use them both but I really not much, maybe 10% of the time. By all means use auto if the light sources you are shooting in are all over the place in terms of color temperature and you are shooting JPG and you need to get your images out quickly. The newer cameras, even the point a shoots not only do a credible job, in a lot of cases they actually produce pleasing results (ie warmer). My issue with auto is that the results are difficult to predict and even worse they vary shot to shot. The shot to shot variations are a real headache for me in post. Even if the results are good I almost always have to screw around with every image so that the color balance matches from image to image. If I use a direct Kelvin setting or one of the presets, you know either the cute little icons of the sun, various light bulbs and such, even if they are incorrect or I just want a different look I only need to correct one image and apply the same exact change to every other image. Most modern software allows you to do this in about 1/2 of a second.

The reason I don’t use a custom white balance using some kind of target much is I rarely want a dead on neutral image. If you want to shoot a reference or your client wants a dead neutral set of images or whatever go ahead use a target and a custom white balance it will probably save you time. What saves me time is using either a preset (daylight, florescent, tungsten, whatever) or just dial in a Kelvin setting. The reason this saves me time is I get the results that I want or really really close without much messing about in post.

Here are a few examples. I love to shoot outdoors very early or very late in the day. Big surprise right. I usually just set my white balance to daylight and get those wonderful warm tones that you are after, perfect, just like when we used daylight balanced film. If I want to pump things up I use cloudy or shade, just like putting a 81 or 85 series warming filter on back in the old days, only now it’s free. Here is a tricky one, set your camera to florescent and shoot a city scape right after the sunset. You will get amazing colors in the clouds and sky and the interior lights in the buildings will be neutral, I used to use this all the time with a FL filter when shooting film - again it’s free using digital.

I use gelatin filters like crazy (actually too much and usually have to back off a lot) not on the lens but on my lights. I find the most useful are the CTB and CTO series. Color Temperature Blue and Orange respectively, intended for correcting color temperature of light sources to the film stock in use in the old days now they are great for effect. Try this, set your camera to tungsten slap a full CTO gel on your strobe and shoot outside. You get a neutral subject lit by your strobe(s) and the background goes crazy blue. This works great especially if you underexpose your background by a stop or so. I am sure that you have seen this if you look at any commercial images. Want to fine tune the color balance of the effect - just dial in the temperature using the Kelvin settings, if you shoot RAW do it with reckless abandon in post with the white balance in your RAW processor. Try the same thing I mentioned in the city scape but this time slap and FL correction gel on your strobe and chuck a model in the scene. As for the CTB gels let your imagination run wild. Combine different gels on different strobe heads and balance what light shows as neutral (and how close or far) with the Kelvin white balance settings on your camera. Hollywood does this all the time, next time you watch a relatively recent TV show or movie pay attention to color temperature and you will learn a lot and probably steal a couple dozen ideas for your images.


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