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Understanding White Balance

Welcome to Off the Beaten Path, dedicated to far away places, once-in-a-lifetime moments, and those rare flashes of inspired thinking. In this post, I’d like to respond to a recent entry by my fellow OP blogger Rob Sheppard concerning the use of automatic white balance (AWB) for nature photography. At the risk of misstating Rob’s arguments, he seems to essentially say that nature photographers should avoid using their camera’s AWB setting for three primary reasons: (1) most photographers don’t ever deviate from the white balance setting selected by their camera, even though they have the option of changing it during the raw conversion process, and as a result sometimes end up stuck with bad white balance decisions made by their cameras; (2) AWB can be inconsistent and therefore creates workflow problems; and (3) photographers should always try to get the image “right” in-camera, and shouldn’t have to resort to fixing things on the computer. Accordingly, Rob advocates that photographers set their white balance before they take the shot. 

Unfortunately, Rob doesn’t go into how white balance works, what settings people should use, and why. Furthermore, I get the sense that what he has observd, that most people never deviate from their camera’s AWB choices, results from people not really understanding how white balance works. So, to fill in some of these gaps, I have published an online tutorial on my website: Selecting the Best White Balance for Nature Photography. This tutorial explains how white balance works, and how it can be used creatively by nature photographers. 

Online Tutorial: Selecting the Best White Balance for Nature Photography

Online Tutorial: Selecting the Best White Balance for Nature Photography

As for me, I do exactly what Rob says you shouldn’t do: I always have my camera set to AWB, adjusting my white balance if necessary during the raw file conversion process on my computer. I shoot this way for several reasons: 

(1) Unlike many other adjustments, you can make white balance changes in a virtually lossless fashion while working in a raw conversion program or in Lightroom. There may be good reasons to get things like exposure correct in-camera, as fixing exposure on the computer can sometimes reduce image quality, but for white balance, this is not the case. 

(2) Although I agree with Rob that AWB can sometimes be inconsistent, creating workflow problems, these are computer workflow problems. To me, computer workflow is less important than field workflow. Not worrying about white balance when taking images, knowing that I can alter white balance later, streamlines my field workflow. Nature photography involves chasing a lot of fleeting moments, and I don’t want to be wasting precious time playing with white balance when the sunset of a lifetime is happening. Besides, I find that AWB gets it right most of the time; I estimate that I change the white balance for less than 20% of my images. So, AWB actually streamlines my computer workflow when compared to, for example, always leaving my white balance on the Daylight setting (which would likely be the right white balance for a relatively small percentage of images).  

(3) If you know how white balance works, assessing various white balance options in Lightroom or your raw converter is much easier and quicker than taking a bunch of test shots in the field. 

In my opinion, there is no “right” or “wrong” white balance. Rather, white balance is a creative tool, a subjective artistic choice. Whether or not to eliminate color casts has always been a creative choice, even in the days of film—in fact, especially in the days of film. Color slide film is balanced for neutral daylight, which means that if you shoot in warm light (such as sunset) or cool light (such as on a cloudy day), you get an exaggerated color cast that is more intense than perceived by the human eye. Back in the day, nature photographers sometimes used color correcting filters to eliminate these color casts, but more often than not we didn’t. Instead, we sought out scenes that would allow us to use the color cast creatively, such as sunset or twilight-lit scenes, or scenes where we could juxtapose warm and cool tones resulting from sunlit and shadow areas (such as with the sand dune image above). In the age of digital, white balance adjustments are easy to make, but just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.  

A deliberate artistic vision should guide all of our image-making, which is why it is important to understand white balance and to play an active role in making white balance decisions. Using AWB doesn’t mean abdicating that decision-making process to your camera, it just streamlines your field workflow. You still need to exercise creative control over the white balance of the image when processing the raw file.   

Ian Plant 


Previous Off the Beaten Path Entries: 

Rainbows (June 4th, 2010) 

The Power of Persistence (June 1st, 2010) 

Ancient Forces (May 21st, 2010) 

Off the Beaten Path (May 14th, 2010)