Having just had a single day off the heels of the holidays, many of us have enjoyed, or endured, an absolute torrent of imagery coming from friends, loved ones, exes looking to prove a point, and so on. Many of these images have been shot over the holidays and as such have been shot in scenarios with varying and various lighting conditions, and what that translates into in the age of digital photography, is white and exposure-balance hell.
At any given office party in some darkened repurposed factory-turned-gallery, or even in our own living rooms, there will have been a sundry of light types emanating from a tree or Menorah or any type of decorative fixture to make it difficult to get a correct white balance. Getting it right with one type of light in a scene can be tricky enough, and throwing in some 3 or 4 as is common now, is utterly troubling for your camera. This is really apparent in holiday pictures as subjects tend to be bathed in some god-awful color cast that was not intentional. It should go without saying that using white balance to materialize some creative vision is a different story.
White balance is often a pain to deal with, but it’s also something that should be sort of embraced. In the days of film, you couldn’t really change it in camera, as that was sort of ‘engineered’ into the film type – after all, you could get films balanced for indoor or outdoor. It was with little frequency that you would ever see a film shooter walking around with color correction filters, and while on that note, don’t mistake the common Kodak-type 18% grey cards as being for color correction. Those cards were more for metering to acquire the right exposure (read: for reflective light metering), and thus, won’t really work on the modern digital types for white balance (read: color temperature), and they were generally printed on materials that would fade anyway, so really you’ll need something else today.
Getting a handle on white balance and exposure balance is going to be crucial if you plan on progressing your photo work as it will dictate consistency, and can massively hinder your workflow time. That said, however, it’s worth mentioning that becoming a true color management expert is a daunting task, and that rabbit hole goes deep. How deep? Deeper than you’ll ever need to go and understand for your work to be world class. But a little can go a long way, and for this year, I urge you all to do a few things to get a better reign on the subject.
A Few Things to Consider
I can hear some of the prototypical, semi-learned enthusiasts already thinking this matters little if you shoot RAW. This is so unequivocally misguided. Shooting RAW can help, yes, but it’s not a blanket potion to solve all white balance woes that allows you to throw all caution to the wind. RAW is simply what the sensor is taking in without adjustments, but it’s still somewhat guided by the fact it’s a sensor and how that sensor behaves, so should you come upon mixed lighting situations (or even scenarios where there’s a single light type but have particular types of reflective surfaces), believe me, RAW will not solve it all.
Your camera’s white balance preset settings vary in ability from camera to camera and aren’t really ever extremely accurate. They are, however, often a good place to start, especially if you’re not shooting anything serious. When shooting with a Nikon D610 for example, I’m generally distrusting of the Auto White Balance (AWB) setting, but the behavior of the other presets, like ‘Cloudy’ and ‘Tungsten’, seem to render rather well compared to what my eyes see. On the other hand, using a Nikon D750, I’ve found the AWB is pretty damn good. But you can, of course, learn how to set via Kelvin, which almost any modern camera, including most point & shoots, will allow you to do.
Furthermore, if you’re shooting on more modern types like mirrorless Sony Alpha cameras or Fuji X series cameras with EVFs, you’ll be able to see a preview of how each white balance preset or Kelvin setting will make the image look. It’s a good way to get accustomed to the system. If you want something similar in DSLRs, then you can sort of do the same if you select Live View. Doing this, as you know, will turn your rear LCD into a live display that typically will show you the same previews enjoyed by mirrorless shooters.
Using White Paper or A White Card For Color Balance
Don’t. Well, not if you can help it. Though white cards exist, I was informed by a color specialist who owns a print lab that a very common colorant used to make things appear ‘white’ is titanium dioxide, and that, apparently, doesn’t do a very good job at evenly reflecting light. It is also actually more a yellow than a white, and while our human brains adjust to make it look white, the camera sensor will see the yellow hue, however faint, and then throw in some blue to balance it out, giving you something you don’t want. Or maybe you do want it, but it’s not neutral.
As far as using other white objects for white balance, like a shirt, underwear, paint on a wall or base-board, I’ve done them all before, and in a jam would choose to if nothing else is available, but even many of those have fluorescent whitening substances that convert some UV light into blue light. This isn’t to say the white cards have no place, as they are good pieces of kit to use to help you ensure you’re not losing highlight details.
With all this said and done, I’m hoping you get a little understanding of how technical and nuanced this business of white balance and color correction really is, but that you also learn a few things that will help you achieve the best results. Truly, you should be using some sort of color balancing tool or white balance cards specifically built for digital cameras. The two I would generally recommend are the Datacolor SpyderCube and the WhiBal card, both are pretty inexpensive, and when they save you time and headache, pay for themselves ten times over. The SpyderCube is a much more sophisticated item to use, but look out for the review on that coming shortly.
Check out the video below where Pye goes through a few things in a bit more and different detail about white balance and color temperatures. And if you like it, and you want to build on this foundation well it would be a disservice not to recommend Photography 101.