The Problem with AWB and RAW

I know, I know, so many photographers, especially some pros, think that it is never a problem shooting auto white balance and RAW. After all, you can always change the white balance to whatever you want later. But I have to bring this up again because I see so many amateur photographers struggling with auto white balance (AWB) and ending up with color that is far from optimum. It may be okay for a well-seasoned computer jockey to work white balance with RAW, but for most photographers, that does not give the best results. I don't say that from a distance, but because I see this constantly from even seasoned photographers in my workshops and classes. I want people to have better color and not suffer under the curse of AWB. Here's what happens:

It actually makes a very big difference whether you shoot in AWB or not. While it is true that there is no quality difference when adjusting white balance in RAW, there is a huge difference in results.
  1. Changes in the camera are not the same as changes in the software. For example, "sunny" or "daylight" may be named the same in both, but the results are not the same. White balance "presets" in Adobe are based on an analysis of the image file and on Adobe engineers' interpretation of colors. White balance presets in the camera are based on the light coming into the camera and on the camera manufacturer's processing of the image file as it comes from the sensor (yes, RAW files are processed slightly by the camera). In addition, setting a white balance to what seems to be a standard (e.g., 5500 Daylight), is not a standard because the program actually looks at the image file (not the original scene because it cannot see how that hits and is measured by the sensor) and makes a "guess" as to what 5500 would be for that scene.
  2. In order to really adjust white balance in the computer as well as you can with the camera while on site, you would have to adjust to a standard on your monitor. That does not mean a number such as Kelvin, but a neutral toned standard image. The problem with adjusting white balance on screen is that our eyes adapt to the photo on the screen so that without a standard image to adjust against, we have a tendency to adjust based on "feel" which will be different for every photo. That is like trying to adjust a stove's temperature by its "feel" rather than setting the temperature. It will feel different depending on how hot or cold you are, the day's conditions, how tired you are, and so forth.
  3. Unfortunately, auto white balance is often "close" so it looks okay even when it is not. When I first started working with digital images many years ago, if anyone had asked me if I could recognize an image shot with AWB, I would have laughed and said it was not possible. Now, I recognize this all the time, and so many photos really stand out as an AWB shot (I wish I could say I was often wrong about this, but unfortunately, I am usually right when I guess AWB before even seeing the metadata). Photographers think the photo looks okay (especially as their eyes get used to it on the screen) and don't adjust it for the best color. What happens is that AWB has a tendency to give compromised colors with less color saturation in the warm tones and a slight bluish cast to the neutral tones. The result is color that is less than it could be (or even accurate to the way we see such a scene). This color issue is really a big deal with sunrise and sunset because AWB then will give you very misleading photos.
  4. AWB is inconsistent. If you shot three different images at a location, changing your composition and zoom each time, you would very likely get three different white balances. Now you have to decide which is correct AND you have to change them. I rarely change my white balance because I shoot for the conditions and never have this variation.
  5. This is a workflow issue. As I noted, I rarely change white balance, so that is one less thing to deal with in the computer.
  6. Setting white balance, to me, is a part of the craft of photography. You don't have to constantly change it. Normally, you just set it once for the conditions and shoot. The easiest is to use the same setting as the conditions, e.g., Sunny for sun, Cloudy for cloudy and so forth. And if you really want to match or interpret a scene in a certain way, use Live View and change your white balance with it (including changing Kelvin settings).
  7. The photos here are of giant coreopsis which have just started blooming along the Southern California coast. They are sometimes called "Dr. Suess plants" because of their odd growth pattern. More on that at www.natureandphotography.com.

4 Comments

    Great post! I see people shooting in AWB all of the time, and can rarely convince them to set WB correctly. Often I’ll take a gray card reading set a custom WB, then reapply the custom WB using the reading from the gray card in post – often it results in slight differences. I find that setting the WB in camera though results in much more saturated colours from the get go though and as V.Versace said, you cant play with your WB until you know accurately where it started!

    Rob makes the claim “yes, RAW files are processed slightly by the camera”. Does he mean there is (self evidently) processing done to produce a jpeg from the RAW sensor information, or that there is processing going on between reading the data from the sensor and writing the RAW file? His implication is that it is the latter, which I find surprising. Can someone elaborate on this?

    Though I am not a pro (amateur at best), I have noticed that my camera rather often misses white balance, because almost always I use AWB. Maybe I do not know how to set my camera correctly, but it tends to be a bit blueish when using AWB (and it gets totally crazy with those new compact fluorescent lamp then shooting inside :). Somehow I did not think setting white balance manually in camera, this post will encourage me to do so. Thanks!

    Setting what balance is limiting actually because the color temp is a specific setting. For example daylight will get you 5500 while the actual light may be 5650. Today’s DSLR light-meters and AWB will usually get it correct.

    Yes, they do make mistakes hence as a pro we always use AWB and we also shoot some sort of White Balance Card during a session. Sometimes we take more than one WB photo because of changing light conditions. There are a lot of inexpensive cards available (Personally I use a X-Rite ColorChecker Passport).

    It is just one less item I have to think about while getting the shot for the customer.

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