Aperture 3, Lightroom 4, and White Balance

I drone on and on about film and why I continue to love and shoot it so much. It could give one the impression that I don't shoot digital or worse that I somehow change my mind on a daily basis or even worse that I am some sort of schizophrenic because I also continue to buy and shoot new digital gear. All of those things are not the case. I just happen to want all the things we had with film and all the things we have with digital. I get louder and louder with each generation of digital hardware and software due to what seems to me to be extremely irritating things that seem to never get addressed. Case in point - something as simple as white balance.

Before I start into a practical tidbit on something very useful if you haven't figured this out for yourself I do need to apologize publicly for not having explicitly posted instructions prior to this. For all of the hooting, hollering, and haranguing I have done over the last few years on Apple Aperture and white balance I could have sworn that I written explicit instructions on how to deal with the most basic flaw. Turns out I have not as I found out during a recent one-on-one session. I am sorry. Especially since this was my first question that I posted to the support forums way way way back in 2005 when Aperture 1.0 was first released - here is the funny part - that question was never actually answered by anyone - ever. Consider this post the answer. Something I figured out after about a week of either no answer or insane non-sense disguised as an answer. This goes for both Aperture 3 and Lightroom 4 as well as other non-manufacturer RAW processors as well.

Everybody knows what white balance is right? It's pretty much the way to compensate for the particular color temperature measured in degrees Kelvin as well as the green/magenta tint that happens to be lighting the picture you are taking at that moment. This color temperature thing in degrees Kelvin has been around for a long long long time - way longer than digital. With digital cameras there are a bunch of ways to deal with this compensation.

  • Use the cameras automatic white balance that attempts to neutralize the scene. For me this is the "I don't give a shit mode". It's usually wrong. It's way wrong on the extremes. It's still easy to fool when using limited warm or cool color palettes - which tend to make good photos. To make matters worse even when it's "right" it's probably not what you really want in terms of how you want the image to look, especially in mixed light - which happens to be 99.9% of real world conditions.
  • Use a camera preset like "sunny", "cloudy", "shade", etc. I actually use this method most of the time.
  • Dial in a specific temperature and tint in Kelvin numbers. I use this a lot to.
  • Shoot a white balance target and have the camera calculate a neutral point in camera. I almost never do this.
  • Shoot a white balance target and deal with it in post. I do this occasionally but usually while shooting StupidCrap™ and pursuing intellectual exercises like comparing different cameras and how they render color. Not really that worthwhile from my point of view as I rarely shoot in situations that are not mixed light temperatures and even when I do I really don't want dead neutral results.
  • Do it by eye… Hmmm. Probably the best way at the end of the day but this can be really tricky because of our human brain. Even if you have been doing color for a decade every day your eyes can play tricks on you based on a thousand factors - one of them being what you happened to be looking at as a comparison 10 seconds ago. I swear I can show you an image that looks "normal" that isn't and when I show you another one that actually is you will perceive it as really really warm or really really cool. Happens to everybody.
  • Last but not least you can do it the old fashioned way. Set your camera up for daylight balance and filter the camera or the light sources appropriately if they happen not to be daylight - or even if they do. I still do this occasionally for good reason. Even when I don't it pay off in a big big way to think in these terms when shooting. Making choices while planning the image, lighting ratios, direction, light source, ambient mix, etc, etc is HUGE. It's a fallacy to think that all you have to do is deal with some magic neutral correct WB if you shoot real world images with real world light sources. If you mix flash, HMI, Led, FL, daylight, reflected daylight, window light reflected window light, etc, etc, etc. Trust me - if you think like you did when we all shot film in planning your shots you will be far better off.

Sorry for the long level set and remedial bunch of WB crap that everyone already knows. I had to do it just to get everyone thinking color temp - sorry. Now comes the part that still bothers me about Aperture 3, Lightroom 4, etc along with a suggestion that may actually be revolutionary to you if you haven't figured this out yet. Here it comes - don't miss it…

There is a very good chance that the standard color temperatures every forking photographer, blogger, camera manufacturer, Apple, and Adobe throw around as some sort of "standard" color temperature and WB setting like hmmmmm… 5500K have nothing to do with the numbers you see and manipulate in Aperture 3 or Lightroom 4. They might - but that is completely dependent on the camera you happen to shoot. Nikons (and many others) are completely different. Those numbers may as well be arbitrary. Shooting 5500K lights has nothing to do with what temperature or tint number you need to set in Lightroom or Aperture. Nothing. Daylight is NOT 5600K in either piece of software depending on what camera you shoot.

When I say the temperature and tint numbers are different I don't mean a little bit different in the sense of camera brands having slightly different takes on things. I mean completely way off big-time different. "Daylight" for my venerable Nikon D2H happens to be 4800 temp and -5 tint in Lightroom 4 not 5500 +10 as Lightroom has built into it's white balance control block. "5600K" happens to be 5100 temp and -7 tint in Lightroom 4. My Nikon D600 daylight is different, my Fuji X100 is different, so is my Fuji X-Pro-1, my Nikon D200, etc, etc, etc. Also note that 4800 and 5100 are 300 points apart when they logically should be more like 100 points apart and if I were to "scale" the wrongness it would seem that it should be much closer in numerical terms to 50 or even 20 if you take into account that those temp differences make bigger changes the lower the actual temperature of light. Not in digital land.

What really compounds this issue and drives me nuts is that both Apple and Adobe pretend that this reality doesn't exist. So much so that both of them continue to build into and promote the use of completely inaccurate - way way way way off "standard" temperature and tint numbers as if those old scientifically measured numbers somehow are dealt with and presented to everyone as invariant evidenced by the built-in daylight, flash, cloudy, etc stuff. To add injury to insult virtually every single solitary thing you might read on the inter-webs about white balance usage within these products continues to use those "standard" numbers. Do these writers and photographers all happen to use a brand and model of camera that happens to match up? If they do - how the hell do they not know that those numbers are not relevant for other digital cameras? Do they know and want to keep it some sort of secret? Why the hell can't the software developers present the user with standard temp and tint numbers like they pretend to be and grind the sausage of translating them into a particular meaning within the software innards? WTF?

So you can probably guess what you should do about it in the name of knowing your gear and getting some basic starting points going forward. If not I will be very explicit in a moment. First a potentially amusing aside regarding my own little quest for "WTF" when I started to play around with digital. The image at the top of this post was shot on my very first digital camera - the Nikon D2H. I bought that camera in 2004 - my daughters had digital cameras I bought them years before this. It's the first one that seemed like a "real" camera to me.

I played with it for about six months and started to really use it in 2005. I played with RAW in Nikon Capture (pre-NX) and really didn't see the point given how maddeningly buggy, clumsy, and slow that software was. I did like how freaking fast the D2H was as a camera - digital or not. I also liked how quickly I could test things, make modifications, and turn them around with digital. I set color temps the way I would use filters. I shot JPEGs most of the time. I learned what the camera would do and wouldn't do and made the best out of it. Hey it was really geee-whiz at the time for me. I bought Aperture 1.0 in late november or early december of 2005 pretty much the day I heard about it via Apple's email. I shot the image at the top on 12/30/05 and was one of the few RAW+JPEG sets that shot in 2005 and as far as I can remember the very first RAW files I imported into Aperture 1.0.

At the time I was playing with various color temps and my strobes. The white balance I dialed into the camera was 6300K with a 0 tint. I thought this was the perfect opportunity to test the whole "any color temp you want" in post thing… Hmmmm. something is very wrong here with the whole color temperature numbers - none of this makes any sense. Hence my first question submitted to the Apple support forums. To be fair there were all kinds of screwiness going on with WB in Aperture for a long time over and above the whole - "numbers have no meaning" issue. I still have curious and strange things happen every once in a while but within a week I "fixed" the white balance thing for my D2H. At least in terms of having more than a few reasonable, easy to access starting points.

In case you haven't figured this out or done it yet for yourself - here is something I consider absolutely essential to do for every single solitary camera I use in every different RAW processor I use (except for the manufacturer's software).

  1. Shoot a frame with every different WB preset setting on your camera.
  2. Import those frames into your chosen RAW workflow software and take a look at the temp and tint numbers compared to what they "should" be. If you don't know what they should be there are seven million references on the web or worst case the settings that come with the software for daylight, cloudy, etc will tell you.
  3. If the numbers happen to be the same or really really close for various presets - your done - great. There is a really good chance they are not. If not create presets for yourself and that particular camera that match up to daylight, etc, etc. Be sure you actually type the numbers in to the WB control setting and they are different than they were or there is a tendency the the preset won't actually do anything to other images you apply them to. You can't just save an unmodified preset from those test images you shot. Just use any old image that you shot on AWB - doesn't have to be anything special.
  4. Rinse, lather, repeat every time you get a new camera or the software changes. At least from a testing standpoint - this is a pain in the ass but useful. Ps. keep those pre-set images around for future reference with new software to.

Worst case is that you will spend five minutes getting to know how your camera and chosen RAW software actually work and nothing changes. Best case you now have a completely new view on the world of color work-flow and starting point. I happen to use regular old daylight a lot no matter what the conditions - at least as a reference.

The vast majority of images on this blog are AWB JPEG with no adjustments as they fall into my "don't really care" category. Some have a particular color balance that I choose - they are usually called out as such. The image at the top of the post is a RAW processed with the equivalent of setting my camera to 5600K and 0 tint. This is a hair warmer than the actual measured color temp of the lights I was using that day. Not even close to the difference between no filter and an 85 series - or daylight and cloudy. More like the difference between shooting absolutely neutral Kodak E100S vs E100SW. Technically a tiny tiny difference but visually a world of difference. Here is the same image processed with the real and correct numbers for daylight WB and this particular camera…

Wow that's different in a big way. As close as anyone can guess if I were to somehow relate this to transparency film that I have shot in the past it would be visually close to Fuji Provia and a Skylight 1A filter. A tiny bit warm and a tiny bit pink. That just happens to be the way Nikon has skewed the daylight setting for this particular camera. It's a preset I use and don't go too crazy far away from in many many lighting conditions when I am shooting "serious work" honestly the difference between this image and the one at the top is a significant difference from my perspective and I don't normally travel too much farther either way. Extremely useful. Now let's compare that to "Daylight" from the Adobe WB drop down menu…

For me this falls into WTF territory way too warm way too pink - for you it might be what you like. This isn't about taste it's about knowing your gear and your workflow and more importantly about knowing how to get consistency in your look no matter what you use. Of course you can do that while having no idea why something does or doesn't happen but it certainly helps you adapt quickly and efficiently when it all changes - which it always does.

Probably falls into the category of no-crap for most of you. Hopefully for a couple of you it helps you out just a tiny little bit. Daylight - aka "normal" film color balance is a great starting point for a ton of real world lighting conditions especially if you mix flash and all sorts of ambient light.


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