For new photographers and videographers, there are benefits to understanding white balance that go beyond simply relying on today’s auto-balancing features.
For beginning filmmakers and photographers, you could argue that it’s no longer necessary to learn the kelvin scale like the alphabet because white balance has become somewhat automated in the digital era.
You point at the subject, and the camera can automatically detect the correct white balance, or you can easily select the corresponding lighting condition symbol on your camera and be underway. If it’s cloudy, choose the cloudy preset — job done.
However, if you’re new to filmmaking or photography, I would say that there are some benefits to understanding white balance.
First. What is white balance? Well, simply put, white balance, is the function that informs the camera about lighting conditions in order to remove unnatural color casts from your image. As the name implies, it restores the whites in your image to how they appear at the location where you’re shooting.
The light from an evening sun, overhead store lights, and a flickering candle will all produce light at different color temperatures. Typically, you can look at light sources as either cold or warm, with the standard daylight sun as a neutral white. (You can read about that here.)
Whatever the lighting situation, your camera’s white balance setting will accommodate the type of lighting in the location. In short; white balance is the function to render your whites as white.
The Kelvin Scale. (Image via Sompoch Tangthai.)
However, what about using the incorrect white balance for creative manipulation? The goal of white balance is to correctly render the colors from the location. Yet, if you need the scene to be slightly warmer, or for the scene to appear later into the evening than it is, you could adjust the white balance to reflect this creative decision. Although, as I later point out when working with a non-RAW format, these incorrect colors will get baked into the image.
The correct white balance at 7500k.
The incorrect white balance at 4000k to emulate early night.
There are also times when you would want to turn off automatic white balance, or perhaps even use the incorrect white balance because in correcting the subject for a neutral white balance, it would exclude the effect of the light source. Candles are a primary example. We know that candles emit a warm, orange glow, and on the kelvin scale, that’s way down at 2100k. If we were to set the white balance for a candle, while the whites on-screen would now look white and skin color would render correctly, it’s completely unreal.
Now, to dump everything I said above on its head, white balance has increasingly lost its importance with RAW. With both RAW stills and RAW video, white balance is one of the components that you can alter after you capture the image.
(For this section, I highly recommend watching the video tutorial to follow along with the software example.)
For example, I took this candid snap on my Fuji X100F, which is a camera that allows you to save both jpeg and RAW, which enables me to present the following issue.
I took this last year when my area had a lot of snow, and my father is standing in our favorite pub, watching the snowfall, lost in his memories, or watching time slip past, perfect for a candid shot.
Now, he’s illuminated by several different light sources. There are several ceiling lights, which I’m going to say are around 3000 kelvin, then a wall fixture, which I’m going to say is even warmer, perhaps 2700k. However, he’s standing in front of a big boxed seating area with three windows and a snowy winter’s light, which is going to be inherently blue against a warm interior. The automatic white balance has done a pretty decent job, but I think it’s slightly too warm.
Therefore, using my RAW white balance settings, I’m going to take down the white balance from 4500 to 3900. It’s not a huge leap, but I think it’s nullified some of the warmth that wasn’t present at the scene. You could also creatively say you preferred the warmer tone; that’s fine, but this is how it really looked.
Now, when we jump to the jpeg, first of all, you should note that the white balance adjustment has converted to a temperature balance of 0, and you pull it into a negative or push it into a positive — and if this was a video clip, in RAW, you could change the white balance. But instead of the white balance, we’re altering the temperature of the entire image.
You can probably get it close enough to neutralize some elements of the unrealistic color cast; however, other areas have become discolored. Again, we could possibly fix those, but it’s going to cost us time. And, of course, you can only fix this to a certain extent.
This isn’t to say that it’s advisable to light a scene with daylight lighting and film with a tungsten white balance setting simply because you can alter it, but it’s a nice safety net.
Interested in the tracks we used to make this video?
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