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White balance should not be a problem these days, but it still confuses people. Should I shoot in RAW and not bother? Or should I choose a different WB for each situation? Today, we'll explain to you some of the tricks you can use to get perfect white balance.
Understanding Creative White Balance
Before going ahead with the tips for better white balance, let's explain that you do not always have to look for the "right" white balance. Yes, all lighting will have a "correct" balance associated with it, but you can use a different white balance to create different effects.
The two sky images shown here are a good example of what I mean. They were both taken at the same place and time, one of them using the ExpoDisc Professional Digital White Balance Filter from ExpoImaging to define the White Balance, the warmer image taken as my camera's auto white balance suggested.
The image taken with the ExpoDisc filter shows one thing: you can get perfect white in the clouds if you want to. Is it a better image than the warmer sunset photo taken with auto white balance (AWB)? I do not think so. They are different, and serve different purposes. I think that is one of the most important lessons to understand when it comes to white balance.
So, having said this, it's about time to reveal different ways to get the perfect white balance. Or almost perfect, as you'll soon discover.
When you use RAW you can choose your white balance at the editing stage, in Camera RAW or Lightroom.
The best way to get perfect white balance is simple: use RAW when capturing your photos. Afterwards you can pick the white balance you want at the editing stage.
That's what most people will tell you, but some photographers, like Outdoor Photographer magazine columnist Rob Sheppard, swear it is not so. He states that "when you are shooting RAW, there is still a white balance set 'remembered' by the file." That's what the preview JPEG you see is using when you open the file in, Photoshop, Lightroom or any other program.
The RAW file does not have white balance information, but you can be mislead by the preview you see on screen, so you'll end up tweaking the file a different way.
What to do then? Take the middle road: shoot RAW using AWB and confirm on the LCD that the results are close to what you need/want, checking both the image and histogram. Trust what your eyes see and use some common sense. Most of the time you'll be doing the right thing.
Remember, though, that if you use JPEG and you do not like the choices made by AWB, you should set the white balance to the conditions prevailing at the moment (or what your aim with the photo is) as JPEG uses the white balance metadata. You can still tweak the White Balance at the editing stage, but it is easier to do with RAW.
Use a Gray Card
I’ve used gray cards for years. Kodak gray cards, which you could buy in different sizes, are the tools to use when you want to get perfect light. A gray card is placed in front of the camera light meter, reflecting the light that falls on the subject. You measure the light from it – remember the card has an 18% reflectance, like the middle gray or Zone V on Ansel Adams Zone System – and the card gives you the right light for the colors to fall in the right place.
The gray card works, but if the card is not at the exact same angle the subject is, you might not get the best results. And besides that, gray cards tend to get damaged by long use, especially if you carry them everywhere.
Use Custom WB
You can always choose from the predefined WB options in your camera (Daylight, Shadow, Tungsten, Fluorescent, etc.). You can also set a specific color temperature using Kelvin, the unit used to measure color. And you can set a custom white balance.
Camera's have different ways to set the custom WB, but the usual process is to photograph something you want to use as a reference, and tell the camera to use that image for the Custom WB. If you photograph a Gray Card and set the image as the Custom WB source, all images taken afterwards will abide by the set WB, until you change it again or choose one of the other options.
This suggests there is potential for a creative use of this function. If you photograph a colored wall or paper, it can be defined as the white balance for a series of photographs. Try this with different colors. You'll learn a lot about how your camera works.
Use Live View
If you've look at the LCD of a compact digital camera while you change the White Balance, you'll notice how the colors change. With a DSLR we tend to think this can not be done, as we look mainly through the viewfinder to shoot. But since DSLRs started having live view options, things are different.
When faced with a tricky light situation, use the live view on your DSLR to check how the scene works under different settings.
Use an ExpoDisc
Better than the gray card, the ExpoDisc Professional Digital White Balance Filter sits in front of your lens and looks similar to the dome on an incident light meter. It is available in different sizes. Buy the larger one so you can use it with all your lenses. It transforms the reflective meter in the camera into an incident light meter.
This means that you point the camera in the direction of the light falling on the subject instead of pointing at the subject, and take a reading. Remember to set the right exposure for the light conditions. Turn autofocus off or the lens will try to focus on the disc. Follow your camera’s instructions to set a custom white balance.
Once done, you can keep shooting with the same setting.
The image shown above is a good example of the use of the ExpoDisc with tungsten light. The green on the bowl shows the right tone only when the ExpoDisc is used. Adjusting the WB to the tungsten setting didn't get me that close.
Other Options to Check
The ExpoDisc and other tools and systems mentioned here can be essential for some photographers to measure white balance. This said, if you’re happy with your results with AWB (Auto White Balance) and shoot mainly under normal light conditions, you can forget these tools and live happily the rest of your life.
But if you’re dwelling into the creative fields of photography, shoot under various light conditions and are not always happy with the various WB settings from your camera, then some of these tools might find a place inside your bag.
There are various systems that promise you perfect white balance and you should check them out and decide which is best for you. Please follow the links below: