White Balance Can Destroy Color

When it comes to setting the color temperature in a scene, make an intelligent choice. Sometimes taking a neutral position on things isn’t really the safe thing to do – sometimes it’s actually downright destructive!

Redefining Intelligence. Regardless of what the packaging says, your camera is not really smart, it is just efficient and obedient. It will obey anything you tell it to do. It’s a machine, it is not a volitional entity. It will never be “intelligent” in the way that humans are intelligent; it can be programmed to follow a logical sequence, but it cannot “make decisions.”Alaska NiteLight
I used AWB in this snow scene example, I gave the camera permission to shift all colors and it obeyed my command and produced bad color; all in the name of Auto White Balance. That wasn’t smart on the camera’s part, it was ignorance on my part. The correct choice on this shot was to capture the shot in Daylight setting. The snow would have remained bluish. By setting the scene lighting to Auto White Balance, the camera forced the bluish snow to a neutral gray color, ruining the mood of the shot.

Camera manufacturers claim that their cameras are “intelligent,” but the intelligence is merely scripted logic. You are the only one with actual intelligence. You must tell the camera what to do- NOT the other way around.

Learn About Color Modes. Take control of the situation, learn about basic color settings on your camera and then set your camera’s white balance setting accordingly. Your camera’s color modes include pre-sets for all typical lighting situations: Daylight, Cloudy, Shade, Tungsten, Florescent, Flash, as well as a couple of custom setups. The wording of these settings is straightforward.

white-balance-settingsAWB Can Be a Crutch. Nothing in life is automatic. Cruise control is only good in automobiles. Assuming that your camera will automatically correct all your problems by using Auto White Balance is a very risky assumption. At very best, AWB will keep you in the ball game outdoors under normal weather conditions, but it will not ever correctly display colors the way your eyes see them in all situations. Get bright about light. Learn how color behaves so you can set your camera to capture light the way your eyes perceive it. This same knowledge will enable you to use your editing software more intuitively.

When the scene contains “emotional” light- candle light, sunrise/sunset, late afternoon or early morning light, nightlife/neon, AWB is the wrong choice. If the scene to be captured contains this kind of emotional (or mood) lighting, the very mood that made you want to take the picture to begin with can effectively be neutered by Auto White Balance.

18% Gray CardGray Balance Cards. Using a gray balance tool can save your life in many lighting situations, especially in a mixed lighting situation. If you do choose to use a gray card in a reference shot, you need to understand what it is and what it does.

First, the card should be gray, not white. The term may be white balance, but you must use a gray card for the reference. White is wrong simply because it is colorless and will most likely confuse the camera more than properly set it.

Second, the proper gray card is an 18% gray, and for good reason. Your camera’s light meter sets the exposure to capture the middle of the tonal range; a typical tone of human skin and the average of good lighting. When you use a gray card, both the color setting and the exposure are dialed in.

lightroom- Gray Balance

Third, set the camera to spot metering so that the gray card will be the only item read by the camera. Scene metering will read all the light in the scene and average the colors. A gray balance tool (gray card, X-rite Passport, or Color Checker placed in the scene (for an initial test shot) will serve as the gray balance reference for correcting any color imbalance in all images captured in that scene.

But there is a time to use an 18% gray card (or similar commercial product) to reference a true neutral gray color and set the gray balance in your photos, and a time to keep that card in your camera bag. The truth is, neutralizing every lighting situation can literally suck the natural color right out of a scene.

The Smartest Color Setting is No Setting at All. The way to avoid bad lighting is to not force the camera to truncate the lighting at all. Shoot and capture your images in RAW format. When you do this, you get to dial in the correct color after the shot is captured. The best idea of all is to use the gray card as a reference shot and then remove the card and shoot all your shots without a worry.

Color Correction in Post Production. This correction takes place after the image is captured in RAW format. When the gray card reference image is opened in Adobe Lightroom, Camera Raw, or any RAW interpreter software, and the White Balance tool is applied to the reference gray in the test image, all photos open at the time can be color corrected automatically. This is truly a great way to accurately set the lighting balance within a series of photos taken during a single session…

That’s the way I sees it. Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

If you really want to understand what makes color work, how light behaves, and how easy it is to push light around to make your images look better, I can help. I’ve created a very entertaining and easy-to-understand video series that will teach you these fundamentals and help you to capture and produce amazing color.

Go online and get this video series. Get Bright About Light!

About Herb Paynter

Herb is a published author, photographer, retoucher, color reproduction specialist and a regular writer for Digital Photography School. Download his iBook Digital Color Photography from the iTunes store and view his Light and Color video series at Gotta Know Videos.com.
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6 Responses to White Balance Can Destroy Color

  1. ileneh says:

    Helpful & informative article. Thank you! I do have a question though: I just got a P&S camera that only shoots in JPG with sRGB (ugh). (My normal camera is a D7100 & I shoot RAW and tend to use Aperture priority.) I got this Nikon P900 so I could carry around a lightweight zoom, instead of lugging around 10-12 lbs of camera all the time. So, am I best to leave this “new” camera on auto settings or should I try and wrestle with manual mode? I tend to take one view, but use a variety of zoom settings.
    Any suggestions would be appreciated. Thank you!

    • Herb Paynter says:

      ileneh, this reference card test shot JPG can be opened with all other shots using the same relative lighting in Camera Raw or Lightroom as a group of shots. When they appear, open the test shot (while selecting all others), pick up the White Balance wand and click on the test shot’s gray card. This will set the gray balance in all those shots. While the JPGs don’t have the 12-14bit depth to work with, they can be opened in a RAW interpreter software and edited together. Let me know if you have problems with this. Cheers.

  2. Rob Frederick says:

    Being new to this, what do you do after you take a picture of the grey card? Is there a setting you make in camera or is this for post processing?

    • Herb Paynter says:

      Hi Rob. You open all images from the scene into Lightroom or Camera Raw software (comes with Photoshop), select all the open images so that they are all affected by any adjustments made to one image. Pick up the White Balance “wand” and click on the picture of the gray card. All images opened will be adjusted for color balance at the same time. If you need more help… holler!

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