Why White Balance Matters … Sometimes

Once upon a time film photographers had a choice of daylight or incandescent balanced films to work with.  If you picked the wrong film type for the light source you wanted to use the results, whether slide or negative,  ended up with a distinct color cast.  There was precious little you could do about it with slide film.  For negative films correction filters when printing might bring things back towards normal.  The other alternative was to invoke the “artistic merit” defense and hope the viewer buys your story.

How things have changed with digital image capture!  Now you can select a color temperature from a list of presets and even further refine the “temperature” between the presets.  But how do you know what is the right one?  The preset names are pretty easy to interpret but refining requires a large calibrated screen to judge the correct value to use.  And that is not going to work when shooting out in the bush, street or anywhere outside of a studio!

Do you use JPG as the file type your camera uses to save your images in?  Then it is critical that you choose the correct White Balance before taking a shot.  If the wrong one is chosen you will be, again, looking at images with a distinct color cast.   And,  although you can spend time with your favorite image editing program to try and correct it, the results will never be quite what you want compared to the image taken using the right value for the light source, plus you’ll introduce unwanted image artifacts appearing in shadows and areas of similar color/tone (the “speckles”).

These two pictures illustrate the problem.  The “blue” cast is due to having the WB value set to incandescent and then taking the shot in sunlight.  The other shot is what would have been the result if the WB selected matched the light’s color temperature.

JPG using incorrect white balance
Shot using incorrect White Balance for the light actually there.
Color cast removed
Color cast removed

You can set your camera to try and pick the right WB using its auto WB feature but that can be fooled in mixed lighting conditions.  If your current camera doesn’t have a White Balance selector either as a dial/switch or a menu choice then the manufacturer has decided that auto WB is good enough.  If you don’t take pictures in really mixed light source conditions then you will also find this good enough too.

The best answer is to shoot RAW (this is the image data as captured with a minimal amount of post shoot processing done to it, each camera manufacturer has their own version) with Auto WB on.  Then you can choose the most appropriate WB in post processing to give exactly the “look” you are after.  Sometimes the wrong WB is in fact correct for the shot you were after!  The best way to learn about this is to experiment.  Have Fun!

Looking for great prints for yourself or as a present for a friend?  Go to Mosaic Images Photography now and pick a print or Instant Download and make yourself or your friend happy!

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